Last year, HBO’s killer half-hour thriller Barry finished out its third season by demolishing its own status quo. Now, professional hitman and wannabe thespian Barry Berkman (star and co-creator Bill Hader) finds himself behind bars after being caught red-handed by his acting mentor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom), the father of one of his many victims. After years of trying to bury his bloody past, living in hope that he can somehow remake himself into a more acceptable human being, the jig is finally up. With the incentive to change seemingly removed, what will become of Barry’s growth as a person, insufficient as it may be? In its final eight episodes, Barry continues to explore whether or not people can really change their nature as well as the nature of change itself, all while remaining riveting and uproarious television.
Over the course of the series, we’ve seen that Barry, when left alone, alternates between being a stone statue and an explosive whirlwind of self-targeted rage. It’s only when interacting with other people, people he wants to impress, emulate, or eliminate, that he really activates as a person. (Remember the months he spent playing video games on Sally’s couch?) In short, prison is not an environment that’s going to bring out the best in Barry. There is one familiar face in there with him, however, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), the man who molded the mild-mannered midwesterner into a murder machine. Their love/hate relationship has been one of the show’s most violently swinging pendulums, and with the two of them locked up together in the pressure cooker of prison, just about anything could happen. Their incarceration is an opportunity for Bill Hader and Stephen Root, dazzling character actors with tremendous chemistry, to spend some time playing off of each other, but even left to his own devices, Root is hysterical. He’s the kind of actor who can get a laugh out of the twitch of a nostril.
Barry isn’t the only character whose world has been turned upside down by his capture. Has-been actor Gene Cousineau finds himself a revered local hero for his role in putting his girlfriend’s killer behind bars, but his thirst for public attention could endanger the state’s case against Barry. Barry’s girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), now both an accessory to murder and a killer herself, flees to her hometown in Joplin, Missouri, only to face a cruel reminder of why she left in the first place. Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has settled down with his former gangland rival Cristobal (Michael Irby) with whom he fantasizes of building a kinder, gentler criminal empire, but news of his buddy Barry’s capture sends him into crisis, threatening the stability of his happy homelife. Each of them faces a challenge to their own efforts to change for the better, and, since Barry is still technically a comedy, you can infer that they don’t all overcome these challenges gracefully.
I’ve written in the past about whether or not it’s really fair to call Barry a comedy, but as dark as the show gets, it remains the most fun you’ll have being bummed out. Hader, co-creator Alec Berg, and company still delight in lampooning the fickle and superficial entertainment industry, and more than ever, in mashing up the bloody, merciless world of crime with corporate banality and grin-and-bear-it West Coast hustle culture. In the world of Barry, there are assassins who are also podcasters and crime families who host team-building events at Dave & Busters. The deeply silly walks arm in arm with the deeply sad in a way that is both totally surreal and totally apt representation as a depiction of late stage capitalist America.
However, like much of Season 3, this final arc of Barry is at least as tense and depressing as it is funny. More than ever, the life of Sally Reed is an inescapable hell. In Joplin, her only support system is her family, who kickstarted her cycle of abuse. In LA, her only hope of saving her career may be to lean into her unflattering public image as a clueless, entitled hothead. Like Barry, Sally wants to break away from her destructive habits and finds that there’s always a reason not to, that it’s always easier to find validation for your present behavior than motivation to change it. Sally is a deeply frustrating character, seemingly only capable of asserting herself when doing so actually makes things worse. Life is unbearably cruel to her, but she also habitually makes terrible choices. Sarah Goldberg’s performance is so raw and vulnerable that Sally’s missteps always hurt to watch. She deserves better because literally everyone does, but even when presented with the chance to change, she has almost always chosen not to.
As much as its characters continually fail to break out of their loops, the glory of Barry is that its storytellers are not afraid of change. In this season most of all, it feels as if anything can happen, and that feeling is often validated by a wild and refreshing twist. Hader and company have gone into Season 4 with the foreknowledge that it will be their last and take full advantage of that opportunity. The final episodes of the series take its characters to their absolute limits, exploring shocking new scenarios throughout which characters remain inescapably, tragically, themselves. Do people really change, even when their circumstances are totally different? Are we all prisoners of our adolescent programming? Whatever answer Bill Hader and Alec Berg leave us with in the final episode (which even critics have yet to see), fans will no doubt be left with a lot to chew on, and a mighty urge to start the series over from the beginning and see it again through our own, changed perspective.