TV: Barry (Season 4)

Certain shows demand a specific ending, and Barry is definitely one of them. In its early seasons, this brilliant comedy spun comic gold out of a simple, high-concept premise: what if a professional assassin took an acting class? Spurred by brilliant performances from Bill Hader, Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, and Henry Winkler, Barry built an addictive tone by fusing two incongruous worlds: the performing arts and organized crime. But even in its formative episodes, Barry raised a troubling question: is this going to be yet another redemption story that forgives the sins of a violent, irredeemable protagonist? That’s a question the show needed to reckon with in order to end satisfyingly, and in its increasingly experimental third season, it started to do so. In my view, the polarizing fourth season brilliantly finishes the job.

It begins with a much-changed landscape: Barry (Hader) and his avuncular-but-manipulative handler Monroe Fuches (Root) are both in prison. Barry’s aspiring actress girlfriend Sally (Goldberg) has seen her promising career implode, and his acting teacher Gene (Winkler) is experiencing a late-career resurgence. Meanwhile, amiable Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Carrigan) has retired to Sante Fe with the love of his life, former Bolivian crime lord Cristobal Sifuentes (Michael Irby). The fates of these problematic individuals are inexorably intertwined, however. The first half of the season deals with the fallout of Barry’s imprisonment, as Barry and Fuches engage in fickle informant relationships with the FBI. When news of this reaches Hank and Cristobal, they inevitably return to LA to launch a new criminal enterprise, and suspicions mount between them all as allegiances shift and contracts go out. Elsewhere, Sally wrestles with the fallout of her broken career, but as she dips her toes back into Hollywood waters, she’s soon in over her head, newly incapable of coping with its destructive effects. She’s destined to reunite with Barry when he improbably escapes from prison, setting up the second half of the season, wherein the series is propelled daringly into the future for its perverse narrative endgame.

Given its premise, Barry always ran the risk of devolving into a celebration of antiheroic awfulness. But in retrospect, one wonders if the long pandemic gap between seasons two and three enabled Hader and co-creator Alec Berg extra time to process the show they’d built, and plan its legacy. Shifting gears from a well executed peak TV dark comedy to something of a 1970s-style auteur project in season three, Barry began wrestling more mindfully with its problematic subtexts. In season four, entirely directed by Hader, it continues the job, winding down toward the ending its characters deserve, rather than the one viewers might want. What would these frustrated viewers have wanted, exactly? An explosive confrontation that redeems the characters for their violent evils, showing their heart-of-gold commitment to change? Perhaps, because after all, one wants to see accessible characters succeed to justify the emotional investment of following them. And it’s quite difficult not to like these characters, played with such hilarity and nuance by a talented cast. Everyone—even the roundly villainous Fuches—has sympathetic qualities, not to mention troubled backstories which might explain their journey down dark paths. Carrigan, especially, is brilliant, and deeply likable, a one-man comedy master class who constantly distracts from his sins with an almost unfailingly sunny nature.

In the end, though, Barry chooses to remind us that these are deeply bad people—from Barry’s murderousness, to Sally’s blinkered ambition, to Gene’s toxic narcissism, to Fuches’ cold-hearted manipulativeness, to Hank’s cowardly recidivism. None of them should succeed. None of them should get to go out in a blaze of redeeming glory. Berg and Hader decide to execute a finale that refuses to coddle their characters’ delusions, which proves a real narrative challenge, forcing them to ignore the tried-and-tested beats of resolving a series. For the messaging not to be toxic, it has to subvert those expectations, and the season finale—in many respects, an awkward and unsatisfying affair—does so, in a gloriously bold and appropriate way. Could the show have been funnier, zippier, and more structurally neat as it careened toward its conclusion? Perhaps. But it’s impossible to complain about the darker, weirder, uglier route the show took. Barry’s unglamorous ending feels genuine and right, and frankly, I would have felt cheated if it had emotionally rewarded me for cheering on its charmingly villainous cast. Instead, it delivers an intellectual reward, and fond memories of an audacious, unexpected critique of disturbing American obsessions: guns, violence, fame, avarice, and lawless power. It can’t be easy to stick the landing by not sticking the landing, but Barry does that, staggering to a brilliant conclusion.

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