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Barry’s final season turns into the worst version of itself

HBO’s once-great dark comedy has completely transformed into a fascinating failure

Barry Berkman stands in a prison yard in the season 4 premiere of HBO’s Barry Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Barry was so close it hurt.

HBO’s dark comedy is, by design, almost unrecognizable from the show it started as. What began as the quirky story of a hitman (Bill Hader) who wanted to turn his life around by becoming an actor (though he couldn’t fully shake his assassin ties) is now, in its final season, a harrowing exploration of the damage wrought by the delusions of one bad man. In some ways, it’s always been that. This time it’s just much less funny about it.

It’s fascinating to untangle the ways Barry may have arrived at its current situation. Season 3 spent a considerable amount of time wrestling with Barry’s delusions about what it meant to be a good person, going to great lengths to demonstrate that even when he was trying to protect people like his girlfriend, actor Sally Reid (Sarah Goldberg), he was motivated by a monstrous selfishness and barely concealed fury that began to infect those around him as well as harm them.

In its final episodes, Barry takes its cast further down the dark path Barry Berkman set everyone on. Barry is locked up, finally captured in a sting in which his former friend and acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) agreed to be the bait. Gene, a washed-up actor when Barry met him in season 1, has since become a cartoonishly self-centered version of himself, a self-important dodderer convinced the world must hear his story. Sally — barely coping with the shame of her relationship with Barry, a moment of rage that went viral, and the PTSD of killing a man in season 3 — has given up her career in Hollywood to become an acting teacher who still sees herself as her greatest student. And NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the hapless Chechen mobster who can’t quite disentangle himself from Barry’s life, attempts to go legit with his boyfriend Crístobal (Michael Irby), only to find himself enveloped in the criminal element yet again.

While there are still great jokes in Barry — an extended bit about how loud the Fast & Furious movies are here, a gag about CODA there — the show is very clear that it’s not operating in a comedic space anymore. The big, brassy musical sting that always accompanied the show’s title card is gone; silence takes its place. Characters suffer brutal beatings and make ugly decisions, sometimes in a manner so jarring that it feels inconsistent with the show’s prior seasons. The gags are never big enough that the morality of each character is called into question.

All of it is impeccably depicted by the show’s first-rate cinematographers and directors, lately including co-creator Hader himself (who directed all the episodes of the final season). Barry has developed a trademark visual language that makes it impossible to look away even as it makes upsetting or infuriating story decisions: A smooth, dispassionate camera that pans back and forth across a set as characters enter and leave it, a tendency to push dramatic violence to the background while mundanity unfolds in the fore, and blocking that always gives actors enough room to show how a character feels in and about the space they occupy. Barry’s camera conspires with the viewer, asking them if they noticed the same thing, when one character lies to another.

This is perhaps Barry’s fatal flaw: It has an answer for its questions, and those questions aren’t given new dimension via its characters. Can a tiger change its stripes? Is starting over impossible once you’ve crossed a certain threshold? How does one possibly account for the damage they wreak on another’s life?

In retrospect, the tightrope Barry walked more successfully in its earlier seasons was a tremendous feat. The heightened nature of its comedy and the grounded consequence of its violence were always at odds; that the series wrung two great years of television out of it is downright miraculous. In concluding its run, Hader and the rest of Barry’s writers had to make a choice: hone in on their comedic character study, or devote themselves to answering heavy questions about the slow spread of toxicity that radiates from violent men.

Barry’s final season is a relentless drive toward an answer to these questions. In this admirably ugly yet frustrating stretch of episodes, Barry arguably fails because the moral worldview constructed by Hader and his co-writers is too strong, and all of its characters are subservient to it. Barry Berkman is the villain of Barry. He was charming for a bit, but there’s no taking back what he’s done — and now we’re all on this miserable path with him, to the very end.

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