Barry has always walked a tightrope. For three seasons now, the show has mined laughs from a plot about a mass-murdering hitman who tries to go clean with the help of a newfound passion for acting. It’s something that’s really hard to explain to someone who doesn’t watch the show. Try it sometime this week. It gets weird fast, especially when you get to the thing about the powerful figure in the Chechen mob who was involved in a panther-related murder and is also now in a forbidden same-sex relationship with a powerful figure in the Bolivian mob and is also the sweetest and kindest man on the show by a factor of about one thousand. People look at you pretty weird by the end of that speech. It’s okay. It’s their loss if they’re missing out.
This is especially true of the fourth and final season, which debuts on HBO this Sunday, April 16. Things are, on paper, incredibly bleak. Barry (Bill Hader) opens the season in prison after his arrest at the end of season three for one of the many murders he very much committed. Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is back home in Joplin to escape the horrors of, well, dating a murderer and beating a dude to death. Gene (Henry Winkler) is getting praise heaped on him for catching Barry with the help of Janice Moss’ terrifying father (Robert Wisdom, holy hell), and eating it up to a degree that — I don’t think this is a spoiler if you’ve seen the three previous seasons of the show and watched Gene do anything — quickly spins out of control. Everyone is spiraling a little in the wake of the big thing that finally happened. Barry was never going to get to, like, star in a sitcom and live happily ever after. The past comes for everyone at some point.
What’s incredible about all of this, though, is that it remains just massively silly in places, and makes it work. There’s always a danger of a tonal whiplash there, where you go from a serious scene where a character grapples with awful things they’ve done straight into a scene with, to choose just one example, a silly stoner beignet guy named Mitch. Or Henry Winkler doing a physical comedy bit that is straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (I’m serious about this second thing.) Barry is sometimes a midnight black story, a show that takes the dark in dark comedy to uncomfortable places. It is also a show where… this happens.
That all of this works at the rate it does is a testament to Hader and co-creator Alec Berg. Especially Hader, who pulls triple duty as star, lead writer, and director. He’s behind the camera for every episode in the final season and, hoo buddy, is he putting on a show. There are shots that linger in a way that unsettle the viewers, and action sequences that rival a big-budget movie (the dirtbike chase in season three might be one of my favorite scenes from any show on television in the last five years), and goofball bits that are staged in a way that remind you that this dude is just really funny, first and foremost. There’s a scene early on in the season where NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and his lover-associate Cristobal (Michael Irby) are giving a presentation about a potential illicit source of income that I backed up and watched a second time just because it was such a delight. I’m excited for you to see it.
I’m also excited for you to see the scene where Hank is dressed like this, not so much for the story it reveals as… I mean, just look at my sweet Chechen prince.
Which is, again, the point I’m making about the wild ping-ponging tone of this show, and of this final season. The stuff with Sally gets uncomfortable and heavy in spots. Barry, mostly to this point a cold and calculated character who has to work to channel real emotion, lets ugly sides of himself spill out in little desperate explosions. Gene remains just the neediest and most pathetic narcissist you’ve ever seen, desperate for attention and accolades even if it puts himself and others at risk. The show started out as a kind of satire of Hollywood and the entire profession of acting, which was cool, but it’s now evolved into a much deeper look at the humanity of people who are barely humans. Which is also cool. And it has Stephen Root in it. Stephen Root rules. I can’t believe I made it this far into the review without mentioning him. Let’s go ahead and file that one under “Barry has an embarrassment of riches” instead of “Brian is bad at his job.” Thank you.
There’s a thing that happens early in this final season where another character talks to Barry and says “I’m sure you’re not a bad guy.” This is something you’ve seen in the other great Difficult Dudes shows in the genre, your Sopranos and Breaking Bads and Better Call Sauls, where the main character is a full-on monster who we come to feel sympathy for as we learn more about his life and personality and dreams. Hell, you even saw it a little bit with John Wick, another story about a hitman trying and failing to go clean that wrapped up this year after its fourth installment. And while there is a cliche to that, to the “I’m not a bad person, I’ve just done bad things” brand of storytelling, I think the bigger point here is this…
I just compared Barry to three of the best television dramas of the last quarter century, and to one of our coolest and most successful action movie franchises, and I bet you didn’t even clock it as it happened. That’s a ringing endorsement for any show. It’s a borderline miracle for a half-hour comedy. I’m going to miss this one a lot when it’s gone. I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it first.