‘Barry’ season 4 review: HBO’s hit comedy-drama goes even darker and deeper in a cathartic, uproariously wild final season
In the opening moments of the fourth and final season of Barry, we are introduced to a vast, silent landscape, with nothing to be found but dust and dead grass. It’s a calm yet haunting atmosphere, similar to the beach location Barry (Bill Hader) found himself sinking into towards the end of season three. The cold, oceanfront area was surrounded by the remembrance of the countless lives he’s taken during his time as a hitman. That setting was set up as a place of both acceptance and regret, with the end of his life within grasp. But before he could reach the endpoint of his journey, he survived just long enough to instead confront and ultimately become tricked by his former acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), alongside retired cop Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom), into confessing to the death of Gene’s girlfriend and Jim’s daughter, detective Janice Moss.
This place, however, is empty; no landmarks or people to make it seem as if it is real. It is a blank slate; a void for Barry to fill with potentially something more than the consistent tragedy that has landed him here at the lowest point. So now, sitting in a prison cell, waiting for his judgment to be passed, Barry clings internally to this new place for solace as a last ditch reset button before things in his life become far worse than they already are. This sets the stage for the acclaimed HBO comedy-drama to go down a wildly hilarious yet emotionally cathartic path to a truly spectacular finale season, cementing its legacy as one of the greatest shows of the last century.
With Barry in prison, the world around him has vastly changed. Everyone he has come in contact with, and ever pulled a job for is on high alert as he knows vital information about almost every mob organization in the greatest Los Angeles area. But instead of going down a path of revenge and bloodshed, Hader and the show’s writing staff expertly swerve away from predictable destinations with the show’s ending and smartly focus on a man who has deeply harmed so many people, that he wants to finally let it all go and have peace. In moments where he is at his most vulnerable, that is where Hader’s performance soars, carefully mixing the rage inside Barry while also tapping into the fabric of his soul, which seems innocent and drained after being manipulated for so many years by Fuches (Stephen Root) and a series of mob bosses.
That has always been the brilliance of Barry; that we find sympathy in our main character as a murderous hitman who is easily toyed with by everyone around him, and we see how his actions benefit everyone’s selfish needs. In flashback sequences, we see how Barry from a young age met Fuches, and how this bright, shy young kid never stood a chance at the hands of someone so insidious. And while Barry is in prison, slowly losing his grip on reality, Fuches is there on the inside, trying to cozy up to his former employee one last time, wearing a wire for the FBI so he can get Barry’s confession on the laundry list of jobs they pulled together as a duo and their vast connections between the L.A. criminal underground. Within his limited screen time, Root continues to deliver one of the most sinister villains in modern television, always finding a way to stay alive in their violent business, thus always being a lingering threat tattooed in the back of Barry’s brain.
But it is not just Fuches who’s still hanging on to Barry, there is also Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), and NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). Sally, told by Barry at the end of season three to leave L.A., has returned home to Kansas. The visit is short lived however because Sally quickly realizes why she left because her parents (mostly her mother) ignore her cries for help when she explains how much danger she is in. Instead, they’re more focused on the attention Sally’s canceled television show will bring once people from their small town find out it’s loosely about them. Angry and desperate, she goes back to LA, only to find that everyone in the city has linked her to Barry based on their relationship. Her options are limited, so she tries her hand at teaching, which she mostly fails at. In a scene cut right out of the first season, Sally uses Gene’s techniques but is exposed to the harsh reality of how toxic this style of educating is, reflecting on how this behavior may have landed her in the position she is at. All the students leave except for one who she helps with a role she got in a big budget studio project (with this sequence featuring one of the many hysterical celebrity cameos featured this season). But while she might have found a small way back into the industry, she can’t shake the feeling that the life she wanted is gone. Lost and completely helpless, Goldberg provides her best work on the series to date as she showcases Sally slowly losing herself, as the world that has chewed her up and spit her back out, leaving her completely vulnerable, longing for someone to give her the unconditional love and attention she deserves.
As for Hank, we last saw him saving his lover Cristobal (Michael Irby) from being tortured by his wife for finding out that he was cheating on her with Hank. Since his rampage in season three, Hank is now invested in living a quiet life with Cristobal, though it is short lived when the idea of starting a new business venture creeps into their heads. With the idea of breaking into the sand export business, Cristobal figures out the perfect plan for the two former criminals to finally go legitimate. With the plan hilariously laid out at Dave and Busters via a seminar presentation, the deal is almost broken by Hank’s inability to let go and embrace the future. By making this mistake, Hank sets out on a path to leave Barry in the past to gain the strength to be the leader he’s always wanted to be. With this, we continue to see incredible work from Carrigan, as he reveals a side of Hank we’ve never seen before, as he descends into the same darkness that has consumed Barry and others throughout the series, and thus learns to become the crime lord he has wanted to be. Carrigan still brings a lot of humorous levity, with plenty of iconic NoHo Hank fashion looks and hilarious awkward interactions throughout the season, but with the deeper emotional core Hank is dealing with, this season brings together Carrigan’s most fascinating all around work of the series.
While continuing to dive into the character’s psychological trauma and the various ways they are dealing with it, Barry also continues to be a biting examination of the Hollywood machine, with this season’s aim firmly on how violent stories like this are easily manipulated to fit a stargazed agenda. Between the media coverage and finger pointing of Sally’s involvement, to Gene considering telling his side of the story before Barry can tell his version of the events of the show, thus feeding Gene’s ego and enraging Barry, the show knows how to showcase the ramifications of how fame can put everyone involved selfishly at risk without a moment of hesitation. Winkler is as effective as ever in these scenes, understanding the – line to dance on as someone who is in fear for his life, but also can’t pass up as an artist at the unbelievable (yet selfish) opportunity in front of him, and want to potentially capitalize on it. It’s the most damning, realistic meta criticism of the industry this show has done in its four seasons.
Beyond the page lies another marvelous strength to season four that is a carryover from the previous seasons, and that is Hader’s confident, steady direction behind the camera. Used multiple times throughout the season, he allows the camera to linger behind and in front of his actors to build the tension expertly. In upping the suspense, you are on the edge of your seat with every directional decision he’s made, turning the show into a comedic thriller rather than a straight comedy. This world that Hader and co-creator Alec Berg have made is an electric television experience that guides the audience through an emotional rollercoaster through a simplistic, yet effective visual approach. While there isn’t as much action set pieces as the previous seasons, a couple of solid shoot out sequences are shot, with Hader allow the space of the frame to allow the violence to play out in his trademark darkly hilarious fashion. But for the majority of the fourth season, the episodes are carried on the back of Hader’s patience in the quiet moments, the moments of uncertainty, that he creates, leading to some of the best directed television episodes of the year.
At a time when multiple shows are going out on a high note and ending their series before many expected, Barry stands head and shoulders above them all and not only remains one of the best shows currently on television but now can rank as one of the best shows HBO has ever released and one of the best shows of the 21st century. Between the impeccable ensemble, the dedicated, meticulous work behind the camera, and the tonally perfect writing, Hader and Berg have stuck the landing with this final season and delivered something special that we will be talking about for years to come.
The eight-episode fourth and final season of Barry begins April 16 on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO