The fourth and final season of Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s bleak screwball tragedy Barry only intensifies its genre-defying mayhem. By Patrick Marlborough.
You can only admire the HBO programmers who decided to air the finales of Succession and Barry on the same night. Those left drained and distraught by the frenetic implosion of the Roys could turn to the comic stylings of Bill Hader in search of a goofy respite. The result was a brutal double-tap to the heart that might best be described as annihilating.
For those unfamiliar with Alec Berg and Hader’s blackly comic satire, Barry is a show about a ruthless hitman seeking a sense of self and community in amateur theatre. Such a simple and eloquent comic premise, reminiscent of late-career Billy Wilder or a mid-’90s comedy blockbuster (Rob Schneider is… BARRY!), could easily have spun into 10 seasons of affable three-camera sitcom dreck.
Instead, Berg and Hader set about constructing – and deconstructing – a sandbox with a comic logic closer to Springfield or Toontown rather than, say, Chuck. The result is a show that is at once screwball farce, observational satire and speculative drama – a chimaera of tropes, allusions and sparkling originality that left all those in its wake for dead.
Propelling this Rube Goldberg machine of gags, guilt and gore is a churning critique of the idea that fuelled the shows that inspired it – The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and so on. It’s an idea explicitly voiced by its psychotic antihero in its second season: you should be able to be the person you say you are. Barry is not only about the failure to be that person, but also the failure to recognise that failure.
Barry is almost exclusively populated by narcissists. Its fourth and final season explores the end points of their dizzyingly out-of-orbit heights of self-delusion. Quasi-reformed crime lord NoHo Hank (the show-stealing Anthony Carrigan) finds himself hitting a mid-life crisis as he settles into a respectable business with his former gang rival turned live-in lover, Cristobal (Michael Irby). Barry’s former acting coach and “good” surrogate father figure, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), is riding high on his D-list celebrity status and on having (seemingly) brought Barry to justice.
Once-aspiring actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) finds herself living her worst life post-cancellation, booted from Hollywood back to her small-town home and her supportive but clueless parents. Fuches (Stephen Root) finds himself locked in prison with Barry (Hader), a man he believes wants him dead, whose mind he “built” and who is eternally rewriting his past, present and future in search of something approximating sense.
Hader is the sole directing credit through season four, and he doubles-down on what it was that made Barry so unique. The most common criticism of Barry is that it is nigh impossible to categorise. The same can be said for Hader, who is to post-9/11 comedy what Jean-Luc Godard was to postwar 20th-century cinema. Barry is as much the intersection of Andrzej Wajda and David Lynch as it is of Chris Farley and Looney Tunes, and Hader is able to switch between these and other modes as deftly as he does impressions when guesting on a talk show. Filmic language reminiscent of Paul Schrader (Mishima) and Agnès Varda (One Hundred and One Nights) is superimposed onto scenes of child-like gangsters meeting at a Dave & Busters, or a montage of children being killed in hapless accidents in junior league baseball games.
There is a dogged self-seriousness to Barry’s ruthless silliness that simply works. Hader has talked about his desire to wrap Barry up, and this final season does at times feel like two truncated into one – the eight episodes are only 30 minutes long, after all. But whether this limitation is a fault is questionable.
Season four feels like a series of drive-by shootings: you’re stunned, belly aching with laughter, until you stop and realise you’ve actually caught a stray round in the gut. One such sequence has the verminous Fuches, reborn in prison as a hardened criminal, begin his newfound freedom with a montage that culminates with him picking up a random woman at a Starbucks and transforming her into his gang moll. This is a fiery reincarnation of a character who we’ve only seen to be cowardly, manipulative and venal, into someone dangerous, magnetic and, ultimately, gloriously dumb.
Barry has never shied away from a purposeful kind of video game flow, with scenes often unfolding with the chaotic clumsiness of clips titled “epic gaming fails” and the like. The “feral mongoose” episode in season two, where Barry fights an 11-year-old girl, plays out like an exercise in broken game design, and characters often talk and act with the wishful notion of being steered by invisible forces, freeing them of the burden of responsibility for their actions.
In one of the final episodes, NoHo Hank and his goon fire a rocket-propelled grenade at an enemy’s house, only for the rocket to go wide – they only brought one, of course. What follows is a sequence ripped straight from a bungled Grand Theft Auto mission, with Hank and company awkwardly steering down a winding road as a horde of rival goons run down hills at them, jumping out of bushes to pop shots off, until Hank is forced to abandon his car and roll down the hills like a ragdolling player character.
This is all shown in a single, slow, distanced wide-shot, that makes a fundamentally hilarious slapstick scene also off-puttingly chilling. This, I think, embodies Hader’s knack for mimicry, which he harnesses to construct something that feels wholly new in this context. Anyone familiar with his and Fred Armisen’s beautifully self-indulgent Documentary Now! will be aware of Hader’s ability to replicate not just literal voices but also artistic styles, which in Barry appears as a recombobulation not only of genre but of medium.
The streaming age, by the nature of its economics, has required a sanding down of the “content” that keeps it chugging along. HBO is at the epicentre of this phenomenon at the moment, with the Warner Bros merger bringing in new management that appears set on erasing writers – and eventually other artists – from creating television. As much a skewering of Hollywood as it is anything else, Barry has always treated the machinations that transform television into product with the same wisecracking energy Bugs Bunny reserves for Elmer Fudd.
By growing weirder as it continued, and by ending with a pie gag crossed with a free-to-air execution, Barry at once condemns the limitations of prestige television and storytelling, while pining for – all but getting on its knees and praying to – its limitlessness. Barry is a show that was able to be who it said it was.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Gags, guilt and gore".
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