Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for HBO’s “Barry.”
HBO’s “Barry” premiered the first two episodes of its fourth and final season on April 16. The series centers around a hitman seeking to turn over a new leaf and offers an insightful examination of our inability to change.
“Barry” has an almost-too-ridiculous premise: a depressed contract killer finds refuge in the theater arts scene and decides to leave his old life to pursue a career in Hollywood. The show started off primarily as a sharp and hilarious satire of the film industry and its delusions, but it also never shied away from its more unpleasant themes. Barry (Bill Hader) is tormented by the violent acts he has committed, which has dire implications for the people closest to him. The series delicately interlaces morbid drama with absurd humor, exemplified perfectly by Barry’s Chechen mobster contact, the chipper NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) who happens to be one of the most delightful characters on television right now.
The show has grown increasingly dark over its past three seasons, and its protagonist has become increasingly irredeemable. The new season begins with Barry in prison after being caught for the murder of Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), the girlfriend of his acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Cousineau became a second father figure to Barry alongside his handler Fuches (Stephen Root), and Barry is still desperate for his love despite having murdered the love of his life.
“I love you” is a phrase Barry utters repeatedly and insistently to Cousineau and his ex-girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), the two people he has traumatized the most. He believes his debt to Cousineau is paid by landing him an acting gig, and can’t fathom why Cousineau would despise him so deeply as to expose his violent persona to the public and turn him in to the police. The show has drawn comparisons to “Breaking Bad” but is perhaps more effective in emphasizing its protagonist’s toxicity and the consequences of his inability to recognize it. At the very least, the message warning against glorifying Walter White-type personalities seems to get through to more viewers in the present day.
Throughout the show, Barry continuously deludes himself to believe he can leave his violent past behind and live a normal life. Whenever he commits a terrible act, he insists it will be his last. The violence stops “starting now,” he says time and time again. It’s another recurring phrase that showcases his denial.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of the show is its depiction of cycles of abuse. Barry is unstable and prone to angry outbursts, some of them directed toward Sally. Sally was a victim of domestic violence in her previous relationship, and found out far too late that Barry has much more in common with her ex-boyfriend than she initially thought.
In the previous season, Sally finds out that her former assistant became a showrunner after her own show was canceled and proceeds to lash out at her in a fit of rage and jealousy. She approaches her threateningly, forces her against the wall, and screams at length directly in her face, emulating what Barry did to her earlier in the season.
In the third season’s finale, a man follows Barry into Sally’s apartment and nearly kills her, but she fights him off and beats him to death. Barry then tells her that he will take the blame for the murder. “Barry did this,” he makes her say repeatedly until she believes the lie, not realizing that the words are actually true. Perhaps in that moment, uttering those words, she finally understands that Barry has destroyed her life.
The show’s effectiveness largely relies on Bill Hader’s performance, for which he received two Emmy wins. It also features excellent cinematography and surreal sequences directed by Hader, such as the dirtbike chase scene devoid of music in season three episode six. The entirety of season two episode five consists of Barry’s gruesome extended fight with a Taekwondo master and his terrifying, near-supernatural daughter.
The highlight of the new season so far is the antics of Hank and his enemy-turned-lover Cristobal (Michael Irby). The two share a hilarious scene in a Dave & Buster’s proposing their new business venture to a group of rival gang members.
In general however, the show’s characters are finding themselves in situations that are less and less comical. At the center is a light-consuming black hole named Barry. Viewers have long stopped rooting for his redemption, but watching his downfall is tragic nonetheless. For now, fans can only wonder how those around him will save themselves.
Fei Yang is an Arts and Entertainment Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.