A house sits in the desert, large and blue like an oasis. The barren landscape around it fades into the horizon in each direction—it is everywhere and nowhere. This is where 8-year-old John lives with his parents: Clark, an affable born-again Christian whose obsessions with videos of horrific childhood sports accidents and the “tricky legacy” of Abraham Lincoln suggest a hidden pain, and Emily, an alcoholic who dons a fake accent and a dark brown wig over her blonde hair every day before leaving for her waitressing gig at a diner. The rhythm of daily life within the house is simultaneously claustrophobic and painfully distant: Clark and Emily are slowly suffocating under the weight of their loneliness, and seem resigned to push this fate onto John, who has to sneak out to play catch with a boy his own age. The vastness of the surrounding desert only elucidates the profound smallness of their world, a tableau that blurs the boundary between the ordinary and the surreal.
What the viewer knows, though John does not, is that Clark is in fact the titular character of HBO’s Barry, the series created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, and Emily is Barry’s girlfriend Sally. At first, they appear to be alternative, imagined versions of the characters we’ve come to know over four seasons. But as Hader reveals at the end of the episode “tricky legacies” with a twist of the kaleidoscope back toward the literal, these people are the Barry (Hader) and Sally (breakout star Sarah Goldberg) that we know. It’s a time jump: Eight years have passed since they fled Los Angeles as fugitives after Barry’s escape from prison for the murder of his acting teacher’s detective girlfriend. They have hollowed themselves out and made their home in an empty wasteland, and now have a son in tow.
It was a remarkably bleak conclusion, a real one-two punch of marathon TV-watching immediately following Succession’s mega-sized rollercoaster of a finale. The episode begins with the standoff between Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and Monroe Fuches (Steven Root) in the foyer of Nohobal. A tense hostage negotiation, with masterful performances from Carrigan and Root, fails, ending in a mutually assured bloodbath between the Chechyens and the Raven’s crews. Their whole exchange — about denial, safety, and the acceptance of true selves — speaks directly to the themes of the entire series, full of people running away from or trying (often futilely) to reinvent themselves by wearing different masks. Killer Barry to actor Barry; Fuches to criminal mastermind The Raven; narcissistic pain-in-the ass actor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) to teacher and mentor; from struggling actor Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) to disgraced showrunner to anything that doesn’t make her feel deep shame.
At the end of that faceoff, Fuches, as it’s revealed when the shooting is over, leaps on top of John to protect him from the hail of bullets, and Noho Hank dies at the foot of Cristobal’s bronze statue, ending the torment of his guilt over but never able to admit the role he played in sending the love of his life to his death by choosing safety over love. Hank built the whole Nohobal enterprise to hide his culpability; by honoring Cristobal’s dream of a sand empire, he tricked himself into thinking he could exonerate his actions to a dead man and himself so his own well-being wouldn’t crumble. That the building was full of huge glass windows was likely no mistake. The company was a thin ruse that started forming giant cracks the second Fuches got out of prison.
Hank has been waiting years to kill Barry, and though the Chechen mobster has spent all four seasons of Barry proving how much of a tough guy he is, in these final moments, his actions prove otherwise. He can’t bring Barry’s little son, John, out to the killing floor, keeping him locked up in a closet in the back. Only Sally is brought out with a gun to her head. Fuches demands to see John. As Hank shakes in fear of killing a child, Fuches throws another offer on the table.
In a series of close-ups between Hank, who can’t stop a series of tears from rolling down his face, and Fuches, who is as stoic as the golden statue of Cristobal (Michael Irby) in the background, Fuches whittles Hank’s remaining flesh down to the bone: “New deal. I walk away right now, you’ll never hear from me again. All you have to do is admit that you killed Cristobal. Admit that you fucked up. Admit that you were scared. That you hate yourself. That there are some days you don’t think you deserve to live. And the only thing that’ll make you forget is by being someone else.”
John is breaking the rules with his friend by watching the newly released movie about his father’s life: The Mask Collector. Cousineau (Michael Cumpsty) is now a demonic acting teacher who accepts recently discharged marine Barry (Jim Cummings), a stand-up guy who looks like the first photo you’d see on Wikipedia after searching “veteran.” After walking in on a few unfortunate scenes—Cousineau paying off Ryan Madison, killing Janice—Barry is forced into LA’s crime underbelly. He resists. He’s framed for killing Janice. “Sorry brother, I know you’re just doing your job,” he tells a police officer he attacks to escape from prison, which had me howling.
Barry confronts Cousineau, who kills him with around 36 slow-motion shots to the chest. Shocker! He dies a hero.
“Gene Cousineau is currently serving life in prison for the murders of Janice Moss and Barry Berkman,” an epilogue reads. “PFC Barry Berkman was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.”
All that, plus this final season has arguably been Barry’s least accessible. This is partly because season three ended on the satisfying note of Barry finally being brought to justice. Hader has previously illustrated this with a story about Larry David; Hader said he was working on a fourth season of Barry, David replied that he must be crazy, because the story had so obviously already finished.
What this season opened up, though, was space to underline exactly how repellent these characters are. In the first episode back, Barry goads a sympathetic prison warden by reminding him (and us) of all the police officers he has killed. Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau shot his own son. No-Ho Hank watched impassively as the love of his life was murdered. Sally Reed, played by the miraculous Sarah Goldberg, was eventually given the closest thing to a happy ending, but she still endured a stretch of being a horribly negligent mother. The history of television is littered with villains and antiheroes who audiences have incorrectly fallen in love with. Think Tony Soprano, or Walter White or Kendall Roy. Barry’s fourth season often felt like an opportunity for the writers to prevent this from happening. Time and again, the show went to great pains to underline just how awful these people were.
When you think of this last season, you’ll probably remember how oppressively dark it was. In one episode we heard the terrified gasps of a man drowning in sand. In another we witnessed the once-seen-never-forgotten nightmare fuel of a silhouette stalking a character through their own home. Last week’s penultimate episode began with the sound of a man hyperventilating as his torturer explained that he had amputated his arms and legs. It has been richly satisfying stuff, if you had the stomach for it, but that’s a big if. I’m honestly struggling to recall a season of television that has been so inescapably bleak.
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