There’s a time-honored showbiz saying that a performer should always get off the stage while the audience is still clapping. It’s sage advice that few in Hollywood ever take on board, but fortunately, Barry co-creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader are among those that did. Berg and Hader could’ve easily stretched out their critically acclaimed HBO comedy-drama about a hitman bitten by the acting bug for longer and longer, with increasingly disappointing effect, but they didn’t. Instead, the pair opted to bring Barry to a close with Season 4, while the cast and crew were still at the top of their game – and the result is one last batch of killer episodes.
Barry Season 4 finds Barry Berkman (Hader) in prison alongside his former business partner Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root). Meanwhile, the person responsible for putting Barry behind bars, his acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), has parlayed his part in his former pupil’s arrest into new career opportunities. By contrast, Barry’s ex-girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) can’t land a job, partly because of the stigma attached to dating a notorious murderer, and partly because of her explosive public meltdown in Season 3.
Then there’s Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and his boyfriend Cristobal (Michael Irby), who now have plans to go legit, only to discover that Barry intends to rat them out. How they react will have unexpected consequences for Barry Season 4’s entire stable of characters, not least of all Barry himself, who is more desperate than ever for one last shot at redemption. Which begs the question: can a guy like Barry be redeemed – and does he even deserve it?
In case the above doesn’t make it immediately apparent, Barry’s final season is also the show’s darkest. That’s not to say that the pitch-black humor that made previous seasons so entertaining is entirely absent. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments on offer in Barry Season 4 – NoHo Hank and Cristobal’s flamboyant business presentations spring immediately to mind – but Hader and Berg have rationed out the comedic content more sparingly this time around. The resulting tonal shift is bound to alienate at least some viewers, and it’s just one of several big creative swings taken by Hader, Berg, and writers Nicky Hirsch, Emma Barrie, Taofik Kolade, Duffy Boudreau, and Liz Sarnoff.
Another bold creative choice is a significant time jump midway through the season. Again, individual viewers’ mileage will vary on whether this was the right call or not – and there’s no denying that it further compounds Barry Season 4’s bleak vibes (thanks to what awaits Barry and co. in the future). Yet even if the fourth season’s darker tone and chronological chicanery leave you cold, it’s a harsh viewer indeed who would describe these final eight episodes as anything less than engrossing.
What’s more, they’re lean. Barry Season 4 avoids one of the biggest traps that other prestige TV shows (cough, Ted Lasso, cough) have lately fallen for: bloated runtimes. No, Barry finishes its four-season run the way it started – as the perfect 30(ish)-minute show. Episodes move at a brisk clip without ever feeling rushed, and you might even find yourself convinced you’ve been watching for twice as long (in a good way), such are the economy and impact of the writing. There are heady themes at play in Barry’s fourth season – not least of all, whether real change is possible for any of us – yet the overall viewing experience is utterly effortless.
A decent share of the credit for this apparently belongs to Hader, who directed all eight episodes of Season 4 and is credited with writing three. That Hader did all this while also turning in his richest portrayal of Barry Berkman yet is downright mind-blowing. Across Barry’s last three seasons, Hader gradually revealed what a truly versatile performer he is – not just a gifted comedian and impressionist, but an actor with serious dramatic chops, too.
Season 4 is Hader’s greatest revelation of all, as he finds just the right amount of humor, horror, and heartbreak in an aging Barry, a fundamentally broken individual who’s neither intellectually nor emotionally equipped to truly achieve the kind of atonement he so desperately craves. You won’t like Barry all that much during Season 4, but Hader makes sure you can’t take your eyes off him, either.
Hader’s co-stars deliver the goods, as well. This is especially true of Goldberg, who gives a masterclass in how to speak volumes with a single dead-eyed glance as Sally slips further and further into a despondent haze. The Sally character has always been one that could get old fast in the wrong hands, however, Goldberg’s performance is as perfectly calibrated as ever – letting just the right amount of vulnerability seep through the cracks of Sally’s narcissistic exterior.
The same goes for Winkler as the equally self-absorbed Gene Cousineau. Like Goldberg, Winkler could easily have given us more of the same in Barry Season 4 – few would have complained if he did – and like her, he doesn’t. Of all the characters in the show’s fourth season, Gene is the one whose arc most overtly mirrors Barry’s own, and Winkler manages to sketch out an appreciably different take on the familiar “contrite Gene” shtick seen at various points in Seasons 1-3. Just as importantly, Winkler remains an invaluable source of comic relief throughout Barry’s swansong season, his impeccable timing and deadpan delivery preventing proceedings from ever getting too po-faced.
Carrigan and Root are invaluable in this regard, as well. While both actors get plenty of opportunities to tug at our heartstrings or send shivers down our spines, they nevertheless offer a welcome respite from Barry Season 4’s more harrowing moments. Heck, Root’s incredible physical transformation – which seemingly owes a debt to Cape Fear villain Max Cady – is reason to tune in to the fourth season all on its own.
Whether Hader and Berg actually meant to ape Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake with Fuches’ prison inks is unclear. Even if they didn’t, there are still plenty of other ways that Barry Season 4 emulates the feel of cinema classics. Barry has been one of the most cinematically literate shows of the modern era since it debuted in 2018, and Hader and cinematographer Carl Herse push this even further with these final installments. Indeed, film buffs will spot the moviemaking DNA of the likes of Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and the Coen Brothers at various moments in Season 4 (a haunting moonlit scene in Episode 4 could easily be an outtake from the Coens’ No Country for Old Men).
This goes deeper than mere movie-level production values (although Barry Season 4 certainly boasts those) – it’s about the visual language used in the storytelling itself. Each shot’s composition and length are expertly calibrated to convey subtext or sensations beyond what’s immediately apparent in the scene to dazzling effect. Toss in the show’s evocative sound design – rarely has a gentle breeze inspired such palpable dread as it does in Episode 6 – and the overall artistry involved goes far beyond typical TV fare. Admittedly, some of Season 4’s creative flourishes work better than others (a surreal shot of a truck ramming into a house is bewildering in a way Hader likely didn’t intend). Still, more often than not, they’re on the money.
And does it really matter if Barry Season 4 isn’t quite perfect? Not in the slightest. If anything, these occasional creative missteps serve to further underline just how much Season 4 and Barry himself are alike. Not only are they both constantly striving to do better, but for any of their limitations, they always hit their target when it counts.
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Its darker tone won’t be for everyone, but Barry Season 4’s bold storytelling, strong performances, and cinematic sensibilities make this eight-episode swansong an undeniably class act.
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