How “Barry” Went from Hollywood Satire to Existential Epic

Early in the fourth and final season of “Barry,” the titular hit man (played by Bill Hader) offers his broker turned adversary, Fuches (Stephen Root), an apology for almost everything that’s happened between them since the series première: “If I hadn’t tried to understand myself, we wouldn’t be here.” Barry’s referring to the fateful decision he made, at the start of the HBO series, to explore a career in show biz, after following a man he was supposed to kill into an acting class. (His target was a Hollywood wannabe named Ryan—of course he was named Ryan—with the bad luck to get involved with the wife of a Chechen mobster.) Fuches, who positioned himself as an alternate father figure to Barry, naturally objected to his protégé’s pursuit of such a public-facing line of work, leading to a bloody feud that eventually landed both men in prison, where Barry’s mea culpa takes place. But it’s not the détente between Barry and Fuches that’s most notable in this reunion scene; rather, it’s the delusional self-pity. For years, Barry, a former Marine, clung to the belief that it wasn’t he who was responsible for the deaths he’d caused but Fuches, for preying on Barry’s depression and aimlessness following his military discharge and guiding him into contract killing. It’s not until the final ten or so seconds of his life that Barry is ready to accept that the only way to stop being the villain of his story is to turn himself in. But, before he can do so, he is shot in the chest and the head by his former acting teacher, Gene (Henry Winkler)—an ending he absolutely deserved.

When “Barry” débuted, in 2018, it was a water-and-oil mix of Hollywood satire and gangland farce that punctured the pretensions of acting students (though it could sometimes feel more like punching down) while chipping away at the entertainment industry’s glamorization of violent men. But, after a three-year hiatus between the second and third seasons, the series returned darker and less predictable. Barry abandons his actorly ambitions (and thus the show its original premise), becoming preoccupied instead with how he could do right by Gene, who finds out that Barry killed his beloved girlfriend, Janice (Paula Newsome), a detective investigating Ryan’s murder. Briefly, Gene intends to turn Barry in, but his bungled attempt at this ends in his near execution. In one of the series’ most affecting developments, Gene transforms accordingly from a vainglorious buffoon to yet another of Barry’s victims, but, in this case, one whose arc is arguably more tragic for his being allowed to live.

For a series that began with so many easy one-note jokes about attention-seeking narcissists, “Barry” unfurled into something of an existential epic, following its characters for a decade or more, with Barry and Gene unable to move past the gaping sense of injustice that Janice’s murder left behind. (Her father, Jim, played by Robert Wisdom, is unrelenting in letting her memory go, and his own military training in enhanced interrogations makes him a more forceful reminder than most.) The show’s body count could rival that of any HBO drama, but Hader and Alec Berg, the show’s creators, also continuously grappled with how any trauma—such as a violent death in the family, Barry’s P.T.S.D. from his military service, or the domestic abuse that his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), endures in her first marriage—could reverberate for years, spilling over into other aspects of the characters’ lives. “Barry” ’s final season was the series’ strongest and most ambitious. Directed entirely by Hader, it took the most leaps with its characters, enabled by an eight-year jump forward in time, while exploring the limits of how much each person was capable of change. The phenomenal finale, which was written by Hader and aired on Sunday night, satisfyingly strips most of the characters (including the chatty Chechen gangster NoHo Hank, played by Anthony Carrigan) of their self-protective illusions, and sends off Barry—with his matter-of-fact utterance of the words “oh, wow” after being shot by Gene—with the kind of abrupt absurdism the show has made its calling card.

Season 4 saw Barry—and, to a lesser extent, Gene—on what they believed to be their journeys toward redemption. But their story lines underscore two of the series’ most persistent themes: people generally prefer bullshit to facts, and conventional Hollywood narratives are especially reductive models for moral accounting . “Acting is truth,” Gene tells Barry during one of their first encounters—a brilliant line that itself is both true and patently not. In the series, hardly anyone is rewarded for revealing their genuine selves. Barry responds to Gene’s platitude with a confession about how the only thing he’s ever been good at is killing people—first as a sniper in Afghanistan, then as a hired gun—and Gene, whose world is grievously narrow and whose normal is actorly theatrics, mistakes the disclosure for an improvised monologue. When Gene later discovers that Barry was relaying his actual experiences in that speech, he advises Barry to never repeat it. In the second season, Sally, a classmate of Barry’s, realizes that she misremembered the details of her last night with her ex, whom she’d married as a teen-ager in Missouri. (She thought that she’d told him off in explosive and articulate fury, but a friend who had supported her during those years recalled no such parting rant.) In an autobiographical scene Sally writes for Gene’s class, she’s confronted by the fact that her fellow-students prefer the fake, inspirational version of her story to the shameful recollection that she willingly suffered through instances of abuse for the remorseful solace that would soon follow. Later, Sally channels her past to create and star in a semi-autobiographical TV show, only for the critically lauded program to be swiftly cancelled. To add insult to literal injury, the sole response Sally’s mom has to the series’ revelations of marital violence is to complain that she now has to deal with the potential ire of Sally’s former mother-in-law. Gene’s students are an unforgivably shallow lot (and Sally’s mom, who has trouble comprehending the genre of autofiction, is hardly an ideal viewer), but their lizard-brain instincts for entertainment aren’t too far from ours—unless you prefer to interpret “Barry” as a kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back for having much better taste than traditional Hollywood hokum, which is certainly a valid reading of the series.

“Barry” ’s show-business and crime milieus turned out to be ideal backdrops for the series’ explorations of the inconvenience of truth. Years after Barry is arrested and imprisoned for Janice’s murder (and the news is heavily publicized), a movie about the hit man and the case—eventually called “The Mask Collector”—is announced. The prospect of the Barry bio-pic is a riveting through line in the fourth season, bringing Barry and Gene back together after the time jump, during which Barry, after escaping from prison, lives with Sally and their young son, John (Zachary Golinger), as fugitives and Gene tries to unlearn his narcissism on an Israeli kibbutz. After learning of the film project, Gene warns a studio exec, “You are glorifying a psychopath, and you’re exploiting the memory of the woman I loved”—a prophetic assessment, it turns out. By the time the movie goes into production, the police erroneously conclude that Janice’s killer isn’t Barry but Gene. (In an ironic parallel to Barry’s image of himself as Fuches’s puppet, Gene is portrayed by the script as Barry’s Svengali.) Janice is a seeming footnote in “The Mask Collector,” while the movie villainizes Gene (in part by giving him a British accent, a lazy cliché) and paints Barry as the kind of action hero Hollywood adores: a blandly handsome patriot who mistakenly trusts a foreigner but rescues his kidnapped family from the bad guys when it counts. (In the “real life” version of those events, it was Fuches who rescued John from his abductors as a farewell gift to Barry.) The finale’s funny-bleak closing scene finds a teen-age John (Jaeden Martell) watching “The Mask Collector,” his eyes welling up with tears—no matter that Sally had already told him the truth long ago about herself and Barry going on the lam after committing murder. At least for the time being, John would rather believe the Hollywood version of his dad. And if some viewers still want to believe that Barry is the hero, or even the antihero, of “Barry”—a sentiment that Hader himself has expressed befuddlement at—the show seems to imply that they are just as deluded as the character is. ♦



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