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HBO's 'Barry' ends as it began — pushing the boundaries of television

Bill Hader as Barry in the fourth and final season of HBO's <em>Barry.</em>
Merrick Morton
Bill Hader as Barry in the fourth and final season of HBO's Barry.

From its very first episode, HBO's Barry has pushed the boundaries of television. But star/writer/director/producer Bill Hader and his crew take that ethic to ridiculous extremes in the show's fourth and final season, stretching the limits of its outrageous premise in ways that virtually dare the audience to stay invested.

The show's original conceit has always been kinda bonkers, anyway. Hader is Barry Berkman, a super-repressed drip of a guy who got really good at killing people in the Marines and became a low-rent hitman once he left the military. After following a target into an acting class, he realized performing could unlock his emotions and he decided to try becoming an actor.

Over the past three seasons, Barry has stumbled into prime acting gigs and worked at building a life, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who might discover his secret past as a killer.

Off screen, Hader has pushed the show in all kinds of directions creatively, from staging a sprawling fightwith an impossibly tenacious young girl to filming a chase scene with dirtbikes across a wide swath of Los Angeles that ended in a gonzo confrontation at a multilevel car dealership.

At the end of last season, when Barry was finally arrested for killing the police detective girlfriend of his acting teacher (Henry Winkler's Gene Cousineau) it seemed Hader and Co. had written themselves into a particularly tight corner: Barry had become increasingly unlikable and unstable, given to fits of rage and violence; would an audience still care what happens to a stone killer who was finally brought to justice?

Telling the story after Barry's arrest

The early episodes of Barry's current, final season give a sense of that answer, depicting jailers, FBI agents and prosecutors who are thickheaded, humorless and callous – in other words, way less sympathetic than even an emotionally crippled ex-hitman. Barry's self-centered girlfriend Sally, played with earnest abandon by Sarah Goldberg, heads back to her hometown, only to discover life with her emotionally distant mother in Missouri might be worse than facing the music with Barry in Los Angeles.

Winkler's Cousineau is drinking up the attention that's come from getting Barry arrested, even as he frets that his former student might find a way to come after him. Barry is torn between love for two father figures: Cousineau and his former "handler" as a hitman, Stephen Root's relentlessly manipulative Monroe Fuches. And Anthony Carrigan's breakout character, the Chechen gangster NoHo Hank, is still feeling unfulfilled, even though he's in a romance and living with his former rival and ex-Bolivian gang leader, Cristobal Sifuentes.

Early in the final season, as Barry fumes behind bars and the show's other characters react to his unmasking and incarceration, the show retains its cheeky balance of absurd humor, jarring violence and bold drama. And there are some sterling performances here – Goldberg's Sally veers from shock to hyperventilation to disappointment as the meaning of Barry's arrest sinks in, while Winkler offers a deft depiction of Gene's towering narcissism, fed by the plaudits he gets for helping catch his former student.

Sarah Goldberg as Sally on HBO's Barry.
Merrick Morton / HBO
Sarah Goldberg as Sally on HBO's Barry.

Hader directs all the episodes with a growing assurance, using unconventional camera angles to punctuate the comedy – giving us a long shot of a car traveling down a road as a difficult conversation begins among the occupants, traveling out of earshot. When the car smacks into a parked vehicle on the other side of the road, we realize the conversation had reached a crisis point.

A question emerges: Is there a larger point?

But as the season winds on, there is a sense of these characters suffering more and more in situations that are less and less funny. All of them have scars, rubbed raw from their contact with Barry, and it becomes increasingly difficult to understand where their bruising stories are ultimately taking us.

We see how terrible parenting and a history of trauma have fed their dysfunction. But we knew that about most of them before this season began.

Deep in the final season's episodes, there is a significant change – I won't say what, because it is a major spoiler. But it is a change in circumstance and tone that raises a niggling question which has shrouded this unique series since its inception:

Do these folks really know how this story should end? And will it end in a way that gives meaning to everything fans have waded through to reach this final moment?

As a critic who has seen all but the final installment of this eight-episode season, I'm still not sure of the answer to those questions. But I remain hopeful a creative team that has produced such thrilling individual moments, can wind up its story in a way that makes the whole journey worthwhile.

In the end, that may be the final challenge for a show that has dared to ride its unconventional premise to the limits of quality TV's boundaries. And beyond.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.