Welcome to Previously On, a column that loves it when a good show gets renewed. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews season 4 of HBO’s Barry.
There’s a bit of advice Henry Winkler’s washed-up acting teacher Gene Cousineau gave to his class in season one of Barry that I still think about. “No matter what happens: loud, fast, and keep going,” he told the students, and it’s a lesson the propulsive, constantly surprising show has taken to heart, too.
Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s pitch-black HBO comedy has never been content to sit still with its own premise. As soon as it established the story of Barry Berkman (Hader), the soldier turned assassin turned amateur actor, it immediately turned it on its head. Barry has broken nearly all the rules of TV storytelling in its four-season run, turning its antihero into a full-blown villain and nearly killing him off entirely. Now, in its last batch of episodes, the show once again rushes boldly into the unknown with a storyline that depends upon a daring narrative change-up.
Barry season four starts with the titular character behind bars, caught in a sting operation put on by Cousineau and the father of one of his victims (Robert Wisdom’s Jim) last season. With his status as a serial murderer revealed, Barry has nothing except his notoriety, the ironic granting of a wish long-forgotten: he’s on TV now. Hader’s performance as the character has evolved over the seasons, and he’s never been afraid to take Barry to places audiences can’t follow. In season three, the character flamed out with a terrifying breakdown. In season four, he’s just as scary, but the show has fully distanced us from the character. Barry has become the antagonist of his own story, and it’s not our place to understand and relate to him anymore.
While Barry’s story spins out in unexpected ways, other characters step up for storylines that are equally as challenging and unwilling to absolve them. Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), previously the show’s most delightful character, returns from his traumatic imprisonment last season unusually sobered. While he and Cristobal (Michael Irby) make moves with a new business venture, Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and Gene try to figure out where they fit in the ruthless Hollywood machine in the wake of Barry’s arrest.
These plots may not sound particularly fun, but season four of Barry is funnier than the show has been in a while. The oppressive tension that’s been building for three seasons straight pours out of the series in a slow leak, wrung out of the first few episodes thanks to Barry’s worst deeds finally seeing the light of day. This comparative break from the action allows for some of the show’s most absurd and clever humor to date, and the show finds new ways to skewer Hollywood despite its darker-than-ever storyline. Stephen Root’s Fuches, in jail with Barry, finds new, extremely entertaining angles for his character, while Winkler’s Gene gets the most satisfyingly messed-up storyline of the season.
It’s also worth noting that some of the plot descriptions above only apply to the season’s first few episodes because in the spirit of “louder, faster, and keep going,” Barry’s final act involves a massive creative pivot. The show has always followed strange, irregular narrative rhythms, and these final chapters are no exception; Barry pushes past the familiar into unstable territory, and it’s a move that asks quite a lot of the audience. The detour mainly works thanks to a talented cast and consistently tight editing, writing, and direction, but it’s not as emotionally engaging as the show’s past creative high points.
In its home stretch, the show’s direction feels slightly less showy, perhaps by design. The series has always been in a technical league of its own, and the new season still includes several striking shots and scenes. Still, nothing in the seven episodes available for review looks quite as awe-inspiring as the action in “ronny/lily,” last season’s freeway chase, or even the episode that pulled its title from Gene’s aforementioned acting advice. Hader adapts his visual style to match the show’s tone closely. Since this season isn’t focused on constantly ratcheting up the tension, it also doesn’t rely as regularly on startling whip-pans, massive tracking shots, or backgrounded action. Again, this isn’t a bad change but requires some adjustment.
By the time this season draws to a close, Barry will likely be remembered as a small-screen masterpiece, and for good reason. The show’s choice to grow even more narratively experimental in the eleventh hour is deeply jarring and perhaps overly alienating. Still, it aligns with Barry’s long history of upending audience expectations. Plus, it builds to a classic Barry showdown. As it inches towards its final episode, Barry ultimately regains its footing and injects fresh tension into the newest iteration of its story, leading towards an intense and unpredictable endgame. In its fourth and final season, Barry offers a surprising, disorienting, and ultimately entertaining curtain call for its darkly hilarious story.
Barry season 4 begins airing on HBO on April 16th. Watch the season trailer here.
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