After four seasons, HBO’s Emmy winning comedy Barry, has come to an end, finally answering the question that has run throughout its four seasons: Can you change your nature? Bill Hader’s answer is yes – but unfortunately Hollywood doesn’t care.
Comedian and actor Hader created the show with Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), as well as starring as the titular Barry Berkman, and directing eighteen of the show’s 32 episodes. Jostling with the likes of Succession for viewers and column inches, the show has proven a critically beloved cult hit, particularly with cinephiles, which Hader attributes partly to his own viewing habits – he’s very into movies but doesn’t watch a lot of TV, and loves true crime – and his own trajectory (he moved to LA in his 20s to become a director and suffered from debilitating anxiety during his eight-year stint on American sketch show Saturday Night Live).
When we meet Barry in the show’s first season, he’s a depressed and easily manipulated ex-marine turned hitman, handled by Munroe Fuches (Stephen Root), an exploitative father figure and old family friend. When Barry winds up at Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting class after following a target, he decides to pursue a new life path as an actor and almost instantaneously falls in love with Sarah Goldberg’s Sally Reed. Sally’s arc is the most tragic and fully realised for a woman on TV since Skyler White on Breaking Bad, and – no disrespect to Anna Gunn – Goldberg blows every actor on both shows totally out of the water.
A decorated veteran who was discharged for shooting civilians in Afghanistan, Barry had embraced the narrative pushed by the United States during the War on Terror: that he was the good guy, excelling in his mission of killing the bad guys. In the first few episodes Barry and his fellow acting students are told by Gene to “create the reality and let the audience live there”. With this new directive, Barry believes he can recreate his life. The tension between what you’re good at and what you desire, or what you’re told to do versus what you want to do, are evident in Hader’s own journey and his SNL detour.
The hilarity of the show’s premise and the juxtaposition of one man straddling life in the shadows and in the literal spotlight immediately lends itself to an elastic tone that snaps back to the reliable twenty minute comedy formula even after scenes of sheer horror. On social media fans have debated whether Barry can still be considered a comedy, when on the awards circuit it shares category space with the saccharine Ted Lasso and the heartfelt sitcom Abbott Elementary. But the humour existed through to the biting end, though with less of Barry imitating a London accent during a shift at LuluLemon, and more in dystopian billboards from the near future displaying social media handles in lieu of actors names.
Across its 32 episodes, Barry successfully examines a myriad of complex issues such as cycles of abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and – above all – human nature and the ego, while maintaining its novel dual format of a TV crime procedural and a showbiz satire. Initially metatextual by virtue of being a television show about Hollywood, Barry’s plot being equally crime driven means that the series becomes concerned with TV properties that tell stories like Barry’s, examining the way criminality and violence is depicted on screen.
In season one, we are introduced to the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles. Chechan gangsters (such as fan favourite NoHo Hank played by Anthony Carrigan), Bolivian gangsters and Burmese gangsters are locked in a turf war – that is to say, foreigners control the crime in America – while Barry Berkman of course, forged and unleashed by the US military, is more lethal than all of them. Is this an indictment of US imperialism or an exercise of it?
Hader, Berg and the writers (Duffy Boudreau, Taofik Kolade, Emma Barrie and Nicky Hirschhorn amongst others) show no reverence for the criminals or police alike, all are depicted as self serving idiots. Barry himself is devoid of a personality, an anonymous white man with a gun. While Barry’s actions always catalyse the criminal plot, his scenes and lines seem to diminish over the seasons – possibly a side effect of Hader’s directing duties, as well as potentially an uncomfortable reaction to women finding Barry attractive and by extension, his ruthlessly ambitious actress girlfriend intolerable.
At the end of season one, Barry kills Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), Cousineau’s girlfriend and the detective assigned to investigate the murder of Barry’s original acting class mark. By the end of season two, Fuches shows Cousineau where Barry dumped Moss’ body, in a power move to stop Barry from leaving his lucrative hitman career behind him. Throughout the second season, the writers draw parallels between Sally’s abusive relationship with her ex-husband Sam and the dynamic between Barry and Fuches. “Everyone is the hero of their own story right?” Sam and Fuches mockingly chime at their respective prey.
Before season three started shooting, the pandemic struck and the writers regrouped in Summer 2020 to write season four and subsequently rewrite season three, organising the story like a feature film as opposed to a TV show. The overarching plot (among a lot of plot) for these two seasons is Barry getting caught and charged with Moss’ murder. It most likely made sense plot wise and as a comment on the way America values human life, that Barry is finally caught for being a cop killer. But I have always wondered if in the heat of Summer 2020, the writers decided Barry should face consequences for killing a Black woman.
Would the original season three scripts extend the storyline of Janice Moss by introducing her father, Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom)? Jim Moss is also ex-military, an expert in psychological warfare and often depicted as the only intelligent character, fuelled by an unwavering white hot rage. The final shot of season three isn’t of Barry taken away in cuffs or Cousineau’s expression of shallow satisfaction, but of Jim standing on his front lawn, watching Barry’s arrest, and a framed photo of Janice by the window inside.
Racial archetypes are so well defined in American copaganda TV procedurals and slick crime films alike, it’s perhaps generous to assume the writers are commenting on these tropes rather than retreading them. But the beauty of Barry is how it elevated the crime procedural elements through its incredible stunt coordination and directing, with the season three motorcycle chase being one of the most thrilling pieces of television in years.
However damning the violence is in Barry, the surreal yet painfully authentic Hollywood satire matches its bleakness. Through Sally’s arc, we see the various ways the effects of violence manifest within a person, and we watch as she navigates Hollywood. In season three, Sally’s streamer show based on her theatre piece about her abusive marriage is cancelled the day of release. The network told her that the algorithm objected to the lack of dessert in the first thirty seconds of the show; it didn’t hit the right “taste clusters”. Natalie (D’arcy Carden), Sally’s acting class lackey and later her assistant, soon after lands a show about a dessert shop, and is cornered by Sally in an elevator and repeatedly called an “entitled cunt”. Sally’s rant goes viral, and she loses everything, culminating in a fatally violent act of her own.
In the fifth episode of season four, we are eight years into the future, after a series of Lynchian dream sequences. Sally and Barry have assumed new identities and have a child together. Their plywood house in the middle of nowhere feels like a doll’s house or movie set, and Sally resumes the role of actress complete with accent and wig, while Barry gets to reinvent himself as a good man, listening to Christian podcasts and protecting his son John from all kinds of violence, including the perils of playing baseball. Barry now has graduated to manipulator, staging intimate moments with his son (“actually, this should take place on the swing”) and recasting himself as an army medic.
Meanwhile Cousineau is back in LA and his dormant narcissism is goaded by the idea that Daniel Day Lewis wants to play him in a biopic about the murder of Janice Moss. Cousineau’s desire to be the lead character in this story leads him to talk about Barry inconsequentially and sympathetically, which in turn leads Cousineau’s own son and Jim Moss to believe Barry was a victim of his manipulation.
Through a mountain of sophisticated plot that had the potential for a dozen loose ends, the finale wraps up masterfully. NoHo Hank, whose arc deserves an exploration of its own, confronts the evil he has done and gets a heartbreaking Tony Montana style death. Fuches, the most consistent villain of the show, is the only one who gets a semblance of true redemption, while Barry finally chooses to do the right thing and turn himself in before he is shot dead by Cousineau. Jim Moss believes he has justice for his daughter now that Gene Cousineau is spending life in prison, and Sally Reed is an acting teacher, living her authentic life with her son.
The final few minutes of Barry show John Berkman watching a schlocky true crime recreation of his father’s life as a war hero – the kind of show Barry could have been, and one that has existed for decades on American TV. Cousineau is played by a hammy English actor and Jim Cummings plays heart-of-gold ex-marine Barry Berkman, tasked with protecting LA from Cousineau’s criminal dealings with Russian gangsters. Nothing, especially not the truth, gets in the way of Hollywood’s compulsive desire to heroically mythologise the violent white American male.
The blistering final season speaks to a consistent truth: Barry is an angry show. It seethes with rage at how unremarkable violence has seemingly become in America and American media, and how resigned filmmaking is to the whims of big tech, artistry now second to the algorithm. It’s a show about writing, acting and directing, all of which rely on a level of dishonest reinvention and narcissistic control. While the show has faith that even the most violent among us can change for the better, it has no such faith in Hollywood.
Published 5 Jun 2023
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