‘Barry’ Enters a Strange New World — and Can’t Shake the Old One

New looks, same obstacles to happiness.
Bill Hader in "Barry"
Bill Hader in "Barry"
Merrick Morton/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Barry” Season 4, Episode 5, “Tricky Legacies.”]

“Barry” knew what it was taking away when it stopped using its theme music. It’s only a six-second snippet of a Charles Bradley song, but it does so much to set up the heightened, jokey edge to whatever consequences are coming in the following episode. By design, some of the show’s humanity leaves when the title, still instantly plastered in bold block letters, is accompanied only with silence or ambient noise in the background. “Tricky Legacies” isn’t the first “Barry” episode to have that muted start, but putting the title card right up front is its own reassurance that even in a completely different city and a completely different time, the old “Barry” is still here.

If that isn’t enough, the episode kicks off with a quintessential Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) moment — even if that’s not the name he’s using these days, and it centers on another character we’ve only just met. It’s the resolution of the fight we saw at the end of last week, the aftermath of Barry’s son John sparring with another kid about his lack of video game knowledge. Even in a remote location, under a new identity, doing the most by-the-book attempts to wipe his slate clean and start over, Barry can’t help but bring conflict and violence into the lives of the people around him. Turns out that Barry shielding John from “Call of Duty” only made things worse for his son, who ended up hitting the other kid anyway. The Berkman Web of Consequences claims another unassuming member.

So begins a half-hour series of reminders that “Barry” is still tethered to its roots, despite all the superficial changes. Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and Barry are now “Emily” and “Clark,” posted up in a rural house in a rural town, as far away from Hollywood as the two could muster. Sally spends her days escaping her home life by working as a server at a local diner, while Barry does his best to redirect his anxieties about leaving his past behind. For a show so connected to the idea of performance, it only makes sense that nearly a decade spent away from their old lives would find them each still playing new roles.

For Barry, that means being cast in a new role as a father. His pep talks to John come off like someone reading a how-to manual, filled with notions of “honor” and channeling emotions for what it takes to be a Good Man. He stages a crudely theatrical way to introduce his past military history to his son — the “I was in the Marines” version of “Oh, hi! I didn’t see you there.” Trying to squeeze a Christian belief system into the family also feels like an example of something to do because it comes with the territory. Talking about the parable of the loaves and fishes and invoking the idea of “God gives you exactly what you need” is as much him talking to himself as it is to his son.

Sally’s diner job gives her a cursed kind of neverending immersive theater opportunity. She dons a wig and makeup and goes out to invent backstories for her husband’s family while fielding gossip from managers. And just like her acting days in LA, Sally faces workplace harassment. The leering stares from the kitchen nepo baby coworker continue until she has to put a stop to them herself. Doing what she probably couldn’t have done with a Hollywood studio executive, she lures him into a public bathroom before choking him.

Sarah Goldberg in "Barry"
Sarah Goldberg in “Barry”Merrick Morton/HBO

This act of assertiveness on Sally’s part is a distinction that “Barry” makes between where she and her husband are in this setup. Barry is the chatty one, spending his days talking about complicated personal lives of historical figures, dropping tidbits into dinner table conversations. Sally is the one taking everything in, only talking unless she’s prompted. Even in that bathroom sequence, when she’s finally able to release some of her simmering rage at the predatory agent and biker gang member who nearly killed her, she says nothing at all. The same goes for when she’s watching Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) get the hit show farewell and public acclaim she never got. Barry saw witness protection as an idea that he and Sally could build a life together. In the intervening decade, she’s the one who’s become more isolated than ever.

Behind Barry’s generic, Ward Cleaver-esque parenting style, “Tricky Legacies” still shows plenty of what put him on edge in his past life. The changing nature of his Abraham Lincoln facts serve as a microcosm of what Hank chastised him for over the phone just a few weeks ago. Even dead presidents are things that Barry can use for his own purposes, molded into what he needs to feel good about himself. Abe is a saint when he needs one and a problematic fave when he needs to justify his own shortcomings. The baseball YouTube videos he shows John (and those titles!) contain some of the season’s darkest humor, not just because of what’s in them but what they’re being used for. It isn’t about John’s health. It’s about turning John against things that may make him venture out into a world beyond Barry’s control. Whether driven by a warped sense of protection or something more manipulative, neither option speaks well to Barry’s ability to break from the cycle of wreaking havoc on the people he loves.

It’s not just the character situations that hearken back to the part of “Barry” that was never going to leave. When there’s a knock on the door late at night, the banal, dry way Barry and Sally go into lockdown mode — “It’s the other one, honey” — weirdly heightens the tension because it shows the built-up shorthand and history they stand to lose. As Barry ventures outside, secret picture frame gun in hand, the formless void around their house echoes the one from Sally’s living room that he emerged from at the end of last week. (Kudos to DP Carl Herse for helping make it feel like Barry is staring out into a giant mass of anti-matter. Anything and nothing could be out there.) Even in your home, in your safe place, there is uncertainty and things you can’t anticipate. In Barry’s case, with a sturdy foundation to build a new life, that dangerous pitch-black cloud is everywhere else.

The reappearance of Gene (Henry Winkler), the reason for Sally’s “Barry!”-inducing Google alert, is another indication that nothing stays gone forever on “Barry.” The drive to control the narrative, the main Cousineau engine for multiple seasons, is enough to bring him out of hiding to make sure any dramatization of his story is on his terms. Gene’s new long hair and beard is just part of the “passage of time” markers in this Warner Bros. section, including the indication that Kristen, Sally’s one-time acting student, is now leading a spinoff franchise of her own. (Wonder if Sally watched any of those on her laptop by herself, too.) And then there’s the innocuous Larry the Chowder Boy: It’s great that even with his triplicate duties as co-star, director, and writer on this episode that Hader still gets the chance to try on a new voice, this time as the announcer on the two virtual billboards at the Warner Bros. lot.

“Barry” gets so much out of hard cuts. Hopping between characters and slicing off conversations is part of what gives the show its comic edge. “Tricky Legacies” swaps out those harsh transitions for gentler dissolves. In a way, it’s another blurring of past and present, of phasing things out rather than lopping them off definitively. It also mirrors what Barry himself is trying to do with Abraham Lincoln and baseball throughout this episode, muddying the waters so that cut-and-dried American iconography get a darker side, too. If the thing that people exalt is secretly bad, then one individual’s badness doesn’t stick out so much. If everyone has a tricky legacy, what need is there to have any regrets? Down to the final line — “I’m gonna have to kill Cousineau” — it’s a revolving door that never stops spinning, try as Barry and Sally might to wedge another reality in its path.

Grade: A-

“Barry” Season 4 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.

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