Late in the final season of “Barry,” a character says, “This is not a good guy/bad guy story. It goes way deeper than that — so much deeper.” Never mind that this man is talking about an unproduced film script. Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s black comedy is as deep as it is dark. There are shades of gray aplenty, but the lines are so sharply etched, morality often plays second fiddle to motivation. The people in “Barry” want, and what they want is often just out of reach (as tends to be the case in TV shows). Some crave fame or acclaim, like the needy actors Gene (Henry Winkler) and Sally (Sarah Goldberg), while others seek riches, like the self-centered handler Fuches (Stephen Root), or merriment, like the cheery Chechen oddball Hank (Anthony Carrigan). Circumstances can be their own impediment — Hank, for instance, often sees his mob responsibilities get in the way of a good time — but it’s more often a wrong choice, a misunderstood action, a tragic flaw that sends them tumbling further and further down through the darkness.
Lest we forget, “Barry” is a comedy. Even after the latest finale, where Hank listens to a panther eat his colleagues alive, the HBO hit finds consistent avenues for humor — a silly nickname here, a random runner there, clever visual gags throughout — and, in the process, keeps its characters entirely human. “Barry” is not simply a “good guy/bad guy” story, just as it’s more complicated than traditional genre labels allow. Season 4 is bleak because it follows the same trajectory as the series to date. Season 4 is also surprising, thrilling, agonizing, and hysterical — though the laughs often come in unexpected bursts, with longer breaks between outbursts. The final season of “Barry” is ultimately honest; honest about what it takes for people to change, about why it’s easier to fall back on familiar patterns, and about the ripple effects of each on friends, family, and society at large.
But we’re not at rock bottom. Not yet. Each season of “Barry” has felt like its own kind of ending, which is a welcome change from TV’s typical cliffhanger teases and streaming’s indistinct content blobs. Seasons of “Barry” are distinct unto themselves, even as they pick up where the last one left off and set up whatever is coming next. (Episodic storytelling! Seasonal arcs! You have to love them!) For many, Barry (Bill Hader) being arrested may have felt like one of a few obvious final beats, but Season 4 picks up with the now-known killer marching into prison. A bit of a celebrity, Barry isn’t really bothered on the inside. Fuches is there with him, but even he senses better than to cross the killer once again.
Aside from those confined to a cell, “Barry” sees its characters scattered. Sally takes that trip to her hometown. Hank and Cristobal (Michael Irby) move out on their own, away from Los Angeles. Gene sticks close to Hollywood, but his wandering focus soon starts to irk the ever-attentive Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom). Still, those fleeing at top speed and those stuck in the same place still suffer the same setbacks: They can’t outrun themselves. Gene may have helped nab Barry, but escaping his own narcissism is a greater challenge. (Early in Season 4, Gene tries to explain his friendship with Barry and ends up confessing his own Achilles’ heel, “He was obsessed with [me.] He treated [me] like a superstar. As an actor, that’s really hard to resist.”) Hank is jumpy and anxious, still shaken by his own imprisoned experience (next-door to a man-eating panther) and looking for help in all the wrong places.
Sally, well, Sally’s Season 4 journey is exquisite; a deft blend of admirable intentions and unlearned lessons that’s harnessed with palpable compassion by Goldberg. Her Emmy-worthy scenes pile up with each passing episode, from an emotional explosion in her mother’s passenger seat to a stunning sequence in the season’s second half. Root gets an extraordinary turn, as well, and Hader — who’s already won two Lead Actor Emmys for the role — pushes his self-hating assassin into intriguing new pursuits. “Barry” is curious about the concept of redemption, and what it takes to earn self-forgiveness. Each of these actors alternates so smoothly between openly searching for the right answer and willingly giving in to their baser impulses that even as their paths forward grow thornier and thornier, you never lose hope they’ll push through to some sort of salvation, cuts and scrapes be damned.
Guiding them is the same man behind the camera. Hader, after winning three straight DGA Awards for helming select episodes over the first three seasons, is in the director’s chair for all eight entries of Season 4, and “Barry” exhibits the same kind of formal playfulness and steady execution that’s made the first three seasons so satisfying to discover. There’s little homages to genre movies and sly callbacks to the series itself, but better still are the scenes captured with such creativity, they could exist solely because of how fun it must have been to shoot them. There is, of course, more to them than high production value — “Barry” isn’t wasting any time — but the ingenuity helps give a tough tale some needed buoyancy.
With seven of the eight episodes provided for review, “Barry’s” ending remains a mystery even to critics. While we lucky few are certainly fortunate to see these episodes in advance, I’m a bit jealous of everyone yet to discover what’s in store. “Barry” has always been an experience worth savoring. There have been twists (and more are coming), but there’s imagination evident in every beat, not just the big moments. It’s a show able to look beyond what happens and enjoy how it happens — whether that’s how it’s plotted, how it’s shot, or how it’s performed. “Barry” is hurtling toward an ever-narrowing conclusion, but it’s already so much deeper than a good guy/bad guy story. It’s more than a Hollywood satire, an antihero’s journey, or a morality play crossed with a comedy of errors. It’s “Barry,” and no matter how dark things get, I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
“Barry” Season 4 premieres Sunday, April 16 at 10 p.m. on HBO.