Recap: Barry (S4, Eps 1 &2) — As the Dark Final Season Begins, No One’s Learned the Right Lessons

This article is written by Sam Layton.

When you watch a television drama that hinges on one very important main character, you expect to watch that character evolve. Even if it’s not for the better, they grow into different people and become more powerful and more equipped to function in whatever world they’re in over the course of the series. It’s a television rule that’s almost as immovable as the laws of physics. You’re following a character, so if the character never changes, why are you watching the show?

The trick about Barry is that the title character spends the show devolving. We see this physically, as he becomes more ungroomed season by season—compare images of the now imprisoned hitman Barry (Bill Hader) from across the show if you’re not sure what I mean—and we see this mentally. There’s a scene near the end of “yikes” (which, despite loving both episodes that premiered Sunday, I prefer “bestest place on the earth”) where we bear witness to this firsthand: after Barry calls his former acting teacher and father figure Gene (Henry Winkler), his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), and the ever-cheerful crime boss Hank (Anthony Carrigan) (who, of course, he calls last) and the conversations fall flat, we cut to him pacing around a prison bathroom like a wild animal, flailing his arms and muttering so quickly that it’s hard to decipher what he’s saying without subtitles. He goes through the predictable Barry Berkman insanity cycle—cursing, screaming, a lot of loud self-harm—but is stopped by a friendly guard who wants to help him.

“I know they say you did a bad thing, but I’m sure you’re not a bad guy,” he offers, and hearing this from one of the people he hasn’t obsessively latched onto is enough to set Barry off. He threatens the guard’s family, and as the guard gets his baton out and locks the door, we hear the same apocalyptic noise that Barry heard in his poison-coma dream near the end of season three. I’ve always taken that scene as Barry realizing that he wasn’t going to change, even if he would try his hardest to avoid that conclusion, and now he’s reminded of it as the guard beats him senseless. He didn’t have to provoke him. But he did.

All that to say that Barry is back and I couldn’t be happier. After season three ended up being my favorite season of television to release last year, I was eagerly waiting to find out how Barry would fare in prison. And yep, it’s going as well as I expected. This is a show that has always strived to be even more ambitious than its previous season, both with its storytelling and filmmaking, and there are examples of both throughout both episodes. In my favorite shot from them, Hank and his boyfriend and fellow crime boss Cristobal (Michael Irby) take two feuding gangs to “the bestest place on the Earth” (Dave & Busters) and pace circles around their table, the camera stopping and rotating in the opposite direction whenever one of them picks up the other’s end of the conversation. None of the other shots in the premiere are that showy, but they’re all perfectly framed and realized, which is the standard I’ve come to expect from Barry at this point.

Speaking of Hank and Cristobal, I went into this season hoping they’d finally get out of the game after the massacre in Bolivia that ended the third season, but I should’ve known better. The characters of Barry have always been defined by their biggest weaknesses more than anything, and Hank’s is that he’s too kind for his line of work. Throughout the series, we’ve seen Cristobal be polite but ruthless and focused, while Hank is too preoccupied with trying to figure out how to break Barry out of prison.

“Barry doesn’t care about you,” Cristobal insists. “He never has.”

He’s right, but Hank, dreaming of Barry there with him in Bolivia, feels “like I understand him now.” Bolivia pushed Hank farther than he had ever been, and he finally understands what it’s like to be adrift, to be tortured by the weight of his own actions. But at the same time, he’s wrong.

Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s handler, thinks he understands his surrogate son too. Being Fuches, he tries to strike a deal with the FBI to get Barry on tape confessing to a killing, but of course he can’t do that right. When he finds Barry in the aftermath of the beating, the sight horrifies him.

“I took advantage of you,” he weeps, and he’s right—we see the very beginning of this when Barry remembers the first time they met.

“One of these days, you’ll let me play army with you, huh?” Fuches asks, as though their relationship was fated to be from the beginning. He backs out on the deal with the FBI, of course, and tries to put together a gang with members such as “Live Wire” and “Jason.” But Barry is plotting something, and he deals with the FBI instead to get moved to special housing, leaving Fuches to call Hank and sell Barry out. Fuches has always been defined by the way he moves from person to person, so of course he’d flip back and forth on Barry like this—and yet again, it’s this tendency that seems like it’s going to put Barry in hot water.

Things aren’t going much better outside the criminal life. Sally flees to her hometown, but dreams of the man she killed in last season’s finale and finds that her mother (who the mere existence of explains a lot about why Sally is the way she is) isn’t particularly receptive to all that she’s been through in California. So she goes back to L.A. and visits Barry, at first to make sure that she can’t be connected to the dead man, but then she makes a mistake—she admits to Barry without thinking that, “I feel safe with you.” Naturally, he begins obsessively asking if she meant that until she leaves and fantasizes about them as an older couple. We see glimpses of what Barry was here—this is the first time we’ve ever seen him as a child, and I feel like we’re overlooking the fact that he apparently has siblings—but we also see him longing to have a future that isn’t prison, and it’s horrific.

Despite Jim Moss’s (Robert Wisdom) request to not turn his catching of Barry into a public thing, Gene goes ahead and contacts a reporter anyway, making for one of the episode’s funniest scenes where he gives the man a heavily embellished recap of his relationship with Barry. Some of the parts are vastly overplayed (when he first met Barry) and some are undersold (he leaves out the part where Barry directly threatened to kill his grandson), and by the end of it, Gene is coated in sweat and visibly exhausted. Sally comes to see him later, enraged that he knew Barry was a killer the whole time and never told her.

“He was obsessed with us. He treated us like superstars,” Gene states. “As actors, that’s hard to resist.” Both Gene and Sally have always been driven by the people who will pay attention to and validate them—it’s why he went to the reporter in the first place—and now, to move on, he suggests that she teach, that she take on his worst instincts. Ever since Sally became an abusive personality in the back half of season three, I suspected that she was being geared up to turn into the new Gene, and I think I was right.

For a show where none of the characters seem to learn the right lessons, Barry wants us to think about why these characters keep getting stuck in the same trap, and it almost feels like it serves as a cautionary tale. If you do what I suggested earlier and compare Barry from season one to now, you’ll see two very different men—that Barry wasn’t perfect, yeah, but he still felt like a person, one that was capable of making the right choice for once in his life. This Barry? He’s trapped, in every way you could imagine.

These episodes of Barry are now available on HBO Max.

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