There are dark comedies, there are dramedies, and then there’s Bill Hader’s Barry. Few television series have successfully delivered the tonal transformation this HBO comedy (Crave in Canada) has over its first three seasons. Now, with the fourth and final season, debuting April 16, it’s impossible to classify this show into any one category.
When Barry debuted in 2018, it introduced an ex-military hitman whose accidental discovery of an acting class inspired him to change his ways. Barry Bergman’s crush on wannabe thespian Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and his substitute father figure relationship with disgraced actor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) drove him to ditch that hitman life.
This was never a slapstick, laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, but there were laughs to mine from the conceit of a good-hearted killer trying to make it with a local LA theatre class. Add in over-the-top villains such as Barry’s uncle/handler, Fuches (Stephen Root) and Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), who continuously lured Barry back in, and it was a fun – albeit dark – show.
But as Barry accessed his feelings and found new purpose, it slowly affected those around him. By the second season his ability to tap into his past trauma and use it onstage encouraged his colleagues to tell their own truths. Sally’s past abuse came to light. Cousineau was inspired to reconnect with his son, Leo (Andrew Leeds). Even NoHo Hank found his footing with the Bolivian mob, and notably its leader, Cristobal (Michael Irby).
It was easy to root for Barry because everyone around him thought he was a good guy. He believed he was a good guy. But when Cousineau’s detective girlfriend Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) figured out Barry’s true identity in the first-season finale, the character took an irredeemable turn and killed her.
By Season 3, which Hader and co-creator Alec Berg rewrote during the pandemic, the dramatic tonal shift was inevitable. Sure, there were comedic moments peppered in: Nearly everything involving Sally’s fictional series Joplin, for example, from the press junket to the show’s immediate cancellation due to “the algorithm” and “taste clusters.” But Barry’s true nature was also unravelling, and the writers found their own honesty by following that story of trauma, PTSD, abandonment and grief.
Barry has always been a character obsessed with finding love and acceptance, so when Sally and Cousineau finally rejected him, he became the worst version of himself. There’s a chilling scene in Episode 5 in which Barry tries to console Sally post Joplin-cancellation by offering to gaslight and psychologically torture the woman who axed her show. “The whole point is to make her feel isolated and paranoid until her brain eats itself,” he tells his freaked-out ex.
That line foreshadows what’s to come in Season 4. The premiere picks up hours after the season-three finale, with Barry in prison. But, even though he’s locked away, the psychological effect he’s had on those he’s tried to protect takes a toll. Over the first four episodes made available to press, you can see how Barry has gotten to Sally, Cousineau, NoHo Hank and Fuches. Now, their brains appear to be eating themselves as they digest everything that’s happened.
It’s heartbreaking because having witnessed Barry’s initial transformation, his love and good intentions were real. Sure, logic turns off when his own brain snaps and a killing spree ensues, but this is also a killer who has no problem professing his love. Every time Hader delivers a soft, “I love you,” you believe him to his very core. You probably also want to vomit because you now know what that love is capable of.
There’s an argument to be made that Season 3 would have served as the perfect finale. Barry wasn’t going to get away with these ridiculous murders forever, as much as the local police’s incompetence lightened the mood. But it also would have been a huge disservice to not see how his story affected the supporting players. In Season 4 they each experience their own version of breaking bad, as the show becomes as much a story about survival as it is about abuse, redemption and trauma.
As the episodes unfold, the show explores how abuse leads to repetitive and learned behaviours. Sally resorts to teaching her own acting class, and is immediately called out as abusive for berating one student using “the Cousineau method.” Noho Hank enters the season after finally making his first onscreen kill in Season 3, and now seems destined to follow in his Chechen predecessor’s footsteps. As always, Cousineau just can’t seem to help himself, even when he’s actively trying to be a better person.
Visually, the first half of Season 4 is stunning, as Hader – who directs every single episode – plays with unique camera angles and sweeping shots reminiscent of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. There’s no doubt this show will continue to dominate at the Emmys (it kicks off Season 4 with nine wins and more than 40 nominations), but whether it deserves to do so in the comedy category is up for debate.
Sure, there are still some comedic moments in Season 4 as Hader weaves this final tapestry. Cinephiles will appreciate Guillermo del Toro’s guest star appearance as Toro; Sally’s parents are exasperatingly tone deaf; and Fuches embraces a new prison persona – these are some of the season’s lighter moments. But they’re few and far between as Hader and Co. push emotions to the max.
By the midway point it’s impossible to describe this season as anything other than heavy. And that’s not a bad thing. Barry is Hader’s tour-de-force and it solidifies him as one of the most creative, well-versed actor/writer/directors in the business. But it also redefines the entire dramedy concept, proving just how deliciously dramatic the half-hour format can be.
Barry Season 4 debuts with two new episodes April 16 on Crave.
Special to The Globe and Mail