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Review: Barry, "yikes" & "bestest place on the earth" | Season 4, Episodes 1 & 2
Barry's back and in a bad way--and that's good!
Welcome to Episodic Medium’s weekly coverage of the fourth and final season of HBO’s Barry, which debuted its first two episodes tonight. As always, the first review is available to all, but subsequent reviews will only be available to paid subscribers. You can find out more on our About Page.
Anti-hero dramas have been a prestige television staple since the rise of The Sopranos: Breaking Bad and Mad Men codified the genre, and while these days a straight-faced “gosh, this white guy is a jerk but he’s also real messed up inside” show probably isn’t going to cut it, the underlying structure recurs again and again. It’s been changing, though, as audiences get familiar with the tropes, and there’s been a rise recently in shows that present broken, monstrous protagonists trapped in worlds that give them no clear way of changing for the better. Tony Soprano could’ve quit the mob and turned himself in; Walter White could’ve recognized his inherent selfishness before it costs hundreds of lives; Don Draper… well, maybe Don kicked the trend off, in his inimitable way. Series like Bojack Horseman, Succession, and Rick And Morty all feature selfish, needy, frequently cruel protagonists, but ones without recourse to the usual routes of salvation (e.g. church, law and order, a belief in the world’s inherent morality).
All of these shows, and others besides, have found various ways to adapt, but what’s fascinating about them—and tonight’s two episodes of Barry—is the suggestion at the heart of all the dark jokes and greedy stupidity: is it possible to be “better?” Is redemption, or even just a cessation of monstrosity, something we can ever find? It’s essentially the same question The Sopranos was asking all those years ago, but with “yikes” and “bestest place on the earth,” we find our hitman-actor-broken-boy anti-hero finally getting his apparent comeuppance. Last season ended with his beloved acting teacher leading him into a sting operation; season four picks up soon after, with Barry in prison, and everyone else trying to go on with their lives. It’s a situation that, on the surface, seems to be a natural end point for the narrative the show started with. And yet, as these two episodes prove, the story isn’t really done yet. Because Barry hasn’t figured it out yet: that is, what the hell “it” really is.
“yikes” and “bestest place on the earth” are largely clean-up episodes, with little of the fireworks we’ve come to expect from the series. It seems inevitable that Barry will eventually find himself out of prison again, but for right now at least he’s stuck, bashing his head into the wall and having visions of his past (and a much hoped for future). He’s present, and he gets a few devastating moments, but our attention is spread over the entire main cast. We check in with Gene Cousineau, as he basks in the fame of his newfound celebrity; with Sally, as she heads back home for a disastrous and doomed family reunion; and with NoHo Hank and Cristobal as they try and enjoy life in the desert. Both episodes are extremely efficient in both establishing a new status quo and then almost immediately starting to shift various pieces around in order to…well, again we’ve got that question problem again.
I say “problem” in a neutral way there, because by and large all of this works. It shouldn’t work; by all the normal laws of drama, this should be something with seams so obvious you can see them from space. What’s strange is that in some ways, it’s engaging in the sort of mistakes that TV shows make all the time, but it’s making them feel intentional. Keeping NoHo Hank around should be the wrong call, especially as his orbit moves further and further away from the core cast, and there were times in season three when you could feel the strain of keeping him around. And yet his presence here makes complete sense, even before he finds out about Barry’s capture. One of the things that makes the series work is its ability to keep familiar faces around long past their expiration date, but to do it in a way that feeds the story rather than distracting from it. I’m not quite sure how to describe it (terrible to admit as a reviewer); it’s like the blithe confidence of a tightrope walker without a net.
I’m not quite sure the best way to write about these two half hours, as both seem to be intent on setting up something that we haven’t seen yet. But it might be easiest to follow each major character, to see if there’s some kind of larger picture building. To that end, Mr. Cousineau is playing the hero, back working on his show and clearly proud that he helped put Barry behind bars. Of everyone, he’s the hardest to get a bead on, if only because his big choice is the most obvious mistake: after telling Jim Moss (father of Janice, the cop Barry killed at the end of season one) that they shouldn’t talk to the press, Gene immediately contacts a reporter (Patrick Fischler), sending him on an elaborate, envelope festooned trail before presenting him with a monologue detailing his experiences with Barry’s “love.”
It’s an obviously bad call, even if it’s hard to see how it will immediately backfire. Jim’s certainly not going to be happy; maybe this will lead to the loss of Cousineau’s show, or perhaps the reporter will tell the story in a way that’s not as flattering as Gene hopes. Consequences are, of course, inevitable, but what’s fascinating to me right now is that I’m not quite sure why this happened at all. The easiest explanation is that Gene is just doing what he always does, using his experiences as a way to gratify his ego and build his reputation, but it’s also possible that this is his way of processing the trauma of what happened to him. If that’s the case, then consequences or not he might actually be the healthiest person on the series right now.
Sally certainly isn’t. The return home is awful, and would likely have been awful even if Barry hadn’t been caught; as it is, the discovery that her ex was a murderer just serves as another reason for her mother to criticize her. In just a few scenes, we get all we really need to know about Sally’s upbringing. Her mom is hateful, her dad tries too hard, and there’s none of the safety or support she so desperately needs. Out of everyone, Sally is maybe the worst off, even worse off than Barry—both are suffering from their own actions, but Sally doesn’t have the recourse of a justice system to punish her for her mistakes. She’s a pariah now, the “C-word” woman who was dating a serial killer. Even coming back to LA doesn’t offer a lot of hope, as her former agent explains that being a working actress just isn’t in the cards; she could sell out and get a reality show or do a podcast about her time with Barry, but there’s no way she can go back to the life she had before.
That would probably be true even if her career hadn’t imploded. As with every major character on the show, Sally’s dealing with trauma—in this case, the very specific trauma of killing a man who attacked her at the end of season three. The killing was absolutely justified in self-defense, but since Barry covered it up for her, it’s impossible to know if anyone would believe her. The death haunts her, making her unstable position even more impossible to manage. The dream sequence where she almost, but not quite, sees the dead man’s face in front of her, is one of several really excellent hallucinations spread across these two episodes. Sally going back to Barry in prison is an absolute bad call, but it’s not hard to see why she does it: she needs reassurance from someone, and Barry’s devotion to her means that he can at least give her the illusion of what she wants, even if it’s at the cost of reigniting his obsession with her. Maybe Gene’s offer of a teaching job will be more helpful in the long term.
Then there’s NoHo Hank, getting drawn back to LA at the urging of Cristobal, as there’s a fortune to be made in importing good building sand from overseas via both men’s criminal connections. Hank pretends to be enthusiastic about Cristobal’s plans, but his real interest is in trying to get Barry out of prison; after last season’s action climax, Hank is terrified of whatever’s coming next, and at least at first believes Barry is the only person who can keep him safe from potential violence. Then Fuches (god, this review is already too long and I haven’t even mentioned Fuches yet) calls and tells him that Barry is going to spill his guts to the feds, driving Hank to make another major decision driven by self-preservation: instead of breaking Barry out of prison to save him, Hank needs Barry dead to keep himself out of jail. It’s all a bit goofy, like Hank so often is, and the scene of him and Cristobal holding court for rival gangs in a Dave & Busters is one of the only comedic setpieces in these initial episodes. But the show’s ability to make such a ridiculous figure into a figure of pathos remains top notch.
Hell, even Fuches himself gets a moment to show his broken heart. While everyone’s dealing with the fallout on the outside, he’s trying to keep himself alive against Barry’s potential anger; and then, when he finds out Barry sees him as the only person who didn’t betray him, he falls back into trying to build their rep in the prison, with unimpressive results. But these two can’t ever really have a stable relationship, so when Barry—thinking that Sally really does love him after all—decides to turn rat for a deal with the feds, Fuches turns on him. On one level, it’s funny because of how fast the various loyalties shift, and because of Root’s over-the-top (but still totally believable) performance. But on a deeper level, it goes back to the question that seems to be driving this whole season: how do you move forward when the loops in your life, the mistakes you make over and over again, are the only thing left to you?
Barry is, always, the show’s purest expression of this idea. At several points in both episodes, we see Barry watching himself as a child, meeting Fuches and playing with action figures, and it’s impossible to miss the point: he’s a grown-man capable of doing violence, horrible things, but he still has a child’s fundamental understanding of the world, right down to his obsession with whether or not he’s a “good person.” For a moment, it looks like he might have to face some kind of reality, and when a starstruck guard tries to reassure him Barry antagonizes the guard into beating the shit out of him. He’s lost, and being lost can sometimes lead to finding a new way forward, however unlikely and painful that way might be.
But then Sally shows up, and Barry takes a molehill for a mountain, and any real hope for understanding is lost. Any future Barry tries to imagine with him and Sally as a couple is going to lead him (and her) to a bad place. What remains to be seen is how bad that place is going to get. It’s still impossible to see where all of this is headed, which is good; what makes it potentially great is that there’s clearly an end goal in mind.
“Are you mad at me?” (Speaking as someone who can be much too needy at times, there were some moments here that hit harder than I would’ve liked.)
As much as I enjoyed both these episodes, so much happens in them that I sometimes wished there was a little more time to breathe. It feels like an inevitable effect of the show’s expanding scope and the shift from comedy to drama-comedy—tighter run times are better for laughs, but there’s a fine line between “efficient” and “rushed.”
Myles here to note that you can read Zack’s take on the third season of Barry here, and if you want to keep reading along, no better time to become a paid subscriber than now.