In ‘Barry’s’ final season, a twisted show reveals the biggest twist yet

This review contains spoilers for Season 4 episodes 1 through 4 of “Barry.”

It sounds like another one of his hallucinations, but it isn’t: Barry’s a dad.

Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s award-winning, tragi-farcical HBO series, in which Hader plays a hit man who tries to be an actor, sprinted past predictability long ago. Now in its fourth and final season, the dramedy has been accelerating toward its conclusion since it premiered April 16. It still features plenty of wry coincidences and darkly amusing twists, the most recent being Barry’s escape from prison when his would-be assassin (played by Fred Armisen), who co-hosts a podcast reviewing gadgets that don’t work, blows off part of his own hand with one of said gadgets while attempting to kill our protagonist.

But in the final seconds of “It takes a psycho,” this season’s halfway point, all that momentum vanishes. A boy is fighting another boy on a flat expanse that resembles, in tone and setting, scenes we’ve seen in flashback showing how young Barry met his handler, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root). A man separates the kids and the camera follows one child, apparently named John, as he walks to a house that seems to be the only salient feature in this otherwise empty, endless landscape. He goes in, grabs a beer out of the fridge, and holds it to his temple. “I’ll go talk to him,” a bespectacled Barry says to Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who looks like she can’t take much more of this.

This is how we realize we have jumped way, way forward in time. The interruption comes as a surprise and a relief.

The dark stuff in “Barry” has outweighed the funny for a while now. Barry has plowed through more plots in 90 minutes than many a much longer show, and so here we are: Four episodes into the final season, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has killed all the “partners” he and Cristobal (Michael Irby) were working with on the sand-trafficking operation. Cristobal couldn’t forgive him, so Cristobal is dead, too — marking the end of an era, and of the show’s one true (ish) love story. Hank stood up to Barry and ordered a hit on him, but Barry escaped from prison. And Sally has gone home to her parents, returned, tried teaching, failed and been reduced to trying to steal her one remaining student’s job. Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) has been isolated for his own good, marooned at the lake house where so much of this show began, and has (in a paranoid stupor, expecting Barry) shot his son Leo (Andrew Leeds).

Much that has happened is — within this show’s absurdist universe — unremarkable. Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom) did such unspeakable unspecified things to journalist Lon O’Neil (Patrick Fischler) that the latter can only speak German now — and has switched from Skittles, his favorite snack, to gummy bears? That’s par for the course.

But Barry? Being a husband and dad?

This wild development — “Barry” as a family show? — was preceded by a twist so tired I think of it as “Barry’s” version of Ross and Rachel. Fuches, who has turned on Barry many times and then rediscovered his love for his mentee (just as Barry has done to him), once again decides that he loves Barry. He stops cooperating with the FBI and tears off the wire he was wearing to get Barry on tape. The Barry/Fuches relationship has cycled through so many iterations of solidarity and revenge that it feels impossible to care much about this — or be surprised by anything either of them decides about the other.

The bigger twist isn’t Barry’s offer to take Fuches’s place and cooperate with the FBI, agreeing to inform on people he’s worked with in exchange for witness protection. He’s betrayed Fuches plenty of times before. It’s what comes after.

Barry stipulates that Sally must be able to come with him.

This feels like a break with reality. A truly pathetic ask. Barry’s hopes have gotten crazier, his behavior more erratic, and he certainly hasn’t asked Sally — who only recently learned that he killed Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) — whether she’d join him. This seems like one more scheme borne of desperation, all hinging on a tossed-off phrase: Sally, clearly overwhelmed when she visits him in prison, lets drop that Barry makes her feel safe. Barry, whose early fantasies about Sally often have her in pink (a color she never wears in real life), spins this one sentence into a story that concludes with her abandoning her own life to build one with him.

The greatest surprise of the show may be that this actually happens. Barry’s daydream back in the first season of him and Sally posing for photos with their son was prophetic.

Barry and Sally live together in the middle of nowhere with a fridge stocked with booze and a doughnut. They seem to be parenting a little boy named John who’s approximately the age Barry was when he first met Fuches and only a little younger than the son of his friend Chris Lucado (Chris Marquette) was when Barry left him fatherless.

The season badly needed a pause and an occasion to establish some new, less dingy stakes. Its focus on boyhood makes sense; a TV show about a hit man who needs a father figure so much that he settles on two — his handler and his acting teacher — was always going to sharpen its take on fatherhood eventually. Dads are scary on this show (hello, Jim Moss). They are careless (hello, Gene Cousineau). Dads are sad (hello, Ryan Madison’s dad). And dads are dead (hello, Chris Lucado). Barry’s own father has been something of an enigma, but we know at the very least that Barry has named his own son John, after him. And we know, because of the flashbacks, how impressionable this specific age was for Barry, and how innocent. What kind of dad will Barry aspire to be? What kind of dad will he actually be?

The time jump also binds the show’s visions and flashbacks to its more literal, and farcical, mode. Barry’s hallucinations — his silent communion with his victims on a beach after he was poisoned by Sharon Lucado (Karen David), his contemplation of himself as a young boy, playing army in his prison cell — felt like a dream world. The flashback in which Fuches tells a young Barry to come in for lunch is clearly flagged as otherworldly; it takes place in a barren, almost lunar landscape and gets interrupted by a wedding party running by in perfect formation. The camera follows the bride and groom inside to where Barry and Sally are dancing. They are old. They are happy.

But distinctions are blurring. That lunar landscape (or dirt park) is indistinguishable from the one in which Barry’s son John fights with another child at the end of “It takes a psycho.” It is where Barry — now on the lam — very literally lives. How? Is this where Barry grew up? Did he return to his roots? If this flat, endless nowhere is a manifestation of the blasted psychic terrain Barry (and Sally) now occupy, the camera isn’t having it. The scene renders the desert and its small, bellicose occupant — Barry’s descendant — real.

Of course “Barry” would twist itself a final time to become, however briefly, a “family” show. And of course that feels both wrong and deeply welcome. Wrong because it seems like a misapplication of “divine grace” (or whatever) for a mass murderer’s hallucinations to be granted the prophetic power of a vision. There’s long been a consensus that our protagonist is beyond redemption; Barry’s pathetic gamble that Sally would follow him should not, on that understanding, have paid off. He “should not” have gotten what he wanted.

But it’s a welcome development, too, because this tonally unique series, which has skillfully walked a fine line for years, was running out of a particular kind of runway. “Barry” has so brilliantly shredded its characters’ likability (and its viewers’ sympathies) that it’s hard to care too much about the prison escape — or much of anything else that might happen in this morally exhausted story about a renegade group of scoundrels.

The introduction of an innocent child changes a lot of things, of course. So does the passage of time. Suddenly, stakes are back.

Barry (eight episodes) returned April 16. New episodes stream Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

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