It’s hard to think of any television show that has over-delivered on its premise more than “Barry.” You’d be forgiven for thinking a show billed as “a hitman begins taking acting classes” sounded like the worst idea on the planet when the series was announced in 2016. But if there’s one thing the show has definitively proven (even if we arguably should have known it before), it’s that you should never bet against Bill Hader.
Hader’s “Barry,” which he co-created with “Seinfeld” and “Silicon Valley” veteran Alec Berg, is more than just the first major TV role for a “Saturday Night Live” legend. It’s been a four season rollout for one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. And it happened alongside an overdue Henry Winkler renaissance; yet another knockout from Stephen Root; and breakout performances for Anthony Carrigan and Sarah Golberg.
From its very first episode, “Barry” established an inimitable style that blended gut-wrenching sadness with contemporary absurdism and meticulously measured doses of whimsy. Hader’s steady directorial hands and deep interest in the humanity of every single character allowed the show to shift focus from acting class personality clashes to international drug wars without ever losing its distinct brand of magic.
Over the course of its triumphant run, “Barry” has been many things. It’s been a dark comedy about the inevitable alienation that comes from living in Los Angeles. It’s been a drug drama with genuinely fascinating storylines about the illicit dealings between the most nefarious actors in Chechnya and Bolivia. It’s been an action thriller with occasionally jaw-dropping spectacle. And when they really want to fuck with our hearts, it’s been a Greek tragedy about how our past traumas sometimes turn us into someone — or something — utterly irredeemable.
In one sense, “Barry” is like a spaceship (“Fly like Bugs Bunny in—”) made of unfamiliar parts that you could never hope to reassemble if you smashed it. All of the strange little pieces make up such a beautiful whole that it can be difficult to rank the merits of one episode over another. But try, we must.
Ahead of this Sunday’s sure-to-be-devastating series finale, we ranked our 10 favorite episodes in terms of their filmmaking artistry and what they say about Barry Berkman’s emotional journey. Keep reading for our picks.
With editorial contributions by Wilson Chapman, Proma Khosla, Erin Strecker, and Ben Travers.
[Editor’s note: For episode titles in “Barry” Season 1, the “Chapter: —” formatting from Gene Cousineau’s acting book has been dropped, and subsequent episode titles have been capitalized.]
10. “It Takes a Psycho” (Season 4, Episode 4)
Where’s Barry: After breaking out of prison, Barry himself is barely in the episode, the tension of his escape haunting everyone he knows. Fuches takes a beating in the prison, his ignorance mistaken for loyalty to Barry that inspires respect in the other inmates, while Hank and Cristobal’s seemingly sunny joint venture ends up killing their whole crew in the most horrifying way — leading to their final, excruciating argument.
Best hitman moment: It’s the hitman training that helps Barry disappear into the shadows of Sally’s apartment, teeing up a shocking ending and eight-year time jump.
Best Hollywood moment: Probably Gene being forced into isolation because nothing else will stop him from talking to the press, but that one also turns sour when he accidentally shoots his own son. Can we sue this show for emotional damages? —PK
9. “The Audition” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Where’s Barry: Barry accompanies Sally to an agency meeting and ends up stumbling into a feature audition for the director (and “Barry” favorite Allison Jones, namedropped but not yet shown). Neither Sally nor Gene can conceal their surprise (“Whose cock did you have to suck in a former life?”), which leads to Goldberg’s magnificent poolside monologue.
Best hitman moment: You could almost forget the hitman stuff for half of this episode, but then Fuches shows up pretending to be a PI and leads Cousineau straight to Janice’s body.
Best Hollywood moment: Too many options, from “Prison Teens” to “Swim Instructors” to “Payback Ladies” (“It’s that time of the month… for REVENGE”) — but the best has to be everyone’s fixation on Barry’s height (he’s 6’2″). —PK
8. “Ben Mendelsohn” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Where’s Barry: Starring in a legal drama with Cousineau. In this early part of Season 3, Barry’s still trying to get Cousineau to forgive him for the murder of Janice Moss, and his solution is to make a stab at reviving the acting teacher’s career by getting them both bit parts in a procedural. But Cousineau’s anger proves harder to shake, and a call from Fuches pushes Barry to his emotional edge.
Best hitman moment: There’s not much action in this setup episode, but the episode contains a pivotal moment for Barry’s moral journey. After spending the series attempting to leave his criminal life behind, Barry’s anger at Cousineau’s rejection pushes him to accept a job from NoHo Hank, showing he won’t be able to go clean.
Best Hollywood moment: The episode’s name comes from the press junket for Sally’s show “Joplin,” a savage parody of the type of mindless promotion that often comes with making art in Hollywood. When asked about who will be the next Spider-Man, a distressed Sally can only think of the Emmy winning Australian as her answer. —WC
7. “Forgiving Jeff” (Season 3, Episode 1)
Where’s Barry: Opening on a sallow Barry standing in a field with a wavering client and his would-be mark Jeff, the unnvering Season 3 premiere sparked the end for Barry’s hellish Hannah Montana lifestyle. With a particularly snaky Sally thriving on the set of “Joplin,” Barry attempts to achieve a work-life balance: recklessly blending his identities in an episode that sees him asking a jilted murderess for flower advice one minute (“Do the colors mean different things?”) then holding a wise-up Cousineau at gunpoint the next — in the same aforementioned field, no less. “Forgiveness has to be earned,” the grieving thespian says in a moment of panic: teeing up the season’s brilliant, bloody thesis with the second of two (imagined) bullets to the forehead.
Best hitman moment: Hader pushed the surrealism of “Barry” in Season 3, and those two fakeout headshots are among the show’s most memorable moments. But “Forgiving Jeff” wouldn’t be the triumph it is without its namesake first scene: arguably the best cold open in the show’s history. “He’s sorry for fucking my wife!” Barry’s regretful client pleads, before meeting an early demise next to the man he’d hired to have killed mere hours before. Berkman’s decisive slaughtering of the two — an understated but ruthless coda to the horrific Season 2 “Berkman > Block” monastery massacre — tells us everything we need to know about Barry’s state of mind with just enough situational silliness to earn its pitch-black punchline. “There’s no forgiving Jeff!” Barry bellows in a fiendish bit of foreshadowing made more biting by the unendingly satisfying Season 3 finale: “Starting Now.”
Best Hollywood moment: There’s plenty of memorable meanness to Sally’s brutal #WomenSupportingWomen exchange with Natalie in this episode, but all-around best Hollywood parody comes from guest star Elizabeth Perkins. Her spectacularly spacey, multi-episode performance as barely-there studio exec Diane Villa peaks early with pitch-perfect deliveries on “Did you live with your mother when you were in high school?” and “I’m thinking of a different show.” —AF
6. “Past = Present x Future Over Yesterday” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Where’s Barry: A still-hopeful Barry is in the midst of preparing a monologue for acting class, but he’s struggling to recognize the truth of his chosen story (mainly because that truth isn’t as clean and heroic as movie monologues tend to be). He tries to get more details from Fuches — who’s spying on Barry for Agent Loach — but even Fuches warns Barry against openly discussing what happened after Albert was wounded in combat. Meanwhile, after a botched assassination attempt, Hank recruits Barry to train his men, while Sally’s monologue rewrites history regarding her abusive ex-husband, Sam.
Best hitman moment: Hank trying to kill Barry goes about as well as you’d expect, but what makes the scene so memorable — beyond the comically bad shooting itself — is the sound design and camera framing. First, you just hear a few quick “thwp” noises. Then, Barry looks up from his computer, sees the bullet holes in the wall, and watches as one more smacks into the drywall. From there, episode director Minkie Spiro tracks Barry ducking for cover and grabbing his gun, before peeking out the window to see Hank and his not-so-sharp shooter positioned outside. By pivoting behind them, not only do we get to hear their frustrated banter, but it sets up Barry to return fire — and Barry doesn’t miss.
Best Hollywood moment: Honestly, it’s Hank’s dream. To open the episode, Hank’s subconscious cooks up a local public access talk show with a fake Thomas Friedman where, per his chyron, North Hollywood Henry, outlines his plan to “stop Asia” from taking over the world. Where Friedman is a certified “Smart Person,” Hank, er, Henry is a “Smarter Person” (again, per his chyron). “So you know what Thomas Friedman? You are bad at writing, and nobody likes you.” —BT
5. “Berkman > Block” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Where’s Barry: From the opening seconds where Fuches is threatening to kill Gene to the closing moments when Gene remembers what Fuches whispers in his ear, the Season 2 finale is a tough one for ol’ Barry Berkman. He’s constantly reacting to the actions of others, which is great for his acting resume — like when he lets Sally play out the confrontation she never had with her ex-husband — but awful for his soul. Barry wants to believe he’s changed for the better. He tries to protect Gene from Fuches, and he tries to help his acting teacher avoid a murder charge that Barry’s responsible for. But when lured back to his old ways, he gives in: killing an entire army in pursuit of vengeance he can’t quite reach.
Best hitman moment: “Berkman > Block” is defined by its ending, when Barry goes into a blind rage and kills a monastery full of mobsters (mobsters, it’s worth noting, that he knew because he trained them). Barry the assassin overrides Barry the actor and embarks on a merciless rampage without even realizing what he’s doing (or who he’s killing). By the time it’s over, Barry simply recedes into the darkness, accepting a tragic fate — that maybe he can’t change for the better — and sending him down a dark path that, two seasons later, he has yet to resolve.
Best Hollywood moment: Watching the acting class absolutely bomb in front of a packed auditorium of agents and managers is one of the few consistent sources of humor in Episode 8, but the “best” Hollywood moment is Sally’s unexpected success. By lying about how she responded to her abusive husband, she earns accolades from a crowd that’s so eager to support women, they don’t care whether supporting Sally actually helps her — or women who’ve been through similar experiences. Hollywood would rather tell a positive, simple, and uplifting story than dig into the complications tied to her history, and in doing so here, Sally’s triumph illustrates the industry’s exploitative nature. —BT
4. “Know Your Truth” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Where’s Barry: Barry wants out. At the end of the first season he’s desperate to get away from the hitman life, telling Fuches to forget about him and hoping to pursue acting full-time away from all the murdering.
Best hitman moment: It’s looking bad for Fuches in this episode, tied up in Pazar’s garage about to be killed now that he has outgrown his usefulness. But thanks to a tip from Hank, Barry realizes he can’t let his one-time mentor die, so he secretly shoots all the Chechens dead through a window in the wall. He promises he’s done with the killing after that, but, well, Detective Moss had to go and put together who he really is, threatening the new, relatively peaceful life he’s build for himself. RIP Janice.
Best Hollywood moment: Sally and Barry are going to perform “Zoo Story.” And they’re going to switch roles every night! “So you’re expecting people to come multiple times?” —ES
3. “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Where’s Barry: Making his biggest mistake yet. After a botched attack on the Bolivians leaves several men dead, Barry is forced to deal with the stress while prepping for his acting class’ showcase. His friend Chris is taking the fact that he killed someone to protect Barry even worse, and decides he needs to hand himself in to the police. Knowing that this will put himself in a position to go to jail, Barry reacts calmly: by shooting Chris dead and staging the scene as a suicide.
Best hitman moment: The scene where Barry kills Chris is one of the most gutting sequences of the show, as the lovable hitman kills one of his only friends in a cowardly act to save himself from jail. It’s the earliest sign that as much as we’ve been primed to root for Barry, redemption might not be something he deserves.
Best Hollywood moment: Barry’s guilt leads to an emotional breakdown during his acting class’ showcase, where he only has to deliver one line to Sally. But, in a moment that merges the acting world with the hitman world, Sally is able to use the emotion of Barry’s one line to deliver her best performance yet, impressing a talent agent and giving her the career boost she’s been craving. —WC
2. “710N” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Where’s Barry: Driving up 710N. Everyone’s on the downswing this episode: Hank’s lost Cristobal, Sally’s show was canceled, and Fuches rejects the love of a good woman in favor of his desire for revenge against Barry. But Barry, still reeling from his breakup with Sally, seems to be on the upswing when he gets invited to a dinner from his military friend/murder victim Chris’ widow Sharon — only to get into attacked by a murderous biker gang pinned on him by Fuches while trying to deliver beignets to the party.
Best hitman moment: The motorcycle highway chase that gives the episode its name is a jaw-dropping highlight of the show in general, and the best display of Bill Hader’s directorial prowess. It works expertly as both a genuinely intense action moment, and as a parody of those moments, as the hitman trying to kill Barry prove clumsier and less adept than expected.
Best Hollywood moment: One of “Barry’s” single funniest moments is the scene where Vanessa Bayer, as an exec, and Jessy Hodges, as Sally’s agent, negotiate a deal for Sally to work on a show for the BanShe streaming service. Watching both actors make a meal out of the scene, where they discuss how Sally can bring “yeah!” energy to the project, is a much-needed treat from Season 3’s intense darkness. —WC
1. “Ronny/Lily” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Where’s Barry: Back in the killing game with Fuches, after repeatedly insisting that he wanted out. (What else is new?) When new evidence surfaces that has the potential to incriminate the on-again-off-again friends, they agree to kill a divorced detective’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend to get him to look the other way. But they foolishly forget to plan for the one thing that every hitman should be looking out for: a child who’s an expert at Taekwondo. While the episode certainly adds texture to the long term arc of Barry’s relationship with Fuches, the real beauty of “ronny/lily” comes from its self-contained nature. It’s a detour from Barry’s tragic downfall that illustrates just how absurd his hitman lifestyle could get.
Best hitman moment: A brutal one-shot fight sequence in which Ronny and his reluctant assassin Barry enter and exit the frame while beating the tar out of each other. The utter brutality of the scene and the way Hader forces us to rely on horrifying audio strips Barry’s actions of any aura of glamour that they still had.
Best Hollywood moment: The slow build to the realization that Lily can’t possibly be human — which climaxes with her biting Fuches’ cheek off while he’s incapable of fighting back due to his hands being glued to the steering wheel. It’s the kind of surrealism that would normally seem more at home in something like “Atlanta” than “Barry,” but it ended up being the perfect emotional break from the tension that was building throughout the season. —CZ