The Latest ‘Barry’ Is as Funny as Hopeless Desperation Can Get

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Barry” Season 4, Episode 7, “A Nice Meal.”]

For all the shows that “Barry” shares DNA with — crime dramas, black comedies, metaphysical treatises on morality — as the end nears, it’s easiest to see “Barry” as basically a more dangerous version of “The Other Two.” Hollywood satire, over-confident narcissists plummeting to depths of their own digging, relationships shredded in a heartbeat. Add a few extra corpses to the Dubek family’s peaks and valleys and you get something roughly approximating where “Barry” finds itself now: desperation, death, and jokes.

Writer Liz Sarnoff has long been helping “Barry” deliver some hard truths and difficult fates in second-to-last episodes of seasons (much like George Pelecanos did for “The Wire”). Here, she returns for “A Nice Meal,” a fourth and final Episode 7 to put a bow on these time jump transformations — not to show that all these characters are necessarily right back where they started, but that each of them has ambitions and impulses that they can’t shake.

“Barry” has dangled some endgame ideas of who might end up finding that elusive happiness and who will almost certainly end up facing a brutal punishment. There’s a faint glimmer when it looks like Gene (Henry Winkler) might be heading for the former. Seemingly rewarded for his patience and being motivated by good intentions, a random phone call from a UTA agent tells him this new Barry Berkman project might be luring Daniel Day-Lewis out of retirement. With that tantalizing ray of hope, Gene talks himself into being justified in accepting the spotlight. But he makes a “Barry” rookie mistake: Everyone on this show should know by now to not expect unconditional good things.

We’ve talked a lot this season about performances of all kinds, but haven’t yet really addressed how law enforcement stages deception. FBI agents have pitted former friends against each other for plea deals and (right before being executed by a roof-hiding assassin) played along at letting Barry (Bill Hader) think Sally was coming with him on a witness protection deal. For anyone who may have missed that undercurrent, here’s Nate Corddry’s character to make it more apparent than ever.

Sarah Goldberg in “Barry”Merrick Morton/HBO

It’s one of the last in an endless line of Gene’s Almosts, tragedies big and small that he could have avoided with just one slight change from his inherent ways. Just a little bit of empathy with Leo could have helped their relationship without having to resort to an assist from strawberries. A little bit of diligence could have helped him realize his son was actually still alive after the accidental shooting that caused him to flee the country. A tiny ounce of humility way back when could have caused him to pay closer attention to his students so that one posing as a Hollywood dealmaker would have set off an alarm bell. It’s Gene’s own personal “for wont of a nail” that’s now ended up with him being the victim of his own self-righteousness. His dream hotel room lunch meeting with Mark Wahlberg is actually a sting operation, and Gene’s the one holding the metaphorical bag (after taking the physical one filled with a quarter-million dollars last season). If no one believes him now, it’s only because he did too good a job at painting himself as the ultimate, chameleon-like manipulator. (This line about Barry from Gene’s one-man show to Lon sticks out even more now: “I know how to press those buttons. Hey, I installed them!”)

In “Barry’s” series-long seesaw between consequences and absurdity, Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has so often been right at the fulcrum. He’s effectively slid into the spot that Barry left. (Can you imagine Season 4 Barry delivering the “Glengarry Glen Ross” monologue the same way now? Of course not. You know who would happily whip that out as a party trick or as a way to pass time waiting for a henchman to pick him up from the house of a kindly resident somewhere near Beachwood Canyon? This guy.) Carrigan has excelled this season in delivering the hammer-blow emotional moments, but this episode really shows off his ability to toggle between chuckling and dropping his voice down to the threatening range he wants to project.

From the a la carte mercenary selection scene to the one where he’s looking through boxes containing their heads (nice work from David Alan Baker and the props team to make sure there’s juuuuuust enough red at the bottom of that cardboard to let people know what’s happened as soon as the camera cuts to Hank’s desk), we’re watching one man become more removed from the human price of his own petty disagreements. Fuches (Stephen Root) left him insulted and spiraling, in his very Hank-like way. The failed attempt at payback hints that Hank still might not be ready for being the shot-caller for non-legitimate business ventures, and it also shows how well he’s able to dissociate from bad news post-Cristobal.

Even if Hank is numb to the fallout of his actions, “Barry” is still intent on reminding people that these choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Season 4 has been dominated by the long-simmering payback visited on everyone caught in this mess, and “A Nice Meal” makes room for the short-term, too. One of Fuches’ guys mops up the blood from the off-screen beheadings while he does damage control with his new family. With all the talk of the “Fast and the Furious” movies, Hank’s getaway after the failed rocket launch attempt is decidedly unglamorous. With lives in the balance, the most he and his soon-to-be-assassinated driver can do is go slightly faster down a long driveway, like someone on a grocery run. Life-and-death situations don’t turn these people into superheroes. It only brings out more of what makes them human.

Henry Winkler in “Barry”Merrick Morton/HBO

That goes for Barry, too. His escape from Jim’s (Robert Wisdom) garage chair is a savvy bit of visual undercutting. The camera moves from the chair to the door in a few seconds, all it takes for Barry to cut himself free. It’s a patient, controlled move you’d expect from an exacting heist flick, the kind of shorthand to let someone watching know that both subject and storyteller are in complete control. That makes Barry slipping and cutting his palm open its own kind of punchline. Here’s someone so ruthless and efficient, only to go from military-trained escape artist to zonking out in someone’s kitchen in the span of minutes. (It’s why, after appearances from Guillermo del Toro and Sian Heder, Gene’s trap is believable, only for the show to pull out the rug from under him, too.) Whether Jim put a little something extra in the IV drip or Barry’s quickly bleeding out, that’s not the triumphant, redemptive escape for someone you’d expect to get out of next week’s series finale unscathed.

Momentum-wise, this is an effective setup for an ending from Sarnoff and the writing team. Everyone is converging on Barry, as expected. Fuches wants his revenge. Hank wants to make him happy. Gene now sees getting Barry under oath as the only way to clear himself. And now, Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and John (Zachary Golinger) have flown in from parts unknown to end up right back where she started this whole thing. After a few episodes of Sally drifting through a listless new life in the future, “A Nice Meal” also brings that clarifying force of what it is she’s fighting for now. That look to John as she walks toward the LAPD vehicle comes with the recognition that turning herself in is a worthy price to pay in order to shield her son from more harm. Next week will show if her unenthusiastic plea for help on that last cell phone call, herself now trapped in a chair under Hank’s supervision, is more than the frustration of finding malignant men everywhere she turns.

Barry’s version of lofty dreams has long been having a content life, free from the burden of regret or sadness. After slack-jawed daydreaming from a prison cell where those weddings blended into the desert, this episode confronts him with a terrifying waking VR nightmare (including John in full “It is happening again” mode). As Jim reminds him, “This is all in your head, Barry.” Just as this one man can’t help imagining his own worst-case scenarios, the biggest prisons in “Barry” Season 4 have been the ones a bunch of these people have made for themselves. The finale will bring at least some kind of freedom. It’s probably not going to be the kind anyone is looking for.

Grade: A-

“Barry” Season 4 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.

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