‘Barry’ Season 4 Finds Its Funny Thanks to an SNLer and a Legendary Director
This post contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Barry, “You’re Charming.”
Among the more frequent objections I’ve heard about Barry since Season One is that the show has grown so dark that it no longer feels like a comedy most of the time. It’s an understandable concern. Heck, I expressed it myself during Season Two (though I feel the more recent years have been better balanced). As great as the show has become at drama, action, suspense, and horror, you can’t blame anyone for feeling wistful for the sillier days when a lot of scenes were just about the overwhelming levels of superficiality and narcissism in Gene Cousineau’s acting class.
At the same time, though, it’s not like Season One exactly hid from the darkness inherent in a show about a hitman. Nor has the humor entirely gone away, even if there are stretches where it mostly exists in NoHo Hank’s corner of things. But “You’re Charming” was a potent reminder of how consistently funny Barry can be when it wants, even as the episode’s two centerpiece scenes involved emotional trauma and then shocking violence.
We open with Hank and Cristobal greeting Toro, a legendary facilitator of assassinations played by Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro. He is there to help them solve their Barry problem, but for some reason, his chosen killers are the hosts of a podcast about gadgets that never work. So what is supposed to be a serious and tense conversation instead gets sidetracked by Hank objecting to various aspects of the podcast’s format, and/or the medium of podcasting in general(*).
(*) Between this scene and Sally’s ex-agent telling her last week that she could have a lucrative new career in podcasting, it appears that Barry as a whole is not apt to leave a lot of five-star reviews.
Meanwhile, we get various bits of delightful visual comedy courtesy of Gene’s agent Tom (played as always with verve and a lack of shame by Fred Melamed). Upon learning that Gene performed a one-man show about Barry Berkman for a Vanity Fair reporter, Tom does exactly what you or I might do, and immediately crashes his car. Later, we see him throwing Lon O’Neil’s laptop into a swimming pool in the background of a scene where Lon’s wife is asking why Gene is in her house. And when Jim Moss asks if Gene did, in fact, perform a one-man show for Lon, Tom drives away from the scene so fast, it’s surprising he doesn’t leave a cartoon cloud of dust behind him. Just amusing beat after beat after beat. And when Lon emerges from the terror of Jim’s garage, he is a radically changed man: filthy, shellshocked, somehow only capable of speaking German, even though he never knew how to before. Robert Wisdom’s sheer physical presence generally does all the required selling of the threat Jim poses to anyone who comes into his garage, but it’s still nice to see such a surreal and ridiculous example of one of his victims.
The Raven Fuches. Having betrayed Barry, forgiven Barry, and then been betrayed by Barry, he is overflowing with bitterness and despair, and is at least relieved to learn that Hank is preparing to have Barry killed. But then he catches a few minutes of Rain Man on the TV in the jail common room and realizes — with mostly startling accuracy(*) — that his relationship with Barry has a whole lot of similarities with the sibling dynamic in that film. Barry is not on the autism spectrum, as far as we know, but he also doesn’t understand a lot about basic human behavior, and has needed his father’s old pal Fuches to help walk him through life. Yes, Fuches also exploited Barry’s gift for violence to make himself some money, but Raymond’s brother did the same with Raymond’s ability to count cards. Same difference, right? It’s easily the funniest example of an HBO character seeing a funhouse mirror version of himself on television since Uncle Junior mistook Curb Your Enthusiasm for a documentary about him and Bobby Bacala.
(*) Though Stephen Root is probably not often mistaken for Tom Cruise circa 1988.
The Rain Man epiphany once again shifts Fuches’ loyalties back toward Barry, as he tries and fails to warn the guards about the planned hit. It doesn’t matter, though, since the episode’s absurd, shocking climax lets Barry mostly foil things on his own. As he’s in the midst of being briefed by federal agent James Curtis (played by Dan Bakkedahl), Barry notices an odd, terrified man standing behind all the marshals and FBI agents, played by Bill Hader’s old SNL pal Fred Armisen. Armisen’s character is staring right at Barry, weeping, his body practically vibrating. It’s a a strikingly weird image — Hader turning Armisen’s innate surreality to his advantage — and one that tells trained murderer Barry Berkman all he needs to know. Unflappably, he tells the feds, “That guy’s here to kill me. And he’s got a weapon on him or something.” This must be one of Toro’s podcasting hitmen, we realize, and immediately get grisly, hilarious confirmation when the guy blows up his own hand with the gizmo he intended to use to kill Barry. From there, his partner in audio appears from a hiding place in the ceiling and murders all the feds, but Barry in turn kills him with one of the agents’ guns and then appears to escape, leaving only Armisen there, sobbing over both his ruined hand and his dead friend.
It seemed unlikely that Barry would spend the entirety of this final season behind bars. But no matter how easy it was to assume that he would escape, how could anyone have possibly imagined that… this is how it would happen? The whole sequence is jaw-dropping in how strange and disgusting and cartoonish it is. A fitting end to a very funny half hour.
And yet… even amidst all the aforementioned gags, “You’re Charming” does not run away from the heavier material. The scene that gives the episode its title involves Sally attempting to launch her new career as Gene’s successor at his acting school. At first, she’s worried that her students will hate her because of the viral video, but it turns out that most of them either don’t care, or actually see the incident from Sally’s point of view. That is not the problem. Instead, she runs into trouble by being an acting teacher — or, at least, by being one like Gene Cousineau. One of her students, Kristen (Ellyn Jameson), has not properly prepared a monologue, and Sally harangues her about this, about whether Kristen just wants to go into acting because people have always told her how pretty and charming she is, whether anyone will take her seriously, etc. Right as Kristen complains that Sally is being mean, Sally tells her to recite the famous closing line from Sunset Boulevard that she struggled with earlier, and this time, Kristen does it like a real, good actor would. The Method has worked! (Or, this variation of it, anyway.) Sally is thrilled, but the students are disgusted, labeling Sally an abuser, one of them insisting that, “Just because it was done to you does not mean we need you to do it to us.”
On the scale of abuse we have seen given and received on this show, Sally’s tirade is fairly minor. And, as she notes, not uncommon in the acting trade. Kristen herself even recognizes that what Sally did worked, and enlists Sally’s help to prepare for a scene she got in a big job. But the other student’s objections speaks to the series’ larger discussion of cycles of abuse and the ways that hurt people go on to, well, hurt people. Hank seems to have come out of his nightmarish visit to Bolivia as a stronger man, one capable of standing up to Barry on the phone rather than kissing up to him like always. But it’s an act at best, as we see how quickly he cowers when his old colleague Batir turns up alive and very displeased about Hank and Cristobal’s new organization. Sally will never be able to shake off the feeling of being choked (twice!). Gene, for all his pomposity, is still grieving Janice. And a life of violence has ruined any chance Barry had of becoming a real person. He is able to express his feelings more clearly now, particularly his rage over learning that Gene spoke about him with Lon, but he doesn’t understand where those feelings are coming from, nor how much he has damaged Gene and the others, nor that Sally is not likely to willingly go into hiding with him.
Then again, Witness Protection appears to be off the table in the wake of the botched hit. The agents are dead, Fred Armisen’s missing a hand, and Barry Berkman is in the wind. (While, of course, the Rain Man score plays.) And damn, was it a big laugh to see that happen.