By Darren Franich
May 19, 2019 at 11:01 PM EDT
Isabella Vosmikova/HBO
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Will there ever be another TV night like the last couple months of HBO Sundays? Game of Thrones, the final season! Veep, the final season! Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, still crushing it, making weekly Simpsons-jabbing-Fox jokes about HBO’s grasping post-Thrones future!

And in the middle of it all — between a blockbuster-sized fantasy apocalypse and a sitcom-newscom bilateral autopsy of our modern political tempest — was Barry, the show that excited me the most every week.

That excitement was not always justified. Creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg couldn’t quite pin down the second season of their hitman-goes-to-Hollywood curio. But these eight episodes created vivid and unexpected moments, thrilling action and hilarious cockeyed crime, moral depravity and brute-force cynicism. This is a TV series that can cut from a two-minute uncut monologue to a kooky-terrifying set piece about gang warfare amidst a burning bus.

In the penultimate episode, Fuches (Stephen Root) took Gene (Henry Winkler) to find the body of Janice (unforgotten Paula Newsome, appearing only in flashback clips). It was a frame job. While Gene looked at the body in a daze, Fuches called up the police, did his best Cousineau impression, and confessed to Janice’s murder. Then Fuches held a gun up to the acting coach’s head.

Okay, I thought. If they’re both still alive at the end of the season, then Barry has lost me.

A TV show obviously doesn’t have to kill main characters to be good. But! If a TV show is constantly threatening main characters’ lives — if, in the penultimate episode of a season, four of the regulars are staring death or imprisonment in the face — then it can feel deflating, or cheap, if the show keeps finding a way to keep them alive and free. That’s especially true for Barry, which had a perfectly devastating first season that tossed out whatever rules remained about keeping antiheroes barely likable.

So, Gene and Fuches both survived. A lack of narrative nerve, maybe, and I didn’t buy some of the the plot mechanics. Barry achieved murder-god status killing multiple mobs of henchmen, but couldn’t ever quite catch up to Fuches. Gene was in prison under suspicion of murder, a sadder-than-death ending that would’ve seen an innocent man take the fall for Barry’s crime. And then Gene got released when the cops found a token of Chechen adoration on Janice’s body, a piece of telltale evidence placed by quick-thinking Barry.

As the episode ended, Gene recalled happy times with Janice — and, in a burst of flashbackery, also remembered Fuches whispering all about Barry’s culpability in Janice’s death. Sudden-Onset Cliffhanger Memory is an unworthy conceit for this very smart TV series. Winkler’s great on this show, no doubt, and so is Root. But season 2 didn’t make a solid argument for either of their characters having separate subplots.

The show hasn’t lost me, though. Enough with the damning, time for the not-so-faint praise! The finale was directed by Hader himself, and Barry’s massacre was a demolishing set piece, generous enough to make you mourn for a couple nameless Chechens, climaxing with a satanic shot of the hitman walking into a full-dark corridor.

Hader co-wrote the finale with Berg, and together they’ve found a just-right comic tone that balances Coen-adjacent dark comedy with outright spoof. When Fuches tried negotiating a peace between Cristobal (Michael Irby) and NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), we saw the savvy operator emerge from hiding, giving a folksy speech to the Bolivians. And we saw, from the Bolivians’ perspective, how far away Fuches was, so distant that Cristobal couldn’t even hear anything he was saying.

Barry at its best is funny, scary, moving, and strange. Those instincts all apexed with the fifth episode, a shotgun-blast of gutters-of-suburbia pulp with layers of surrealism and two (two!) Tae Kwon Do fights. (Hader directed that episode, too.)

And then one of season 2’s weird successes was the rising prominence of Sally (Sarah Goldberg). It’s a tricky role. Sally is a necessarily egotistical struggling actress, almost an Entouragey parody of hanger-on striving. Goldberg nails Sally’s vanity with a bracing lack of vanity — and, in season 2, deepened her performance with new notes of self-awareness.

Much as I love episode 5, the moment from season 2 that really sticks came in the penultimate episode. Sally was helping Barry with dialogue from a goofy feature comedy, a role he stumbled into because he’s tall. She had to get something — everything — off her chest. She was worried about confessing to her passive reaction to domestic abuse. She was frustrated that Barry was getting bigger chances than her. And she was exhausted by the pitch she’d just received from a hotshot doofus-dude director: Payback Ladies, “just another s— male idea of what strong women are — ‘Oh, oh, oh, grab a gun, and some stilettos, and get a goddamn blow out.'”

The finale built towards Sally’s showcase, and even nudged you to expect an onstage blow out. Before their scene, Sally slapped Barry, trying to get him into the zone. I worried Barry might wind up strangling Sally breathless, to resounding applause. Instead, Sally flipped the script, performing virtuous revenge for the audience.

Was this, like, another s— male idea of what strong women are? Her doofy douchebag agents loved the performance, explicitly praising her for telling a truth that wasn’t just another depressing abuse story. The crowd flocked her thankfully, men and women. It was the most chilling moment of Barry‘s second year, a stunning moment of moral failure that was also an awe-inspiring aspirational success. The finale decided, in gory detail, that Barry couldn’t leave his past behind. In Sally’s story, Barry landed on a darker message: You can change — and people will love everything about the new you, except the truth. Season 2 had its problems, but astounding sequences like that suggest new evolutions ahead. Barry can’t change, but I hope Barry does.

Finale Grade: B

Season Grade: B+

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