Succession isn’t the only cult prestige series signing off with a stunning final episode. After four seasons, Barry has concluded – and on terms even more devastating than the Roys’ weepy exit.
This US series (Sky Comedy, Monday, 9.40pm) started as the droll tale of a hired killer (Bill Hader) whose life is transformed when he blunders into an acting class in Los Angeles. Initially, it came on like a 21st-century remix of the old John Cusack-Minnie Driver romcom Grosse Pointe Blank, about a hitman with a heart of gold. But Hader, who also writes and directs, has steered the story in an ever darker direction in the intervening years. The finale plays it entirely straight: it is a dark comedy where nobody laughs because they are busy sobbing.
Barry is ultimately about the pervasive destructiveness of violence. Following a time jump at the start of the fourth series, Barry tries to start a new life with his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), and their son, John (John Bubnia). Barry has found God – and told himself the lie that religion can wipe clean the stain of past crimes, particularly his murder, at the end of season one, of detective Janice Moss.
Janice’s death had been pinned on her boyfriend, Barry, and Sally’s old acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, the former Fonz whose career has been transformed by Barry). But guilt is the least of Barry’s problems as the finale begins. An unwelcome blast from the past has caught up with him in the form of the Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), who has kidnapped Sally and John.
Hank wants to use the family as bait for an alliance with Barry’s old mentor-turned-nemesis, Fuches (Stephen Root). But when a firefight between their two gangs breaks out, Fuches leads Sally and John to safety. Desperate to track them down, Barry visits Gene’s agent, Tom, where Gene catches up with and kills Barry. He had nothing to lose: his reputation has been in tatters since he was blamed for murdering Janice.
The tone is midnight dark, and the message is clear: blood demands blood, and Barry will atone for his crimes – as he does when Gene shoots him.
Then comes an extraordinary twist. After another time skip, we catch up with John as a teenager and Sally as a quiet, lonely drama coach. She has moved on from her old life, but John is curious about his father. One of his friends shows him a movie version of Barry’s life that frames Barry as the hero and Gene as the villain.
It’s a devastating commentary on the way art can spread lies as effectively as it can illuminate the truth. The sequence also asks the audience to reflect on their relationship with the show. We’ve cheered Barry, a psychopath who has left a trail of heartbreak and devastation in his wake. Following on from Tony Soprano and, in Breaking Bad, Walter White, he’s the latest in a parade of “bad men” on prestige TV.
With this scorched earth sign-off, Hader asks us to consider whether villains should be shunned rather than celebrated.