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The Time-Skipping March to Retribution in ‘Barry’

A surprising jump into the future might suggest that he managed to build a new life, but even after eight years, Barry remains irredeemable

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Barry might be categorized as a comedy—a really bleak one at that—but the HBO series is often likened to an iconic prestige drama: Breaking Bad. What really drives the comparisons between the two shows is that the journey of Barry’s titlular character (played by cocreator Bill Hader) is essentially Walter White’s journey in Breaking Bad in reverse: a morally bankrupt figure aspiring to do something better with his life. There’s certainly some weight to this analogy; as Hader explained to The Hollywood Reporter in an interview published on Sunday, he visited the Better Call Saul writers room while preparing to make Barry. (He also joked about owing Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan a check because of how many times Barry has been cited in relation to his series.)

To Barry’s credit, while there are some initial surface similarities with the world of Breaking Bad, the show should never be mistaken as a pure imitation of it. Barry has long embraced its own unique tone, whether it’s Barry Berkman fighting off a feral karate child or CODA director Sian Heder playing herself on the set of a Marvel-esque blockbuster in a hilarious send-up of Hollywood’s superhero-obsessed culture. (“On CODA, I worked with committed actors to tell a deeply personal story, and now, I’m working with models in Halloween costumes fighting over a blue glowy thing,” Heder deadpans.) In fact, as Hader has assumed greater creative control over the series, including directing every episode of the fourth and final season, Barry’s ability to switch gears between violence and banality feels more in conversation with David Lynch’s work. (Which is not to say that Barry should be described as Lynchian. It’s just clear that Hader is influenced by the auteur.)

More importantly, there is no moral absolution to be found in Barry: Through his own actions and how they’ve affected the people around him, Barry hasn’t become a better person; he has just kept denying his own monstrous nature. In other words, Barry isn’t the inverse of Breaking Bad. It’s a show about a terrible person committing even more atrocities in the vain hope of self-improvement. (Call it Breaking Badder.) But if there’s one aspect of Barry’s fourth season that seems truly indebted to the Breaking Bad universe, it’s how the series sets up its final stretch with a game-changing time jump.

By the fourth episode of Barry’s fourth season, “It Takes a Psycho,” Barry escapes prison after a hit against him, ordered by the eccentric, scene-stealing Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), backfires in spectacular fashion. But rather than seek revenge on Hank or conceited acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), who got Barry arrested in the first place, Barry goes to his ex-girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) with the half-hearted intent of running off together. To Barry’s surprise, Sally doesn’t need any convincing to leave town with a formerly incarcerated killer—such is the state of her own despair and disillusionment over pursuing a career in Hollywood. From there, “It Takes a Psycho” ends with Barry and Sally living in the middle of a barren, almost purgatorial wasteland, where they’re raising a young boy.

Given the shocking state of affairs, you could forgive some viewers for believing that Barry was delivering another surreal dream sequence, which has become a calling card for the series. Instead, Sunday night’s episode, “Tricky Legacies,” settles into the show’s new timeline. Eight years have passed since Barry escaped prison—now, he and Sally have assumed new identities as Clark and Emily, respectively, in a rural slice of America. Sally works as a waitress at a local diner; Barry, meanwhile, homeschools their son, John (Zachary Golinger). Unsurprisingly, neither character will be nominated for Parent of the Year: Sally is emotionally distant with John and is constantly drinking, while Barry protects their son from the outside world to such an extreme degree that John isn’t allowed to do anything outside of his father’s control. (When a neighbor’s son gives John a baseball glove, Barry makes him watch YouTube clips of kids colliding with walls and being hit by line drives until a fear of the sport kicks in.)

This is grim stuff, even by Barry’s standards. By having a son of his own, Barry wants to atone for his past and raise a better person than he could ever be—but in doing so, John’s entire worldview is dictated by what his father wants for him. John, in turn, has no agency: He’s a captive who doesn’t realize he’s living inside a cage. As for Sally, being “Emily” is the ultimate form of Method acting. Her whole life is a performance, one she commits to by wearing a wig and speaking with a Southern twang at her job. (Even Jeremy Strong would laud her level of immersion in the role.) Sally may have left Tinseltown, but Tinseltown hasn’t left her.

The way that Barry has leaped forward in time with its eponymous antihero avoiding—or at least delaying—retribution for his transgressions brings to mind Walter White and Saul Goodman. The former hid out in New Hampshire toward the end of Breaking Bad; the latter adopted a new persona as a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska in the post–Breaking Bad timeline of Better Call Saul. If Barry were to follow in the footsteps of those dramas, however, that would mean Barry would ultimately be redeemed. Walt rescues former protégé Jesse Pinkman from a gang of neo-Nazis in his final moments, while Saul accepts the consequences of his actions by going to prison. (If we’re being honest, Walt got off way too easy after all the horrible acts he committed to grow his meth empire.) Therein lies the fundamental difference between these shows: Barry has long accepted that Barry is irredeemable, even if the character isn’t aware of it.

To hammer home the fact that Barry hasn’t actually changed his true nature, “Tricky Legacies” culminates with the news that Gene has resurfaced to consult on a Barry Berkman biopic after spending the last eight years in hiding. (Naturally, HBO’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is making the film.) Barry can think of only one solution to this new dilemma: “I’m gonna have to kill Cousineau.” Once again, Barry’s first instinct is violence and a needless escalation at that. He’s already escaped punishment for his crimes. Why should it matter that Gene wants to profit off of his story?

With three episodes remaining, it appears Barry is setting up a final confrontation in Los Angeles—one that will surely incorporate Hank and Barry’s former mentor, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), who was last seen getting pummeled by prison guards over Barry’s Houdini act. If history is any indication, Barry will surely add to its enormous body count, while Barry will repeat a mantra he’s used since the first season: “Starting … now.” Every time Barry claims another victim, he promises himself that it’s the last time he’ll kill someone to save his own skin—an excuse and mental reset doubling as a clean slate.

It’s complete bullshit, of course: Barry has broken that promise several times. The most honest Barry has ever been with himself was back behind bars in the season premiere, when a prison guard tried to reassure him that bad choices don’t necessarily make someone a bad person. “I’m a fucking cop killer,” Barry responded. “If I saw you walking down the street, I’d fucking kill you, I’d kill your fucking kids, I’d kill your fucking wife, and I’d kill your fucking mom.” Barry might have been goading the guard into attacking him, but for a brief moment, he was no longer deluded by the lies he keeps telling himself. No matter how Barry ends, Barry will always be a monster—the only question is how many more people he’ll justify killing before the show’s curtain call.