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HBO’s ‘Barry’ Explores Guilt And Redemption In Series Finale

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That a blood-drenched comedy about a hitman, spawned by alumni of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘SNL’ would even hint at the possibility of self-sacrifice and conversion is remarkable.


What is redemption? Let us take it as given that we need saving from our fallen natures. Can we achieve redemption in this life, or must it wait until the next? St. Augustine famously worked over these questions in his autobiographical Confessions.

They are not the stuff you would expect to find delved into by a half-hour black comedy about a hitman-turned-actor. But in its final season, which recently wrapped, that is what HBO’s “Barry” did, and with surprising earnestness at that. 

Spoilers Ahead!

The show’s fourth and final season jumps eight years ahead at its midpoint, with our eponymous assassin (show co-creator Bill Hader) and his struggling actress girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) in hiding, under assumed names, out in flat blank plains of rural America. They have had a son together, John, from whom they have not only concealed their true identities but also the bloody history that brought them to this desolate place. Having escaped from countless mortal dangers in Los Angeles, they now see danger in such everyday pastimes as baseball. 

Sally, calling herself Emily, works as a waitress and wears a brown wig over her blond hair and drinks too much. Barry (now “Clark”) seems to have no job but spends a lot of time listening to vaguely evangelical podcasts, using God as the shovel with which he hopes to bury his past self. Those he has murdered on behalf of mobsters and out of rank self-interest are buried already: Who is left to say he cannot be a new man, named for Superman’s alter ego to boot? 

Yet when the past confronts him, it is all too easy for Barry to use religion, or the trappings of it, to justify his own evil purposes. Learning from Sally that their former acting coach, Gene (who himself had been in hiding all these years), will be serving as a consultant on a biopic based on their story, Barry decides to return to L.A. and kill Gene. But he only makes the decision after flipping from podcast to podcast and finding one in which the speaker says that, contrary to the Decalogue, there are plenty of places in the Bible where God says it is just fine to kill.  

Killing is all Barry’s ever been good at. You might even say that it is in his nature to commit murder. Though now and then, over the course of the series, he has expressed guilt at having killed someone, mostly he does the deed without a second thought. His eight years as Clark may have been something of an attempt at redemption, but because he tried to do it by concealment alone, it was doomed.  

There was, of course, no chance that he could make up for all the lives he took. But without repentance, without some sort of recompense, redemption will be illusory. And illusory it proves, with Barry so ready to kill once again. 

“Barry” being, at least nominally, a comedy, what follows once he returns to California is a series of misadventures, in which his assassination plot leads to his own kidnapping, while the police follow a series of red herrings that cause them to suspect Gene of being the criminal mastermind behind Barry’s murders. Sally and John, unbeknownst to Barry, arrive in L.A. and are captured by the Chechen mobsters she and Barry were fleeing in the first place. Even heads in boxes are played for laughs.  

At some point, what becomes clear is that, among so many unscrupulous drug lords and murders, what makes Barry the assassin unique is not that he is a killer. It is that it would even occur to him to think that redemption might be possible, even if he has no real idea how to find it or what it truly is. 

After much to-do and much bloodshed, Barry, Sally, and John are reunited. But Gene has been arrested under suspicion of arranging the murder of his cop girlfriend — whom Barry killed when she got too close to the truth about him.  

Sally tells Barry to turn himself in, but he refuses: “I don’t think that’s what God wants from me. … I’ve been redeemed!” Sally disagrees: “The only way to be redeemed is by taking responsibility for what you did. And the only way to do that is by turning yourself in.”  

Barry refuses again. In the morning, he finds himself alone with his facile, bogus redemption. He goes to Gene’s house, hoping to find Sally and John there, but only sees Tom, Gene’s agent. His certitude, his sense of being in God’s favor, collapses. 

Realizing that there is nothing and no one between him and the truth of what he is, looking resigned but anguished, Barry tells Tom: “You should call the cops. I’m going to turn myself—” And then a shot rings out. He sits down hard and looks down at the wound in his chest. Gene stands there holding a pistol. Barry says, “Oh wow.” Another shot. The screen goes black. 

That is not the end of the episode, though it is the end of Barry. The question is whether, in following Sally’s advice at the very end, he approached that redemption he so craved. One could argue that Sally forced his hand by leaving him, but he could have ignored Tom and walked away before Gene had a chance to fire the gun. He sets aside irresolution and self-serving bibliolatry for no advantage of his own and dies in the act. It is not an outright act of martyrdom, but it is perhaps as Christlike as one could hope Barry could ever become.  

That a blood-drenched comedy about a hitman, spawned by alumni of “Seinfeld” and “Saturday Night Live,” would even hint at the possibility of self-sacrifice and conversion is remarkable in itself. That it does that well enough to make you think about it is commendable. 

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