Is Barry “Lynchian?” How Season 4 Echoed Twin Peaks: The ReturnPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Features Barry
I’m not sure anyone could have guessed where Barry would end up in its final season. What started as a 30-minute dark comedy built on the simple, hooky premise of a cold-hearted hit man trying to escape a life of killing by getting involved with a local LA theater arts program slowly moved away from its simple, though effective, beginnings into something much stranger and difficult to pin down the longer it went on. Over the course of its four seasons, it would escalate its deadpan, ironic humor by intermingling it with forthright despair and formal experimentation—Barry is never not funny, but the laughs carry an uneasy weight by the final stretch.
That stretch was directed entirely by the show’s star and co-creator/co-writer (with Alec Berg): Bill Hader. In 2018 when Barry initially premiered, Hader was basically known as one of the better SNL alums who occasionally popped up in a reliably funny role. Now, he has an entire HBO series serving as a rock-solid resume for his directorial acumen, one that proudly asserts his own bold perspective. In interviews, Hader casually reveals his immense cinematic knowledge, which leaks its way into his own work (you should check out his visit to the Criterion closet). Hader leans more into his influences than ever before in the final season of Barry and coalesces them into something captivating—he’s spoken himself about the impact of works from directors like the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson. But there’s one series in particular that I couldn’t get off my mind for the final eight episodes: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
I realize that comparing anything to Lynch is immediately a bit loaded. People throw the term “Lynchian” around like it’s nothing, constantly. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly that even means most of the time. Most people use it to describe anything that has even the vaguest hint of surrealism or that pushes toward the avant-garde, but is that all his films are? Because the fact that they’re also often empathetic, spiritual explorations of the human experience in the face of horror and tragedy seems just as inextricable from his cinematic voice. Even so, purely on a style and aesthetic level, The Return saw Lynch charting new territory for his unmistakable, often alienating methodology by creating distinct digital abstractions and moods to revitalize his and Mark Frost’s beloved ‘90s murder-mystery series for the age of streaming television. There’s nothing quite like it.
Thus, it’s ever so perceptible when another piece of art recalls the eerie strangeness of The Return, rare as it is. Up until now, the only other production that I’ve ever felt captured that same abnormality is S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete. However, week after week, I continued to identify within Season 4 of Barry that same distinct makeup. No, it doesn’t have quite the same bewildering effect as when The Return included a scene where Michael Cera cameos doing a Marlon Brando impression for a few minutes (among countless other strange digressions), but it does capture the same, very specific vibe of looming dread and bizarre absurdity that defined the show.
The broadest similarity the two share is in their setting: Both make great, distinctive use of Southwestern/Californian locales, turning the arid dry heat and stark landscapes and interiors into baffling fever dreams. The two use an unfussy but meticulous visual style that works to further highlight the odd minutiae of their characters and situations, both comedic and horrifying, oftentimes within the same breath.
Take a scene like the one that caps Episode 3 of this final season of Barry, “You’re Charming.” Toward the end of the episode, Barry is being briefed by witness protection agents in a grungy office bathed in ugly fluorescent lights after agreeing to rat out on his connections to the criminal underworld in exchange for his relative freedom. The scene begins without fanfare, though is peppered with the specific offbeat dialogue that helps afford the show a big part of its personality, until Barry notices the agent at the very back of the group. He’s played by Fred Armisen and is saying nothing, but is drenched in sweat and looking at and above Barry with a ludicrously dumbfounded expression. He looks insane. The two exchange pointed looks at each other as Barry glances around the room, realizing he’s in danger. None of the other agents notice the extremely conspicuous interaction between the two—Barry has to tell them that the agent in the back is here to kill him. That’s when hell breaks loose, as Armisen’s character detonates an explosive device meant for Barry in his own hand during a moment of very sudden, grisly violence, and Barry avoids gunfire from a man positioned in the ceiling tile above him, as everyone else in the room is shot dead—all of this conveyed without a score and in the show’s typically straightforward, smooth style of framing.
The whole scene has an extremely particular atmosphere that can be hard to articulate or to fully understand without seeing it, but it recalls an array of different elements and fixations that constantly pop up in The Return. Think of the left-field, bloody massacre of Benjamin Rosenfield and Madeline Zima while watching the glass box in Episode 1. Or the eccentric turns from all sorts of actors who show up in bit parts, from Matthew Lillard to Jim Belushi, who assist in giving the show its unique texture. Or the ongoing, weird, woozy sensation that all these events are happening in some kind of heightened unreality. No, Barry doesn’t have the same explicit preoccupation with otherworldly and cosmic horrors—although scenes like one in which Hader walks out into the yard of his middle-of-nowhere house after hearing a knock on the door, stares into the pitch black and hears children laughing sure are goddamn spooky—but instead uses the same artistic compulsions to push the show into unconventional new places stylistically and narratively, like inserting a ten-year time jump right in the middle of the season.
Whether this experimentation makes for a wholly satisfying conclusion is up to viewer discretion. Opinions on Season 4 appear to lean mixed-positive—mixed on the story but positive on the craft. It’s hard to argue against the idea that Hader seemed plenty ready to finish things up, and the general trajectory of the show suggests he was pretty tired of the broad conceit of “hitman does acting class.” But the way he’s been able to weave such distinct influences into the framework of this story while remaining true to his own voice has been admirable to behold, and the final episode refocuses the recurring ideas about violence and performance in a satisfying way. If nothing else, his taking of the directorial reins of the season has felt like a successful dry run of the horror movie he’s implied he’d like to make now that Barry is over. If it’s anything like this, I’ll be there day one.
Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.
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