The most devastating TV ending of 2023 – and no, it’s not Succession

Bill Hader in the HBO series Barry - HBO
Bill Hader in the HBO series Barry - HBO

Contains spoilers for the final episode of Barry

The minds of schedulers, stream-wallahs and TV execs have long been mysteries to mere mortals, but putting out the Barry finale on the same day as the denouement of Succession was cruel. Perhaps they wanted to be cruel to Barry Berkman – it would at least be consistent with all that this addled, battered and traumatised US Marine-cum-crap-actor-cum-fugitive has gone through.

But at the very least, the hoopla surrounding Succession’s endgame has stolen some sunshine from the (below-the-line submissions at the ready…) best TV series to conclude in May 2023.

Because Barry is a stone-cold TV masterpiece. No show that I have seen has managed to marry such bold formal experimentation with such satisfying character development and compulsive storytelling. Its sole failing remains its silly name. I suspect that was also deliberate.

Barry began life in 2018 as a Hollywood satire, with Bill Hader (also the show’s creator, with Alec Berg) playing a depressed, dead-eyed hitman who almost accidentally enrols in an acting class and there finds meaning for the first time in his life. It was very funny, beautifully performed, perfectly packaged in crisp half hours that allowed Henry Winkler (as Barry’s vainglorious acting coach Gene Cousineau), Sarah Goldberg (as Barry’s fellow struggling actor and girlfriend Sally) and Hader himself to turn in some marvellous vignettes.

Over it all, however, hung its premise — the point at which Barry’s old life clashed with his new and everyone found out that he was a killer would inevitably be the end of the story.

That moment came in the finale of season three, with Barry in jail for the murder of Cousineau’s girlfriend, a police officer, and his “performance” revealed. I had assumed they might call it a day, and that Barry would stand as a little-known, much cherished diamond in the streaming rough. Yet almost every moment of this final season has amply vindicated its making – it was chock-full of incident and pay-off, with a furious, bloody, nigh-on unhinged Barry a tornado of bespectacled vengeance and pent-up guilt at its centre.

The unexpected jump forward in time to Barry and Sally’s future life as god-fearing parents worked. Flash-forwards so often don’t. The repeated re-invention of NoHo Hank, the Chechen mobster-slash-lifestyle guru (who in the last few episodes had been reborn yet again as a sand smuggler and real estate tycoon) also worked, giving Anthony Carrigan an open goal to bag another best supporting actor gong.

Barry’s former handler Fuches (Stephen Root) being released from prison, newly muscled and tattooed and on a vengeance mission – in cahoots with NoHo Hank, no(ho) less – also worked. The midseason jawdropper where Cousineau accidentally shot his own son and then, once again, managed to reconstitute that relationship, worked.

Henry Winkler in Barry - HBO
Henry Winkler in Barry - HBO

Barry has been TV’s greatest ever collage. All of the seemingly dissonant genres and tones – comedy, action, impressionistic reveries, flashbacks, bloody murders and daft digressions – were somehow yoked together into a satisfying whole. The whole life-as-performance, Barry-finding-himself trope was discarded some time around season two to leave a quite profound disquisition on love (romantic, platonic, paternal between Barry and Sally, Hank, Fuches and Gene), betrayal, hatred and the consequences of violence.

Yet the writing and, in particular, the direction were so self-assured, so willing to ignore TV’s hallowed precepts, that Barry managed to remain lithe and thrilling, thoughtful and action-packed, funny and silly and moving, right to the end.

That the finale proved to be Barry’s last act too – shot dead by his acting mentor Cousineau, who he’d gone to kill – was once again a riposte to TV’s current fixation on dragging a series out. That the series itself was then followed by another jump forward, in which Barry’s now teenage son watched The Mask Collector (essentially Barry – The Movie) on TV as his dad’s life was mangled into threadbare entertainment, was simply exquisite. As was the revelation that Barry had been recast as the hero of the story, and Cousineau the villain. “Oh wow,” had been Barry’s last words, as the blood seeped through his shirt. Wow indeed.

All four seasons of Barry are streaming on Sky and Now TV in the UK and Max in the US