When having kids, it’s common to think back to your own childhood — to the privileges you had but also what you lacked. You tally up your parents’ positive and negative qualities and fantasize about what you’d do differently in their position. And no matter how much you strive to do better, you still catch bits of them in yourself, perhaps long after your child has arrived. You see what they passed down, so you worry about what you passed down, about what you unleashed unto the world by producing a human being with half your DNA. In your darkest moments, you worry if the ugliness you sometimes hear in your own voice is also there in someone else.
It’s a theme common to many a TV drama. Just think back to the way Tony Soprano looked at his son: A.J. following in his footsteps was the last thing Tony wanted, but as his boy grew into a man, he saw more and more of the traits he passed down — perhaps none more terrifying than his struggles with depression and panic attacks.
For Barry Berkman, having a son offers an opportunity for a do-over: a chance to prove to himself that he can be a good father who raises a good boy totally unlike his former self. Up to this point in the series, Barry has been through almost every form of ego death except that of a parent. Here’s an opportunity to test him once last time — to give him much more than he deserves and see what he does with it.
We know the answer, of course: It won’t work out. Barry is not a man who can be redeemed, and this is not a final season about redemption and the necessity of forgiving yourself. That became impossible a long time ago, and even Barry himself spat at the idea by provoking the prison guard who tried to offer those false reassurances. What keeps us watching this show isn’t the hope that this will work out but the curiosity to see exactly how it won’t work out.
Except for one scene near the end, “Tricky Legacies” takes place entirely outside of Los Angeles, immersing us in a world that looks and sounds different from what we’re used to on Barry. Most of the episode is spent catching us up on Barry and Sally’s new life, denying us much of the resolution we might’ve hoped for. What’s going on with Hank? Is Fuches still in prison? Is Leo okay? Those questions will have to wait.
It’s been eight years since Barry and Sally left Los Angeles. Now they go by the names of Clark and Emily, and they have an 8-year-old son named John. John is homeschooled, which mostly means he spends his days watching educational videos that his dad queues up. Barry and Sally have raised him in a very strict Catholic household, presumably in the hopes that he’ll learn compassion early on, stay out of the spotlight, and avoid anything that could harm him — or, more accurately, lead him to one day harm other people.
Early in the episode, Barry uses John’s fight with his (only) friend, Travis, to teach him about moving past his insecurities, controlling his feelings, and taking responsibility — all things Barry himself has failed to do. But while John seems like a regular kid, Barry doesn’t seem to realize that this type of isolated, repressive lifestyle could leave him a decidedly unregular adult. After John starts playing catch with Travis, Barry shows him traumatizing videos of kids getting severely injured playing baseball, turning him off of the sport immediately. He won’t even let him have a comforter for his cold bedroom, citing the Feeding of the 5,000 to assure John he has everything he needs.
At least John has a connection with his dad, no matter how little he knows about the man. Sally, on the other hand, seems to have no interest in a relationship with her son. Every morning, she puts on a brown wig, dons a Southern accent, and waitresses at a local restaurant until the evening, when she chugs some vodka and heats up some crappy frozen food. She’s on autopilot 24 hours a day; she can’t even bear to listen to Barry tell her about his latest lesson plan, setting the phone down to drink while he drones on.
You get the sense Sally never really feels anything anymore, even around her own flesh and blood. The most alive Sally appears in this episode is in the restroom of the restaurant, kissing and then choking a lecherous cook named Bevel until she almost kills him. She still can’t get what she did back in L.A. out of her head; eight years later, everything comes back to the man she killed. Does some part of Sally feel understood and genuinely turned on by Bevel, somebody who says killing people made him feel like a god? Or does she just want someone she can take her pain out on? Regardless, he won’t be a problem in the future, even though he discovered her wig. She makes sure to get him fired by claiming he stole from the restaurant.
Sally is entirely indifferent to her own son’s neediness and couldn’t care less what he thinks of her. That’s not the case for Barry, who’s obsessed with crafting his image of the stern but loving father. He eventually lets slip to John that he was once a Marine, lying that he went to war as a medic. Later, he tells him a modified version of the story of Albert, the soldier whose life he saved in Afghanistan (who showed up in season three). In reality, Barry went after the man who shot Albert but killed a civilian. In the revisionist history, he didn’t kill anyone; his job was to protect people.
In essence, Barry wants to be a hero, even now. He’ll never act in Hollywood again, but he’s still putting on a performance, just like he has since the beginning of the show. And despite everything, he’s still gifted at rationalization and backward logic. Take his reciting from Heroes Exposed: Lincoln had Native Americans executed and proposed that Black people go back to Africa; Saint Augustine was addicted to bathhouses; and Gandhi hypocritically denied his wife penicillin while later taking drugs for malaria. (He probably had a lot to choose from with Gandhi.)
The existence of a series called Heroes Exposed is a funny joke on its face, but Barry’s interest in it also says a lot about where his head is at. While some people might find a series like that depressing to watch — it always hurts to learn that your fave is problematic — Barry manages to mentally reverse-engineer an empowering lesson from it. After all, Lincoln may have had his faults, but no one can deny his greatness as a president. Barry made mistakes, too. Can’t he do good and become a hero like Lincoln? After all, everyone has their own “tricky legacy.”
There may have been a brief period when Barry felt like he didn’t even deserve a legacy, but that clearly didn’t last. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this eight-year time jump is that this is the same old egocentric, self-mythologizing Barry, even if he’s put on some pounds and wears glasses now. When he hears a knock on the door at night, he instinctively goes right for the gun, even if he can’t remember which painting it’s hidden behind. And when he sees online that Gene Cousineau may be consulting on a Barry Berkman biopic — once again appropriating a story Barry feels he should be able to tell on his own terms — he immediately decides he needs to kill him.
Maybe for certain people, that core lack of self-awareness never goes away, even with faith. In fact, while religion should make it easier to atone, sometimes it’s used as an excuse, a smoke screen. Some people get all the time in the world to look inward, to face the mistakes they’ve made and people they’ve hurt, and it’s not enough, because there’s a fundamental disconnect between their conception of themselves and the people they actually are. Meeting the loved ones of Barry’s victims wasn’t enough to make him really see himself last season. Neither was going to jail, and neither was attaining this rare opportunity to start anew. Eight years later, he still thinks he’s the hero of this story.
• Nice to see D’Arcy Carden appear briefly as Natalie, who has really become the main symbol of the life Sally once could’ve had. “Honey, nobody likes black licorice.”
• “Does your mom wear hair on top of her own hair?”
• My favorite related YouTube video on the side is “Parents Straight Up Murder Each Other After Little League Game.”
• We’re reintroduced to Hollywood via the posters the Warner Bros. exec passes on her way to meet with Gene. These include Mega Girls 4 and Larry Chowder the Magical Boy, the latter of which stars “@Tyler.”
• And on that note, some other The Hollywood Reporter headlines featured next to the Gene story: “RHWONY Finds an Unlikely Star in the New Housekeeper Nanny,” “Uncanny Pictures Releases Teaser for First All AI Generated Film, ‘Written, Created, and Produced Completely With AI,’ Says Studio Head,” and “Sleeper Hit ‘Challenge Accepted’ Gets Greenlit for Three Sequel Deal With Joint Netflix/Sony.”
• “Who’s Barry?”