Can people change? That’s one of the central questions of Barry, and for the most part, the answer has been a resounding no. Sure, there have been plenty of moments where something better seemed possible for these characters. But they’ve rejected almost every possible opportunity to escape the cycles in which they’re trapped. I keep coming back to Fuches in season three, the most literal example of this: He sticks to his revenge quest despite everything in the universe telling him to accept the idyllic life offered to him.
Season four, especially, has explored that struggle to overcome oneself, repeatedly presenting the characters with opportunities they’re unwilling to take. Hank and Cristobal could have spent their lives together in Santa Fe, but they came back to Los Angeles. Sally could have lowered her ambitions and eked out a living in Hollywood, perhaps as an acting coach, but she left town for an anonymous life with a family she barely cares about. Gene managed the impressive feat of taking down the man who killed the love of his life, kidnapping him, and threatening his family, but earning that glory just made him look for more of it in unwise places.
One of Barry’s greatest successes has been developing these supporting characters’ journeys independent of its title character. But while Fuches and Hank and Sally and Gene only have themselves to blame for their respective backslides, it’s impossible to ignore that Barry is what they all have in common. His incurable reliance on violence affects all of their lives, creating the circumstances for them to give in to their unhealthiest impulses. And he’s only able to provide such a blueprint for regression because he, himself, is the regressor-in-chief, the purest distillation of Barry’s philosophy. It’s all there in the transparent hollowness of the phrase “starting now,” which practically became a slogan for Barry Berkman.
“A Nice Meal” parallels last season’s penultimate episode, when Barry couldn’t move or speak, forcing him to listen to Ryan Madison’s father. Once again, Barry is at the mercy of another man — another father of a victim (though Barry didn’t actually kill Ryan). As the episode opens, Barry is wearing blackout goggles, with everything he sees coming from his own mind: the wide-open plain where his family lives and the same purgatorial beach we saw when he was incapacitated back in “Candy Asses.” He frantically mumbles prayers and speaks to his son while Jim Moss mocks his supposed new faith, eventually inserting himself into Barry’s vision. He’s very clear in his message: Barry has seen his family for the last time. He won’t be making it out of this one.
Of course, Barry does make it out of this one when Jim’s priorities briefly shift to Gene. After hearing from Barry that he paid Gene $250,000, Jim disappears to presumably report back to the DA and chief of police, enabling Barry to find a conveniently placed knife and get loose.
The plotting here isn’t perfect — like many Barry episodes, it fits together a little too snugly. I’m just not sure busting Gene should or would take precedence for Jim when he has an ex-military serial killer tied up in his garage, even supposing Gene was involved in Janice’s death, and leaving that knife there feels like an unusually dumb mistake. Part of it is that this episode has to maneuver a lot of characters into place for the finale; at times, the brisk pace of these episodes can make the characters feel like chess pieces, positioned as needed.
But I do really like this Gene story, which plays out like a slow-motion tragedy even when we’re not sure how it’ll all go wrong. His motives are questionable to begin with; he clearly does have a problem with the studio sensationalizing Janice’s murder, but the crusading also might serve him, as Tom seems to notice. But any pretense of honor vanishes when a UTA agent calls about Daniel Day-Lewis wanting to come out of retirement to play Gene in the Barry biopic.
Of course Gene can’t resist taking the meeting, and of course he reacts to Sally’s request for help by assuring her he’ll meet her at his house later. Mark Wahlberg playing Barry is catnip to him, too. But his final move is the most ghoulish: assuring the agent that Barry is a “sympathetic soul,” so the villain-averse Wahlberg has no reason to shy away from playing him. In Gene’s telling, Barry killed Janice out of jealousy, needing Gene in his life as a father figure. When he claims that “this is not a good-guy, bad-guy story,” it’s like you can see part of his soul die.
But when Gene shows up at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills for his supposed meeting with Mark Wahlberg, he’s greeted by Jim, the DA, the chief of police, and his own son. I didn’t expect the hush money from season three to come back in this way, but there’s something cruelly fitting about how it goes down, with Gene appearing from the outside like he was colluding with Barry. We know that Gene could never have the makings of a mafioso, but the evidence doesn’t look good, between Janice’s investigation at his theater, the murder at Gene’s cabin, his proximity to Barry and the Raven when Janice’s body was found, the massive payment, and now his open advocating for Barry. Even Leo seems to have turned on his dad; you can’t blame him. To everyone here, Gene could very well be a cold-blooded killer who happens to love acting. We already know someone like that.
If there’s one character who has changed over the course of Barry, it’s NoHo Hank, who has now fully completed his metamorphosis into a supervillain. By the end of the episode, he’s calling Barry from Sally’s phone, informing him that he has his wife and son. Never mind that he’s luring Barry just to make Fuches happy after launching a rocket at his house and missing and that he wasn’t originally planning to go after Barry’s family (his guys were looking for Gene, and they were still stranded outside his house). This is a man who relishes exerting his power by threatening people.
Again, the story isn’t free of contrivances; in the space of two episodes, Hank has gone from Fuches’s business partner and friend to his murderous rival to someone who desperately needs to win him back over. But this story also has value as perhaps Barry’s last chance for a really funny, ultimately inconsequential crime-world subplot. And everything with the dream team whom Hank originally hires to kill Fuches — the four ultimate badass killers, or FUBAKs — is pretty much gold, from their hyped-up introduction to their swift demises.
Again, I know Barry skews more dramatic now, but I still see its darkly comedic heart in these scenes, especially in the hilariously evocative image of four cardboard boxes with visible blood on the bottom. There’s no explanation necessary — they’re clearly human heads — but the scene is timed perfectly: We put together the truth as Hank does, then he spells it out, opening each individual box to predictable results.
The Hank we see in the final scene of the episode would’ve been unrecognizable even earlier this season. Still, I’m glad we get at least one last opportunity to see him in pure comic mode, frustrated with his associates’ incompetence and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I feel similarly about the scene of Fuches and his posse trying to come up with a plan to keep his new lady and her daughter safe from the horrifying sight of graphic killings. Like many amusing Barry digressions, it only gets funnier the longer it goes, with one guy pointing out that there’s really no way to prepare for a sneak attack.
Even aside from the strong punch lines, though, there remains something essentially comic about Barry’s view of people trapped with themselves, totally unable to resist the pull of the dark side. Even in some of the grimmest scenes, I can see Bill Hader’s sense of humor shine through — his amusement at people pathetic enough to compromise every second chance the universe graciously provides them. I have no idea how everything will shake out in next week’s finale, yet with one episode to go, it feels like everyone’s fate is set in stone.
• Sally’s story in this episode is basically limited to dragging poor John around L.A. The key moment is when John asks what they’ll do after they reunite with his dad, and she says, “Keep doing what we’re doing.” The sound cuts out as Sally starts to process what that really looks like and cries a little. She also almost turns herself in to a nearby cop, then backs down when she sees him as the man she killed — only to turn and see her son being taken while the police car is still within view. I think the idea here is that going through with the confession would’ve saved her and her son, and she faces immediate repercussions for choosing not to. Other interpretations?
• The final shot of the episode is Barry facing away from us and shaking, once again powerless and at the end of his rope. It’s a parallel to the opening of the season. Remember when Barry was in jail? Feels like a while ago!
• I love Henry Winkler’s delivery of “That’s disgusting” upon hearing the DA’s theory about him. He sounds genuinely astonished.
• There’s always something enjoyable about seeing characters from opposite halves of the story finally come in contact, so Hank meeting Sally was kind of fun despite the circumstances. Made me think of Kim and Mike meeting in the final season of Better Call Saul.
• “What about it upset you?” “You cutting off their heads.”