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How Much of Barry Is a Hallucination?

The show’s penultimate episode is filled with trippy dream logic.
  • Henry Winkler in Barry (Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO)
    Henry Winkler in Barry (Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO)

    [Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for Barry Season 4, Episode 7, “a nice meal.”]

    As a pure plot engine, Barry’s penultimate episode, “a nice meal,” is incredibly satisfying. You can almost hear the clink of metal as the pieces fall into place for the series finale, aligning the major characters for a high stakes confrontation. NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has kidnapped Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and John (Zachary Golinger), and he’s told Barry (Bill Hader) where to find them. That’s his scheme to deliver Barry to Fuches (Stephen Root), who’s determined to kill his protege at last. Things are bound to get complicated, however, now that the police are convinced Gene (Henry Winkler) helped orchestrate Janice’s murder. That gives the acting teacher an urgent reason to get the spotlight back on the actual criminals. With all these people racing toward each other, the collision ought to be spectacular.

    It might also be a literal nightmare. Within their storytelling chess moves, writer Liz Sarnoff and Hader (who directs) pack in the symbolism that so often makes this show seem like a hallucination. The elegantly structured plotlines — or at least parts of them — may not even be real.

    Take the opening scene, which finds Barry trapped in Jim Moss’ (Robert Wisdom) garage. Jim’s got him tied to a chair with blackout goggles strapped to his face, and the whole experience is making Barry hallucinate. He sees the beach where he imagined he saw his victims at the end of Season 3. He sees John staring at him, looking small and lonely, and he even sees Gene eating dinner at some kind of banquet table. Meanwhile, he’s whimpering in fear, desperately trying to talk to these apparitions. This is quite interesting to Jim, who’s in the garage watching, since Barry babbles about giving Gene all that money last season. But once Jim leaves to tell the cops about the payments (and incorrectly convince them Gene is a killer), things get even trippier.

    Barry gets out of his restraints and stumbles into Jim’s kitchen, while a baseball game blares out of the living room television. Before he can get outside, he sinks to the floor, immobilized. It’s possible he’s been drugged and is still feeling the effects, but there are other elements that give the scene a distorted, logic-deying tinge. For one thing, the baseball game never stops. Hours later, after the sun has gone down and Barry is still on the kitchen floor, the announcers blare on. We even hear the game playing beneath the episode’s closing credits. The perpetual sportscast keeps the sequence from being naturalistic.

    That’s even more true with Sally’s scenes. At the end of the episode “the wizard,” a creepy figure dressed entirely in black, including the ski mask over his face, snuck into her home while she and John waited for Barry to come back from Los Angeles. She never heard or saw him, even though he walked around behind her for several minutes, and when she went into her bedroom, the figure slammed the door. She couldn’t get the door open, and she couldn’t assemble her gun fast enough to shoot through it, so she had to listen while men started yelling at each other and smashing things. Yes, there were suddenly multiple people out there. One of them screamed that something hit him in the eye, and then the house started shaking, like it was being pushed by a giant truck. Eventually, Sally got back in the living room to discover that John had slept through the entire ordeal. As she surveyed the wreckage, she decided to flee with her son to L.A.

    There’s already dream logic at work there. Unseen intruders and doors that can’t be opened are classic nightmare scenarios. And even though Sally slipped vodka in John’s juice to make him go to sleep, it’s hard to believe he’d sleep through a small apocalypse happening two feet from his face.This prepares us for Sally’s disorienting adventure in “a nice meal.” For one thing, when she gets to the L.A. airport, she reaches Gene on his cell phone and asks him to pick her up. However, in “the wizard” he explicitly said he had a new number, so it’s unclear how Sally got a hold of him, considering they’ve both been in hiding and presumably not trading their updated contact info. And when Sally and John finally get to Gene’s house, John asks what they’re going to do when they find his dad. Sally reflexively says they’ll go back to doing what they always do, and then the horror of that possibility hits her. While she considers a return to her undercover existence, the soundtrack goes completely silent, even muting the nature and traffic sounds. The thought of going back to the prairie yanks her out of the world.

    She tells John to wait in Gene’s yard while she flags down a cop who just happens to be down the street, helping a nice lady with her dog. She confesses who she is and begs for help, but when the cop takes off his sunglasses, he’s bleeding from one of his eyes. Somehow, the conversation about the eye injury that she overheard in “the wizard” has followed her here. Terrified, she turns to leave, and she sees that NoHo Hank’s goons have arrived. They’ve already got John in their clutches, and now they want her. Hank had sent them to kidnap Gene as a way to flush Barry out of hiding, but Barry’s family will make an even better lure.

    But is Barry’s family even in Los Angeles? On one level, yes, they are. We see Hank interacting with Sally and John, and we know Barry hears them on the phone when Hank calls him. But it also seems like Sally is stuck in a dream world. The bleeding cop and Gene’s mysteriously working phone number and even the monotone way she asks Barry for help when Hank hands her the phone: They’re all part of a destabilizing force running through the story. It’s the same force that gave the little girl in “ronny/lily” the ability to scale buildings like a spider. It’s the same force that let Barry avoid all those bullets when he was riding that motorbike in “710N’. It’s a force that makes Barry an ongoing study of the chaos coursing beneath polite society.

    It’s not all baseball games and masked intruders, though. The embrace of chaos delivers the show’s funniest moments, too, like the scene in “a nice meal” where Fuches’ associates have an extended, passionate conversation about the best way to distract Fuches’ girlfriend when they need to kill an intruder. Hader parks the camera in a stationary wide shot, so we can stare at a couchful of bruisers debating which Fast and Furious movie will drown out the most fighting sounds. The conversation goes on so long that it achieves a kind of transcendent silliness. This moment springs from the same well as the bleeding cop. It’s all a reminder that we’re close to anarchy at all times, and the show can’t be too real if it wants to tell that particular truth.

    Barry airs Sundays at 10:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Barry, HBO, Anthony Carrigan, Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root