Among the notable TV finales from this year, the curtain dropped on Barry, the dark dramedy that, for four seasons, absurdly examined the criminal world of hitman Barry Berkman and his bizarre attempt to give up murder for acting. As with so many other antihero narratives on television, Barry’s desire for a new life rarely helped him to abandon the previous one, but, instead, ruined the lives of those around him, including and especially his self-serving acting teacher Gene Cousineau and his neurotic girlfriend Sally Reed. As we get ready to say goodbye to 2023, I’d like to take one more look at the final moments of the final episode, “Wow” (4.8), and its compelling statement about the complex interplay between media and reality.
Inasmuch as Barry literally gets away with murder for most, perhaps even all of the series, the police in the finale are ready to pin at least one of his crimes on the luckless Cousineau. Ironically, just as Barry agrees to turn himself in to save his acting teacher from certain jail time, an unhinged Gene shoots him twice and kills him, making yet another poor decision to ensure his public disgrace. Even if Gene makes him “pay” for all that he has done, Barry never gets the chance to confess and clear Cousineau’s name. In the film that Barry’s son, John, watches about his father at the end of the episode, The Mask Collector, Cousineau is falsely portrayed as a criminal mastermind who takes advantage of and finally murders his naïve acting student. According to the film’s epilogue, Barry receives a hero’s burial in Arlington, while Cousineau gets a life sentence for killing Barry and Janice Moss, one of Barry’s many victims.
Though John’s mother, Sally, knows the truth about the sociopathic Barry, the film offers the more attractive narrative, the one that a teary-eyed John openly subscribes to in the episode’s final shot. Although so much of acting, especially as it appears on Barry, is about mimicking the real, the line between the real and the performance fully blurs here, to the point where the performance of the film becomes “the real” or replaces it. (To put it in Baudrillard’s words, reality on Barry essentially “[passes] over into the play of reality” (“Symbolic Exchange and Death” 146).) While the fictional, false nature of The Mask Collector is clear to viewers who have watched Barry commit crime after crime on the show, it presents the performance to John, as its ideal audience, as truth and further sells that fiction by combining it with those closing statements about the “true” fates of the “real” Barry and Cousineau. Perpetuating the lie of Barry’s heroism and Cousineau’s villainy, the film manipulates John and the rest of its audience as much as the cinematic Cousineau manipulates the cinematic Barry.
We could make so much of the dramatic irony in this final scene and sit in judgment of John’s naivete, but we are, of course, just as susceptible of being taken in and creating our own view of (hyper)reality through what we watch and how we are influenced by it. We may not have the same intensely personal connection to the material that John does at the end, but we are always subject to the same emotional/psychological manipulation as audience members and consumers of media, whether we watch from our couches at home or in cushy, reclining movie theater seats. If there was a “real Barry,” would someone watching us watching the series similarly call us out for mistaking that series for the truth?
In speaking to our most paranoid anxieties in this age of media and surveillance in The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard sees this as a very “real” possibility, that we could be put (and likely are being cast) in John’s role/position. “There is,” he notes, “always a hidden camera somewhere,” and “[a]ny of your acts can be instantly broadcast on any station” (48). So, as we watch and sit in judgment as audience members, we are watched and judged as actors in a film for some other audience, whether we realize it or not. (Give me a moment now to make sure that my laptop camera is covered.)
In many ways, I wound up taking on John’s role and acting it out because, not long after I watched the Barry finale, I also watched the 2019 documentary about the disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. From there, I took in the miniseries about Holmes from last year, The Dropout. Both works suggest that so much of who or what Holmes became was crafted, too, and something of a performance in and of itself, from her deep voice to her black clothing. Were investors taken in by an “act” as well as by the promise/show/illusion of her medical technology? If so, did Holmes realize that she was acting, or had she deluded herself into believing that her performance was, in fact, real? While the documentary hints at the latter, the miniseries leans heavily into it, as a smiling Holmes, after literally screaming over the downfall of her company in the closing scene of the final episode, immediately introduces herself to her Uber driver in the next moment as “Lizzie.” With the ultimate failure of one persona, she is already constructing a new one.
In terms of my viewing experience, the documentary and the series were both, as I watched them, media products, so how could I trust either one to show me the real Elizabeth Holmes, especially if Holmes herself had become a persona? Like the series Barry vs. The Mask Collector, I could only know her through those representations and portrayals of her. The miniseries made that knowing even more complicated, as I was watching actress Amanda Seyfried play Holmes “playing” CEO, which was, according to the show, in turn, based on her perception of Steve Jobs and others like him—a performance of a performance of a performance. As a result, I must admit and accept that any assumptions about her or versions of the truth that I now accept or create from the influence of those viewings may well be flawed, as they are so far removed from the real, which again, if I am following Baudrillard, may not exist anyway.
Moreover, The Inventor and The Dropout, like The Mask Collector, also end with updates about the fates and/or current whereabouts of their main characters. Having watched Barry in its entirety, I know how wrong the ending of The Mask Collector is, but, when I watched The Inventor and The Dropout, those epilogues added a degree of truth to their narratives, since that information came from the headlines. In going along with what they told me about Holmes, did I essentially become John, who surrendered to the film’s fictions about Barry and Cousineau that came from a botched police investigation and inaccurate news reports about their relationship? Do we run the risk of being misled anytime we invest in anything that comes from our platform screens?
As much as the multilayered metacritical nature of the finale connects Barry to some other fairly recent endings—consider, for example, the real Coke ad that appears at the end of Mad Men, writer Chuck Lorre’s appearance on set in the Two and a Half Men finale, or even The Office staff responding to questions about the documentary that has been, for us, the series—it also places itself within a tradition of self-reflexive endings that goes back at least as far as 1966’s Dick Van Dyke finale, where Rob Petrie learns that Alan Brady will be starring in the series based on his autobiography. In a great moment of television irony, Brady is played by Carl Reiner, who created the premise for The Dick Van Dyke Show and initially planned on starring in it (in a series that was piloted as Head of the Family). While Van Dyke replaced Reiner for the new series, then, Reiner’s Brady will play Van Dyke’s Petrie in the metafictional show that ends Dick Van Dyke. In addition, Reiner’s concept for Head of the Family and The Dick Van Dyke Show was drawn from his own experiences as a comedy writer, so his “Rob Petrie” in Head of the Family was largely an aesthetic attempt to recreate the real that resulted in Van Dyke’s televisual portrayal of Reiner, which became Reiner’s televisual portrayal of Van Dyke’s character in the finale, repeated inversions that continue to move us away from the real or the original of Reiner’s actual lived experience, itself again, as Baudrillard would frame it, yet another simulation. Given its creativity, its self-awareness, and how it “blended” the home and work lives (or roles and responsibilities) of its characters, Mark Dawidziak persuasively argues that The Dick Van Dyke Show “set into motion most of the quality television that would follow” (100), including Barry. (For more on that finale and its legacy for TV, I encourage you to read Mark’s insightful chapter on the series in the Television Finales book that I co-edited with David Bianculli.)
In this regard, Barry, a series in part about acting, co-created by actor/comedian Bill Hader, and effectively presented to the world through the work of its actors, turns the tables on the reality/unreality of acting, even as it makes us complicit in the process as viewers and, in some larger way, touches on the personas that we all adopt and the roles that we, knowingly or unknowingly, regularly play. Again, I have to come back to Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime here, as he agrees that we are all “actors in the performance, and actors integrated into the course of that performance,” especially inasmuch as “the medium itself has passed into life” (31-32). Although Cousineau tries to get his students to express “real” feeling through his classes, the challenge, for the characters—and for us, if Baudrillard is right—is not in creating an effective performance, but in stopping/dropping the performance and getting to the real, if such a thing is at all possible.
So much of the Barry finale is about just that, as all of the major characters find their roles and performances challenged in the course of the episode. A reformed Cousineau, for example, comes out of hiding to protest the film about Barry, but he quickly dismisses his moral objections when he learns that Daniel Day-Lewis may play him in the movie. And although Barry and Sally have spent a good portion of the season pretending to be (or “acting” as) middle-class parents with strong religious values, Barry once again has murder on his mind and is shopping for guns at the local Walmart when Sally and John are kidnapped. In spite of his hypocrisy, he still wants to believe in the lie of his performance, and, when Sally tells him to turn himself in, Barry tries to defend himself with the religious argument that God wants him to be free. As with Cousineau and even Elizabeth Holmes (and us as well?), the performance for Barry become the means to an end, adopted, discarded, and readopted to suit the situation.
In one of the most telling moments from the finale, right before the shootout between NoHo Hank and Fuches’s men, Fuches is willing to settle their conflict if Hank will simply agree to a “real” moment of honesty and self-reflection about Cristobal’s death. As heated as their “war” has become and as much as Fuches has contributed to the absurdity on the show and even adopted several different personas himself—after his experiences in prison, he is now tattooed and goes by the name “The Raven”—he perceptively appreciates the value of and need for this confession, this truth amidst all of these “performances,” including his own. Struggling—again like all the other main characters on Barry—to understand himself, Hank, however, cannot do it, cannot admit to the real, even to save his life, and nearly everyone, including Hank, is killed in the ensuing shootout.
Is it any wonder, then, that Barry’s legacy for his son John literally winds up being little more than a performance, than what he sees in that film at the end?
In his death scene, Barry is also as much an actor/participant as he is an audience member, watching his own murder play out as Cousineau shoots him in that living room. In many ways, in his incredulity, he mimics the response that we might have as audience members and viewers of television finales, in negotiating the emotional shock of these pivotal moments, in trying to make sense of these narratives and performances and what they mean for us, and in considering how these final episodes jive with our interpretations of the shows and our worldviews in general: “Wow.”
Douglas L. Howard is academic chair of the English Department on the Ammerman Campus at Suffolk County Community College. He is the co-editor of Television Finales: From Howdy Doody to Girls, co-editor of The Essential Sopranos Reader, and editor of Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Perfect Crime. Translated by Chris Turner, e-book ed., Verso, 2008.
—. “Symbolic Exchange and Death.” Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster, Stanford UP, 1988, pp 119-148.
Dawidziak, Mark. “The Dick Van Dyke Show: ‘The Last Chapter.’” Television Finales: From Howdy Doody to Girls, edited by Douglas L. Howard and David Bianculli, Syracuse UP, 2018, pp. 98-104.