Bill Hader's thousand-yard stare stars in the season 4 premiere of Barry. Thumbnail courtesy of Merrick Morton/HBO 

Imagine a cliff positioned at the top of a mountain. A group of people are perched on the edge of the cliff, admiring the view. They climbed the slope together – some of them slipping and falling off before they could make it, others sacrificed to ensure the ascent of others. The people who survived are the most loved and hated, those with the charm and claws to guarantee they made it to the top. Now the group stands at a precipice, with no choice but to start pushing each other off the beautiful, deadly cliff.

This is the opening predicament of season four of Bill Hader’s dark hitman comedy Barry. The titular Barry (Hader) is in prison after he is betrayed by acting teacher Gene (Henry Winkler), who is now basking in the attention of the media. Former mentor Fuches (Stephen Root) happens to be in the same cell block as Barry, an arrangement that threatens at least one of their lives. Barry’s ex Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is aimless and angry and cute criminal couple NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and Cristobal (Michael Irby) are living the sweet life.

The first two episodes of Barry season four, “yikes” and “bestest place on earth,” set up all the pieces that were knocked down by the violent events of the previous seasons. If there’s anything Hader, who is also directing the season, emphasizes in these episodes, it’s that criminality and violence are relentless, inexorable vortices: even the darling Hank and Cristobal can’t sit still with their idyllic life in Santa Fe. This core cast of characters has been traumatized again and again – often by one another. Barry is a broken shell of a man who spends much of the first episodes in a hallucinatory trance, initialized by a camera that silkily pans from reality to delusion. The visual language cultivated by the previous three seasons, one characterized by a Neapolitan combination of the absurd, the violent and the unreal, is on full display here.

The comedy of Barry has all but disappeared – the once cheerful musical cue of the title drop is replaced by an eerie silence in the season 4 openers. Even bits involving Hank and Cristobal feel as though they’ve been impregnated by violent tension, as if the punchline of every joke could be a literal punch or a bullet. This is a natural progression, but it's unclear how this change will affect the rest of the season.

“bestest place on earth” ends with a deadly serious line from a funny character, a line that perfectly sums up how the cast is arranging themselves to be either pushers or the pushed – those who will stay on the cliff or be dashed on the rocks below.