Barry Berkman is not well. You can tell the veteran-turned-assassin at the center of one of HBO’s best shows isn’t in good headspace from the premiere episodes’ very first moments. He’s disheveled and manic, sporting ten-o-clock shadow and those wild eyes that star and co-creator Bill Hader does so well. He’s also, for the first time in the history of Barry’s three seasons, not a guy audiences are meant to be rooting for.
The third season of Hader and co-creator Alec Berg’s dark comedy will be part of a wave of shows forever positioned in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as the 2008 writers’ strike altered the flow of TV history, so did the pandemic that kept new episodes of Barry from airing for three years. The pause not only disrupted the series but seems to have allowed its writers time to do some narrative soul-searching. In its third season, Barry examines its own central optimism, which was but a flicker in the darkness to begin with. The results, while still thrilling and funny, are also shockingly bleak.
Barry ended on a major cliffhanger in 2019, as Barry’s acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) realized his student killed his girlfriend. The new season doesn’t leave us hanging, instead picking up with a full-throttle premiere episode that matches the energy of some of the series’ most climactic outings to date. The framework of Cousineau’s acting class is gone, along with his handler Fuches (Stephen Root), and Barry’s sense of stability has vanished along with them. He’s unmoored and on edge, while all around him, the world keeps spinning.
While past seasons have attempted to soften Barry’s murderous actions by zooming in on his psychology, his history, and the sweetness at his core, the six episodes available for review choose to continue his story from a careful distance. It’s as if the series is aware, for the first time, of how truly dangerous he is. Hader and Berg direct the season, and for the first several episodes, they seem to purposely withhold the wry, near-slapstick energy that makes the show’s action sequences stand out. The result is excellent but heavy. There’s not much dramatic irony or dark humor to the kills we see anymore; these are just lives lost.
While Barry seems trapped in a hell of his own making at the season’s beginning, nearly everyone around him is thriving. Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the show’s most winsome character, is enjoying a period of peace after ending his feud with Bolivian mafia leader Cristobal (Michael Irby) last season. Hank continues to be the show’s most endearing character, and his role expands greatly this season as viewers are given a peek into his personal life. As the focus shifts away from Barry as our figure to root for, Berg and Hader finally allow us to invest in Hank as more than just comedic relief.
Barry’s third season makes plenty of bold choices, but its best may be centering Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and her new costar Katie (Elsie Fisher) in a highwire act of an overarching story. Following Sally’s success on stage last season, she’s been given a TV show called Joplin, about an abuse survivor whose teenage daughter ends up in a bad relationship of her own. Sally, previously selfish and finicky, has evened out under the glow of the spotlight. She’s now a talented writer, creator, and star, even if she’s often forced to bend to the whims of Hollywood producers.
The season’s sharpest satire comes from the Joplin plot, as Sally smiles through the commercialization of her own abuse story. She’s rushed into the nonsensical world of Rotten Tomatoes scores and streaming service algorithms and handles it all with a sort of shell-shocked grace. Barry presents the entertainment industry as hilariously obtuse, with overconfident executives essentially speaking in a nonsense language. Along with D’Arcy Carden’s Natalie, now her assistant, Sally seems more than equipped to handle the industry’s ridiculous demands. Yet parallel to Sally’s journey through the machinery of Hollywood is her costar Katie’s, and things look much different from the young star’s perspective.
The most interesting decision Barry season three makes is also no doubt going to be its most controversial. It reminds us, painfully and repeatedly, that despite being played by American treasure Bill Hader, Barry is a violent man by trade and by choice. If Ted Lasso threw its fans into a frenzy with its dog-killing, trauma-baring second season, Barry’s similar commitment to digging deeper into its high concept premise leads to what’ll surely be an even more destabilizing viewing experience.
Despite and perhaps because of its assured strides in a new direction, Barry remains a wholly satisfying watch. Each cast member brings their A-game, with Fisher, in particular, making an excellent cast addition. The show’s humor is in sharper-than-ever contrast with its darkest elements, but Barry is still capable of being outright hilarious. Most impressively, it’s a show that’s constantly evolving; its premise and its protagonist are both sharklike, relentlessly pressing forward as if their future depends on it.
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