It’s astonishing to realize that, the last time we saw Bill Hader’s psychologically fragile hitman-turned-actor Barry Berkman on screen was in 2019—only three years ago, but a universe away. Since Barry walked into the darkness at the end of season two, following a John Wick-style bloodbath where he wipes out a host of Chechen, Bolivian, and Burmese mercenaries while looking for his former handler, Fuches (Stephen Root), the world’s changed quite a bit: the COVID-19 pandemic, a changing of the political guard, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. And yet, season three of “Barry” sees one of television’s most compelling, darkly comic series stepping back into the light with nary a beat skipped, finding new moral complications for its widening cast of characters without losing its offbeat sense of humor.
After losing his cool at the end of last season, we’re reunited with Barry doing what he does best: killing people for money. But this time, he doesn’t have the high-profile gigs he used to have with Fuches; he’s trawling contract killer Craigslist ads to knock off philandering best friends for peanuts. Hader and Berg’s signature dry humor returns early in episode 1 when the guy who hired him suddenly calls the hit off, saying he’s suddenly forgiven the man who screwed his wife. “THERE’S NO FORGIVING, JEFF!” Barry screams as he shoots them both; it’s a lament both for Jeff’s soul and his, having internalized the feeling that there’s no going back from the things he’s done.
But as is usual for the Coenesque swings of Hader and Berg’s pitch-perfect scripts, nothing in “Barry” is as it seems, and many of its cast seize quixotic opportunities to make up for their past sins. For Barry, it’s the shot at redemption he craves from Gene Cousineau (an always-perfect Henry Winkler), who’s still reeling from last season’s revelation that Barry killed Janice in season one. As for Cousineau, his trajectory throughout the season sees him trying to apologize for a lifetime of narcissistic outbursts against students and PAs who now hold the levers of power over him in the acting biz; a well-placed Variety article, claiming he “saved a veteran’s life” by teaching Barry how to act, gives him the social capital to attempt that comeback.
The article, of course, is not for his benefit, but for Sally’s (Sarah Goldberg), who’s leveraged the powerful (if false) narrative she established for herself last season about standing up against her abusive husband into a gig as a creator/EP for a new TV series called “Joplin.” There, she writes, directs, produces, and stars as the mother of a young woman ("Eighth Grade"'s Elsie Fisher) who’s escaped an abusive relationship, surrounded by female creatives, producers, and sycophants who champion the work as pioneering advocacy for women.
The problem is, just like Barry, it’s all based on a lie, and a derivative one at that: Sally’s finally fulfilling her creative dreams, but she’s too riddled with guilt to enjoy them. It’s affected her relationship with Barry, too, who lashes out at her one day in front of the writers and sends Fisher’s character’s abuser-sense tingling. The other women, though, find all manner of excuses to handwave Barry’s behavior; he’s really a sweetheart, he was just having a bad day, etc. “They’re adults, and I like my job,” one confesses.
That’s the narrative thrust of “Barry” season three, as Berg and Hader wrap each character in a cocoon of self-delusion that both comforts and suffocates. Everyone in the show, Barry included, is running from one transgression or another, scrambling desperately to prove themselves good people after all. Characters can point a gun at someone one minute, then beg for forgiveness from them the next; some get once-in-a-lifetime avenues to escape their conditions, only for greed or self-regard to pull them back in. Take Fuches, who finds two separate occasions this season to escape his desire to take vengeance against Barry and live a quiet life of peace and solitude, only for his ego to drag him back into the fold.
In fact, the most stable and happy of the bunch might just be NoHo Hank (Andrew Carrigan, as delightfully clueless and exuberant as ever), now top dog with the Chechens, and who’s found happiness in an unexpectedly sweet (and embargoed, so as not to spoil the surprise) place. It’s such an interesting choice to make the show’s most anarchic, unpredictable character the happiest and most stable person on screen, and it changes his dynamic with everyone in fascinating ways. Without, of course, losing Carrigan’s unstoppable delivery of overconfident bon mots: “It’s like that line in ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’” he tells Barry in one episode: “Get rich or die tryin’.”
And while this season of “Barry” veers more towards “Breaking Bad”-level character drama than previous seasons, it still hasn’t lost its pitch-black sendups of the respective worlds of crime and showbiz. Like prior seasons, Goldberg finds that incredible balance between wide-eyed confidence and irrepressible guilt for her fame-seeking; one moment, in which she breaks down in irrepressible laugh-crying at a podium mid-speech after realizing that her show’s premiered at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, is the most compelling she’s ever been.
But what about Barry, the character around which the entire show rests? Hader has impressed in both prior seasons, wrapping his usual wildness with a sense of deadpan tragedy, but season three has him even more wrung out than usual. His sad, sunken eyes sit above scraggly stubble, and he claws through both sides of his life on autopilot. It’s a stellar opportunity to give Hader some meaty dramatic material but also puts the usual wry button on the show’s bursts of ultraviolence.
It’s this effortless juggling of tones and stories that keep “Barry” from wearing out its high-concept premise this far into its run. The kicker now is that the rest of the cast is exactly where he’s been the whole time: desperate to shake off the sins of the past, only for fate to bring them back to the old selves they’ve always been. We’ll have to see where the rest of the season takes our humble cast of characters, whether they’re treading the boards or taking out mercenaries.
Six episodes screened for review.