Three men are in the desert. One of them has hired another of them, Barry, to kill the third man, Jeff. But right before Barry’s about to finish the job, an epiphany: What if the first guy just forgave Jeff? He does it, he forgives Jeff for sleeping with his wife. He calls off the job gleefully. Barry is incensed: “There’s no forgiving Jeff!”
This is the first glimpse we see of our hero as “Barry” returns to HBO for Season 3. So, no, Barry does not appear to have beat his PTSD from serving as a Marine in Iraq, nor has he kicked his penchant for killing for hire. It’s a season about second chances and forgiveness, and we can see what a long way to go we have from here.
This eight-episode arc finds Barry (Bill Hader) dealing with the aftermath, both interpersonal and emotional, of his bloody showdown with Chechen gangsters at the end of last season, as well as the consequences of his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) finding out Barry was responsible for the death of Gene’s girlfriend. Plus Barry’s still trying to make it as an actor, get out of the hitman business, and keep his actress girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), happy. But he can’t seem to quit his life of crime; he’s turned down a role in a Jay Roach buddy movie called “Swim Instructors” and is instead right back on Hitman Marketplace online, trolling for jobs, after a falling out with his former boss, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root).
The season is packed with twisting storylines, all of them fueled by questions about the nature of redemption, forgiveness, and vengeance. The ride is at turns gripping and very funny, with moments of unexpected pathos, all of it quite enjoyable, especially if you stop trying to figure out the details of the ongoing warfare between Bolivian and Chechen gangsters in Los Angeles that forms the backdrop of the season.
“Barry” continues to use the world of Hollywood—with its pretend drama, its superficiality, and its absurd self-importance—as the perfect foil for the very real stakes Barry faces in his job as a hired gun. Sally is now starring in, writing, and running her own semi-autobiographical drama series, and the pressure is turning her into even more of a narcissist. Ignorant of what Barry’s up to in his spare time, she seems convinced she’s the one with problems. In a twist, it seems like her series might even turn out to be … good?
Some of the “Barry” schtick is getting predictable. The show’s comedic rhythms are so tight they can start to lull you. The gangsters’ Tarantinoesque quirkiness, for instance, can feel repetitive at times, as fun as it is to imagine Bolivian gangsters going to Pilates class or eating at Johnny Rockets and Buffalo Wild Wings together between murderous missions (they love to try all the sauces!) while the Chechens download a Detonate app (it uses Bluetooth to synch to the bomb of your choice!) that has a few bugs.
But the performances remain top-notch. Anthony Carrigan as sensitive Chechen NoHo Hank anchors the entire gangster side of things in a guy you improbably want to root for, and his storyline involving Bolivian Cristobal, played by Michael Irby, is a surprising sweet spot. The changing dynamics of the season allow for particularly great performances from Goldberg as Sally, who’s both gobsmacked and empowered by her dawning success, and Winkler as Cousineau, who’s forced into reconciling his rage at Barry and into seeking forgiveness from the many Hollywood directors, producers, assistants, and actors he once terrorized with his actorly whims in his heyday. (“The guy who brought the loaded gun to the ‘Full House’ audition?” is how one remembered him.) Root, meanwhile, sells us on a particularly dark storyline involving Fuches.
Hader is as solid as ever as Barry, and it’s a job that’s getting trickier—remaining a likable leading man with whom we somehow identify even has he does worse and worse things on screen. (There are moments this season when he’s bordering on psychopathic.) But it’s nice to see the playing field open up to the rest of the terrific cast. And his lift will likely get much heavier as the season continues beyond the four episodes this critic viewed for this review; the many storylines are converging toward a pretty bad place for our hero.
At its heart, “Barry” is about how life is terrible and mundane and sublime, funny and tragic and sweet, sometimes all at once, and they can’t be separated from each other. In this way, it’s one of the most meaningful, and complicated, uses of dark comedy on television. It’s also hard to tell whether the dark or the comedy will win in the end, but that’s what keeps us watching.
“Barry” Season 3 premieres on HBO Sunday, April 24