TV: Barry (Season 3)

In its first two seasons, HBO’s Barry established itself as a problematic but breathlessly entertaining series about a hitman-turned-aspiring-actor. With its unique blend of clever dark comedy and shocking dramatics, it’s an utterly addictive series. But it’s also one of those shows that centers an antihero who, while outwardly likable, is prone to relentlessly reprehensible and violent acts. I loved the show’s early seasons, but I came away from them feeling like I shouldn’t, guilty for finding humor in its tragic escalations and for rooting for a character prone to unforgivable acts. But holy shit, does season three ever change the game, shifting the conversation in new directions in a way that not only addresses earlier concerns, but practically changes the show’s genre.

The show’s antihero is Barry Berkman (Bill Hader), a traumatized ex-marine who has been manipulated by the unscrupulous Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) into turning his capacity for killing into a lucrative career as a professional assasin. But Barry, conflicted about the work, tries to change when, during an assignment, he unexpectedly develops the acting bug. This leads to a new life in LA as a student in the acting class of grifting Hollywood old-timer Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), where he develops a crush, and later a relationship, with the class’s star pupil, Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). Unfortunately, Fuches’ avaricious meddling keeps drawing Barry back into the world of violence, forcing him to live a double life: unassuming actor by day, dead-eyed hitman by night.

Even at its most questionable, Barry is an undeniably compelling show, delivering laughs, drama, and shocking moments in unpredictable ways. But it also threatens, at every turn, to be another one of those shows that works to charm the viewer into rooting for a villain. Oh, Barry is troubled guy, and not without good qualities, and many of his bad qualities are exacerbated by Fuches’ devious manipulations. But he’s still toxic—and by pursuing a new life, threatens to spread that toxicity all around him, jeopardizing the innocent people in his life.

Well, Barry doesn’t miss the memo on its own subtexts, and given the current national climate on violent villainy never receiving the accountability it so desperately deserves, the show drastically changes its tune in season three. It begins at a state of heightened urgency, as Barry’s responsibility for the death of Gene’s girlfriend has been exposed. The secret of Barry’s violent life is out, and he reacts in a panic, beginning a rather crazed and desperate scheme to make it up to Gene by resurrecting Gene’s acting career. There’s an obvious problem: Barry’s crime is just too unforgivable. But since Barry is obviously dangerous, the terrified Gene—worried for his family—guardedly acquiesces to Barry’s plan.

Barry takes this problem to Sally, whose career is about to take off on a new TV series. When Sally tells him she can’t get Gene a role on her show, Barry’s wrathful reaction starts to unravel their relationship. Nonetheless, Barry sustains the campaign, eventually even landing Gene a part. But there simply is no erasing the evil of his ways, and in fact Barry’s flailing attempts at redemption only fling more poison into the world, especially when the vengeful Fuches begins plying his silver-tongued skills on the surviving victims of Barry’s violence.

Modern TV drama viewers love to get their nerves wracked. Barry initially looks to cash in on this trend—familiar from shows like Breaking Bad and Ozark—by coming at its urgent, twisty, plot-driven structure from a blackly comic perspective. As such it’s a riveting but troubling entertainment, but the paradigm shift of season three subverts all that came before it. Hader and his co-writer/director Alec Berg are clearly aware of the subliminal toxicity of bad-man redemption stories; here, they cleverly tell one that doesn’t pay off, revealing Barry’s quest as a futile, too-late gesture that only compounds the misery. In a nation still reckoning with the aftermath of unprecedented government corruption and ever more frequent mass-shooting events, do we need to be empathizing with yet another white male villain? The answer is a resounding no. Season three dives into the psychology of its toxic men, each seeking to dig out from their pasts. Barry is the primary subject, of course, but the theme is also explored through Gene’s acknowledgement of his destructive Hollywood past, and the efforts of NoHo Hank (the hilarious Anthony Carrigan) to dig himself and his lover out of the drug-trafficking turf war that brought them together. Even Fuches, who spends the season one step removed from the action, is allowed moments of reflection that suggest a part of him must want to leave his life of crime in the past. Alas, the damage has already been done.

Paralleling all this, of course, is Sally’s acting career narrative, an emotional roller-coaster that runs the promising, neurotic young starlet through the inane pressure cooker of Hollywood. Sally’s show, Joplin, is a semi-autobiographical story about a young mother attempting to lead her daughter (Katie, played by Elsie Fischer) out of an abusive relationship. It’s Katie who finally calls out Barry’s abusiveness to Sally, who takes belated steps to extricate herself. But like the many victims of Barry’s violence, Sally has already been broken, and descends herself into a new kind of madness.

It takes a while for the new Barry to find its legs this season, as it jettisons the acting-class focus and maneuvers into bold new territory. One has to imagine the three-year gap between seasons, and all the news-cycle turmoil that occurred during that stretch, must have shaped the series’ dramatic re-imagination. This leads to some wobbly pace initially. But after a few episodes, Barry is up to its old, gripping tricks, spiraling its quirky world to darker and darker depths. By episode six, which features one of the best, most memorable chase sequences I’ve ever seen, the series is like a runaway train again, its dark comedy and high drama ramping into a new realm: breathtaking surreality. The endgame is unnerving, baffling, and uncommonly satisfying, hinging on stunning performances from its core cast. Goldberg, Carrigan, and Winkler are award-worthy supporting performers, and Hader—who directed the home stretch with an ambitious vision that should cement his future career as a filmmaking auteur—has never been more impressive. With a season yet to go, I’m anxious as hell to see how they’re going to follow this and bring an end to an unforgettable project.

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