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Barry's Season Three is the Bleakest Yet
That's a little less fun. But it's still an impressive achievement.
Bill Hader’s bleak, critically acclaimed comedy Barry about a hitman who wants to be an actor wrapped up its second season four years ago in 2018. That’s a long lay-off, and the Barry who returns to us is older, scuzzier, more ground down. The enthusiasm for acting which lit up Hader’s mobile features in the first two seasons is drained away. He’s now barely going through the motions of redemption. A show about faking it feels more fake, and therefore more true to itself, than ever.
Barry’s title character, played by Hader, is an ex-marine. Adrift after leaving the army, he goes to work for family friend Fuches (Stephen Root) as a contract killer. But when Barry stumbles into an acting class on a job, he finds a new passion and a new purpose. He adopts acting teacher and narcissistic careerist Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) as his guru and father figure, and starts dating narcissistic careerist Sally (Sarah Goldberg).
Despite Barry’s best efforts, though, his past keeps pulling him back in. To cover up who he was he ends up murdering Cousineau’s girlfriend, Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome.)
Barry wants a Hollywood redemption arc. He hopes that by acting as someone else he can escape his past and transform himself just like lots of movie bad boys, from Han Solo to sad Ben Affleck Bruce Wayne in Batman vs. Superman. But Barry doesn’t actually want to face any consequences for his actions, or accept any responsibility for them. That means that he’s constantly doubling down to escape punishment or accountability. And “doubling down” here, means “murdering friends and acquaintances.”
In the first two seasons, Barry’s cheerful can-do demeanor and everyman air of harried hope kept viewers guessing. Is he actually a good person, deep down? Can he put his violent past behind him?
By the third season, though, it’s obvious that the only person Barry is fooling is himself. And even there, the rationalizations are wearing thin. A vengeful Fuchs tells Cousineau at the end of season 2 that Barry killed his girlfriend. Does Barry really think he can put things right through manic apology and restarting Cousineau’s career?
Cousineau also stumbles through a storyline of forgiveness and triumph. Over the first six episodes of the eight episode season, we learn more about his past in the industry; he has trouble finding work, it turns out, because he was thoroughly horrible to everyone he ever interacted with. Yet Hollywood is eager to write him back into his career. Henry Winkler as Cousineau turns in a quietly desperate performance, alternately blankly amazed and blankly horrified at his change in fortunes.
Cousineau’s sporadic efforts to be worthy of a second chance stand in stark contrast to Fuchs’ storyline. Barry’s mentor in assassination has multiple opportunities for pastoral retirement, but instead keeps choosing self-righteous vengeance and blood. Meanwhile, Sally pursues her own dreams as the writer and showrunner of a series about her experience of domestic violence—a powerful subject at odds both with Hollywood studio hypocrisy and her own relationship with Barry who is, redemption arc notwithstanding, an extremely violent man.
Hader frames the show’s erosion of hope with a stark aesthetic. The visuals in Barry have always looked great, but season 3 features a colder, more sweeping formalism. Static long shots frame scenes of violence occurring in the distance, like Breughel paintings with more firearms. Carnage unfolds as a kind of comic, pathetic inevitability. The world is a flat, rigid landscape, through which hatred blows like a string of tumbleweeds.
I do miss the lighter tone of Barry’s first two seasons, and some of their focus. Barry’s loss of artistic purpose makes the show feel more diffuse and unmotivated, as different characters—including the cheerfully polite, love-starved Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan)—pursue their various orthogonal fates.
But I appreciate the way season 3 presses its face resolutely into the brick wall of its own dead-end vision. Barry dreamed that he could embrace a new self through sheer pretense and desire. He tried to tell a story of Hollywood redemption and become a Hollywood star redeemed. By season 3, though, his pretense has worn thin, and underneath there’s no redemption, but a void. Barry’s season 3 may be less fun to watch, but that’s because it’s rubbed off the make-up so assiduously that it’s exposed bone.
First published April 2022.
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