‘Barry’ Season 3 Review: Bill Hader’s HBO Series Digs Deeper, Darker

After three years, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s HBO series returns with an unflinching look at one killer’s difficult quest to recant, repent, and start over.

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When “Barry” started (four long years ago), it felt like we were meeting Bill Hader’s exhausted hitman at rock bottom. Tired of a dangerous profession glamorized by films, Barry Berkman has neither family, nor friends, nor passion. His only contact is his boss, Fuches (Stephen Root), and their only conversations are about the job Barry wants to quit. Then Hollywood arrives, and as Barry walks through the spotlight at Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting school, a light flashes behind his eyes. Finally a passion. A goal. Certainly things should improve from here.

[narrator voice] They don’t. If Season 3’s tagline – “You can’t bury your past” – isn’t clear enough, the previous two seasons push Barry to breaking point. Beyond his inability to drop the blows for hire, he kills his friend, he kills a cop, and in blind rage at Fuches’s betrayal, he kills every member of the Chechen and Bolivian mobs who stand in across his path. Killing is not a habit that Barry can simply kick, and the show’s first two seasons question whether violence is intrinsic to his identity; if he can change his ways with the right escape, or if there is no escape from aspects of himself that he is afraid to examine. If there was a silver lining to be found amidst this journey, it was that surely, after the monastery rampage, Barry had in fact hit rock bottom.

Well… not quite. “Barry” Season 3 finds its eponymous lead sporting all the hallmarks of a defeated human being. An untrimmed beard covers his expressionless face. His go-to uniform is an unwashed hoodie, stain-proof t-shirt, and loose-fitting sweatpants. The only work he does is from a site on the dark web called “Hitman Marketplace”. When he mentions “a role” to his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), she thinks he’s talking about his broken Xbox controller. There’s no light in his eyes, and there’s no spotlight waiting with a switch.

Across six of the total eight episodes, Season 3 is “Barry’s” darkest take yet. Sometimes things get so desperate, it feels like an end has to come sooner than expected, because imagining Barry’s future is as impossible for us as it seems for him. But Season 4 is already in the works and Season 3, like its predecessors, has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. As NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) says in the premiere, “Forgiveness Must Be Earned,” and co-creators, writers and directors Alec Berg and Bill Hader take no shortcuts in forcing Barry to work for any form of absolution. – both with the people he hurt and the public still watching.

Barry Season 3 Anthony Carrigan NoHo Hank

Anthony Carrigan in “Barry”

Merrick Morton / HBO

Much like previous seasons, new episodes of “Barry” will evoke the inevitable question, “Is this even a comedy?” Yes, that’s true, but that’s almost beside the point. The jokes are steady and consistently great throughout Season 3. There’s the physical comedy, which Carrigan particularly excels at; there are big buttons (like a chase ending in a disastrous Uber mix-up) and throwaway buttons (like when Barry ends a scene by insisting he can make an unlikable character likable); there’s meta-comedy (Allison Jones returns!) and character-building punchlines (so many jokes involving Gene tell a bigger story). “Barry” is a comedy in his bones. The laughs always emerge in fits of relief and excitement, but sometimes a joke is just irresistibly good, regardless of the surrounding atmosphere. But just because it’s a great comedy doesn’t mean it’s all it has to be. (And whether or not it should compete with the network’s silliest sitcoms and fare is a question for the Television Academy, not the creatives or viewers.)

A long time ago “Barry” told us what it was; while Season 3 may test casual fans looking for the typical Hollywood story of how the game saved a struggling soldier, this isn’t this show. Such expectations are tied to both the show’s mainstream appeal (ratings are strong) and its genre (comedies are “meant to be” fun), but those are the two aspects that “Barry ” wants to distinguish rather than embody. Just as this has always been an honest look at someone in pain, it’s also a shrewd attack on the entertainment industry’s eagerness to package that pain into a salable product.

The scene Sally wrote in Season 2 – about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband – became its own TV series this year. But even though she spends every second of every day telling her own story meant to empower women, she is blind to the damage her creation can inflict. Barry succumbs to professional hazards he once found strange and infuriating. The gene is also tested. Hollywood’s critique of “Barry” is specific, but broadly applicable. The way power is made, traded, and delivered is zealously satirized, and the season’s austere atmosphere only underscores the danger of entrusting humanity’s most nuanced stories to a money-making machine. .

Barry Season 3 Sarah Goldberg Sally

Sarah Goldberg in “Barry”

Merrick Morton / HBO

But beyond its insight into La La Land, “Barry” is dedicated to the man at its heart. Examining one’s demons — institutional, family (in Fuches’s case), and personal — inevitably involves some level of discomfort. In addition to breaking it down with expertly layered humor, Hader and Berg also paint a vivid portrait through performance and imagery. One or the other directs every episode of Season 3, and their camera captures the Los Angeles sun in its hollow glow; When you’re down or stuck, there’s a drudgery to the relentless heat and monotonous Southern California days that’s rarely captured on film, but from the abrupt opening high above a hill to the barren apartment of Sally and Barry, even daylight offers little respite. Shadows aptly cover studio stages and meeting rooms, and thoughtful blocking emphasizes loneliness, frustration, and displacement. “Barry” remains handsome, even when events go wrong.

In his character, Hader takes this all the way. The darkness that engulfed Barry did not extinguish the man we first met, but turned him into a gnarled, angry void of hope. It would have been easy for Hader to just do nothing; drag themselves through scenes without direction, in order to convey Barry’s sunken state. But Hader can turn the light on and off, just as he can shade it with color. There are new sides to Barry in Season 3 – layers that grew after the attack on the monastery, layers that emerge in his plan for what’s next, and even more festering beneath the surface. Hader’s performance is active, even when he’s standing still, and it helps us stay invested as Barry embarks on his difficult path.

This attention to detail — the performances, the direction, the awareness, the comedy, the sense of purpose — all come together to make “Barry” great. Dramas pretending to be comedies can be exhausting, and we’re finally beginning to move past the age of antiheroes, but Hader and Berg’s series sets itself apart from those comparisons by refusing to fall into either category; its trajectory is dictated by Barry and the end of his situation. Barry has kill people, and he doesn’t always understand why. Rather than blowing past these deaths and letting the good times roll, “Barry” deals with them with real consequences. The forgiveness he seeks is buried deep within him, and finding it – even for lesser sins – is no easy task. But “Barry” has proven to be worth watching no matter where the bottom is.

Rating: A-

“Barry” Season 3 premieres Sunday, April 24 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.

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