Barry Doesn’t Let Us Turn Away

Photo: Merrick Morton/ HBO

In the first scene of Barry season three, Barry Berkman shoots two men in the head without giving it a second thought. One of them, Charlie, has hired Barry to kill Jeff, who had slept with Charlie’s wife. Jeff tearfully apologizes to Charlie and begs for clemency, which Charlie grants him, making it unnecessary for Barry to pull the trigger.

“He’s asked for my forgiveness,” Charlie explains to Barry. “You know, he made some valid points. So I’m forgiving Jeff.”

That’s when Barry puts a bullet in Charlie’s forehead, then Jeff’s, walks across the desolate hillside where this scene plays out and exclaims, “There’s no forgiving Jeff!”

On first viewing, this sequence plays mostly like a piece of Barry’s signature dark comedy. The abruptness with which Barry dispatches his victims, especially in contrast to the humanity they show one another, is morbidly funny. But it also plants the seed for one of the season’s primary themes, which is on full display in the season three finale: that a death, any death, should have an impact.

A question: After you watched that scene, did you think about Charlie or Jeff again? Did you try to imagine what the other parts of their lives looked like, or feel sad that those lives would not continue? Did you wonder how Charlie’s wife felt when she found out both her husband and lover had been killed? You probably didn’t, and that’s understandable. Entertainment that involves hitmen and drug cartels has trained us not to think much about the offing of minor, narratively insignificant characters. Their lives are expendable, just small details in stories built around protagonists who demand our attention. Psychologically and emotionally, we hold the violence directed at these victims at a distance.

But this finale, titled “Starting Now” and co-written and directed by star Bill Hader, forces us to confront that perspective in three key consecutive scenes. The first is when the biker tracking Barry shows up at his apartment, knocks Barry out, then tries to kill Sally. Sally fights back, stabbing the guy in the neck with a fork. But when Sally really snaps, it happens in the soundproof recording studio in Barry’s apartment, behind glass and a closed door. We don’t hear what’s happening. In a long shot, we see Sally swinging a bat repeatedly but we don’t see the biker, who is on the floor and out of frame, taking the blows. We witness Sally’s violent behavior from a literal distance.

But we can’t distance ourselves from the impact of that behavior on Sally, whose reaction to what she’s done is captured in an extreme close-up that fully displays her shocked expression, the tears that run down her face, and the blood spatters on her forehead. (Sarah Goldberg is incredible in this scene.) We don’t see the pain Sally inflicts on her victim, but Sally’s anguish after the fact takes up the whole screen. Barry won’t let us look away from it.

The very next sequence inverts this approach to similar effect. Noho Hank, being held hostage by Cristobal’s family in the sort of dungeon all cartel bosses maintain in their homes, hears his fellow Chechen prisoner’s plan to overpower his captors and escape. Hank can’t see his “colleague,” he can only hear his voice from the other side of a dank wall. Soon after, Hank listens as his friend’s plan goes completely awry and he gets attacked and presumably eaten alive by a wild animal.

Unlike the Sally murder sequence, we and Hank can hear everything: the shouting between prisoner and guard, the roar of the unseen beast, the screams from the man. But we see none of it. Our sense of horror is, again, reflected on the face of a character who isn’t normally prone to violence in the way that Barry is. This time it’s Noho Hank, whose face contorts and turns tomato red as he cowers while listening to the soundtrack of carnage unfolding nearby. Anthony Carrigan plays this moment with such intensity that it truly looks as if Hank’s bald head is going to pop right off his neck.

Hank’s anger and fear, like Sally’s, boil over, giving him the adrenaline rush he needs to snap out of his handcuffs and do what his dead comrade couldn’t: shoot his way out of that dungeon and rescue Cristobal from Elena, who is trying to electroshock the gay out of her husband. When Hank shoots Elena, we barely see the bullet hit, and we don’t see her dancing assistant get shot at all — all of that happens off-camera. But once the relief of reuniting with Cristobal has settled, Hank looks stricken and afraid, both of what he’s just done and what it might mean for his safety. The tight shot of Hank widens, but not before we see the storm clouds gathering on his face. The series demands we take note of them.

That scene immediately fades into the next, which brings us back to that hillside with the tree from the “forgiving Jeff” sequence. Barry is burying the biker that Sally killed when he’s confronted by Albert, the FBI agent who served in the Marines alongside Barry and also happens to be investigating Janice’s death. Albert wants to know why Barry killed Chris, their fellow Marine friend, and how much he got paid for it. (Of course the answer is that he wasn’t paid for that murder at all, Barry just wanted to keep Chris from confessing to their role in the attack on the Bolivians.) Albert’s focus on Chris, like the presence in the last two episodes of Ryan’s father George and Janice’s dad Jim, underlines how many people Barry has killed and how easy it’s been for him, and us, to forget about them. When Albert yells at Barry that Chris was a sweetheart who did not deserve to die, it’s an echo of the words George spoke about his son and Jim’s heated interrogation of Gene (“Her name was Janice”). Each of these men serve as testimony that those three lives mattered. Barry shouldn’t forget that. Neither should we.

This scene ultimately puts Barry in the same position that Jeff was back in episode one: He’s on his knees on that hill, screaming and shaking with the knowledge that Albert is probably going to shoot him and end his life. Except Albert doesn’t. He shows Barry mercy, the same thing Charlie showed Jeff but Barry has rarely shown to the people he killed, for money or not. Instead of shooting him, he tells Barry he’s not evil, but everything he’s been doing needs to stop.

Like Barry before him, Albert walks away, leaving Barry crouched on the ground, almost as if he’s praying. He never asks for Albert’s forgiveness or apologizes for his sins. He doesn’t because he knows, already, that there is no forgiving Barry for what he’s done. The weight of Chris — and Janice, and Ryan, even though Barry wasn’t actually the one who killed him, and so many others — is now pressing on Barry’s back. In this trio of carefully crafted scenes, Barry makes sure that we can feel that, too.

Barry Doesn’t Let Us Turn Away