For all the show’s crime-drama underpinnings, Barry often resembles an addiction story more than anything else. At the beginning of the series, Barry was burnt out on killing; the violence he thought might give his life purpose no longer fulfilled him. When he walked into Gene Cousineau’s acting class way back in the pilot episode, it felt like the first time he’d ever realized something different was possible — and in season two, he put that to the test, quitting the hitman life cold turkey.
This did not last. If killing is Barry’s drug, and season two was his attempt at coming down, the monastery massacre that ended that season represented his relapse — a disturbing, bloody reversion to the old Barry, overdosing on single-minded fury. Three years later for us — but only around half a year later for him — Barry has kept the streak going. Acting isn’t front of mind anymore; when he’s not sitting on the couch all day playing video games, he’s fully back in hitman mode, taking odd jobs from amateurs on “Hitman Marketplace” while he tells his girlfriend he’s going on auditions.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call cold-blooded murder a “comfort” to Barry; he’s known since before the first episode that killing isn’t exactly self-care. But it is a skill he knows well, one he retreats to when he doesn’t know what else to do. The Barry we meet in the cold open of “Forgiving Jeff” may not be as viscerally frightening as the Barry of the last finale, energized as he was by fury and paranoia. But the fatigue that weighs down every element of Bill Hader’s expression and body language now is even scarier. It means Barry doesn’t care anymore.
So when the guy who hired Barry to kill his buddy Jeff decides he wants to cut Jeff’s eyelids off himself, Barry reacts to it with all the indifference of a bored cashier on a late-night shift. And only moments later, when the client decides to renege and forgive Jeff after all, Barry can’t even be bothered to listen to the guy’s full explanation. He puts bullets in both men’s heads, shouting that “there’s no forgiving Jeff” while he stalks off and we cut to the big, block red letters and bombastic theme we know so well. Right now, an annoying client is no different to Barry than a needy customer at Lululemon, and this route is far easier than finding a more peaceful way to ensure they keep the aborted job quiet. Besides, if forgiveness is no longer possible for Barry, why should it be possible for Jeff?
Sally can’t see what her boyfriend is going through because she’s too distracted living her dream. Gene’s acting class may be over, but the final show’s success earned Sally the semi-autobiographical TV series she always wanted: Joplin, starring Sally and a teenage actor named Katie (Eighth Grade’s delightful Elsie Fisher) as a mother-and-daughter duo. Last season, Sally strove for authenticity in telling the story of her own abuse. But that all changed when she changed the ending of her story to make it more shallowly empowering, falling back on a comforting fantasy — and it worked. Joplin continues that trend, with Sally writing herself a daughter to impart the warnings she wishes she’d been given.
It’s not just in her writing that Sally is leaning into her most unself-aware tendencies. Faced with an intimidating exec (a hilariously spacey Elizabeth Perkins) who seems unwilling to commit to either praising or outright questioning Sally’s methods, she gets wrapped up in her own ego. After the meeting, she pulls aside Natalie (D’Arcy Carden), the one other student from the acting class who’s onboard. “I can’t feel empowered as a woman if I don’t bring up other women with me, so I’m so happy that you’re here,” she sweetly condescends. “But don’t talk in meetings. Actually, you know what, when I’m in a meeting, that’s a great time for you to be making my snack.” The camera pushes in close on Natalie’s wounded expression, Sally offscreen as she bosses around the woman who was her peer so recently.
Amid all the misery and cynicism, at least we have NoHo Hank. He’s a very necessary force of light, especially because this might be the smartest and happiest we’ve ever seen him. He’s delighted to go to the station for his first interrogation, and he even takes the discovery of Barry’s attempt to frame him for Janice’s murder in stride, throwing Fuches under the bus instead. After all, from his hideaway in the Chechen mountains, Fuches poses no danger for the time being. He’s a patsy who can be used for basically any mafia crime the cops dig up.
But more important: Hank and Cristobal’s adorable bromance has transformed into an adorable romance! As tragic as the loss of all their “buddies” in the monastery was, at least they’ve had the freedom to live in Barry-free domestic bliss. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a gay mob-boss love story outside of fan fiction, but it makes so much sense — and it adds real stakes to a character who ends up being comic relief so much of the time.
“Forgiveness is something that has to be earned,” Hank tells Barry, shutting him down when he shows up looking for work and a purpose. It could prove to be the thesis statement of this season of Barry — but Gene has known the truth about Barry for months now and has no interest in granting absolution. During their cold office reunion, Gene pulls out an ancient gun gifted by Rip Torn and says the line I’ve been waiting three years to hear: “I know you killed Janice.” Henry Winkler picks up where he left off in season two, his performance suffused with melancholy and a simmering rage toward the man who killed the love of his life.
But a gun snafu suddenly leads to Gene on his knees in the desert at the receiving end of Barry’s gun, no different from any other loose end that needs tying. Scrambling, he tries to assure Barry that he has forgiven him, even though Barry knows that can’t be true. He repeats Hank’s axiom to Gene, who responds, “Then fucking earn it!” briefly letting go of false consolation and allowing his fury and frustration to come through.
Back in the pilot, during his monologue to Gene about killing, Barry confessed, “I know there’s more to me … than that. But maybe … maybe there’s not. Maybe this is all I’m good at.” For two seasons now, Barry has tried to prove that initial fear wrong — to discover his own passions and convince himself he’s not a “psycho.” (When a client calls him that word in this episode, you get the sense it’s nothing he hasn’t heard from the voice in his own head countless times.) But in “Forgiving Jeff,” we see that fear realized: a Barry who’s utterly drained and dead behind the eyes as he commits murder after mindless, mechanical murder.
So it’s equally parts relieving and dread inducing to see Barry light up again at the end of the episode, perhaps reenergized by some new idea to earn Gene’s forgiveness (though he’s nowhere near letting the guy go just yet). At this point, it’s difficult to guess what that entails. We’ve seen Barry’s efforts to curb his violence backfire in the past, so Gene certainly isn’t out of the woods yet.
But if Jeff can be forgiven for what he did, is there some hope for Barry? I’m worried that ship has sailed, and I’m worried how Barry will react when he’s confronted with that fact. Maybe he was right in the very first scene of this dark, dark premiere: At a certain point, there’s no more forgiving.
• Hey! I’m Ben, and I’ll be recapping Barry this year. I’m so excited to write about the show after so long without a new season.
• The show continues to use marital infidelity as the main impetus to hire a hitman, first with Jeff, then again with the client from Hitman Marketplace. Barry moved to L.A. in the first place to kill the personal trainer Goran’s wife was sleeping with, and season two’s “Ronny/Lily” saw Detective Loach blackmailing him into going after his ex-wife’s lover.
• Asked how he knew everyone at the monastery died if he wasn’t there, Hank says, “I saw it on Citizen app.”
• He also refers to Fuches as a notorious Chechen assassin named “The Raven.” It’s sad to see Detective Mae Dunn (Sarah Burns) fall for this stuff so easily, especially when it leads to Gene prematurely taking the law into his own hands. None of the cops on Barry’s trail have been particularly competent since Janice, so it’ll be interesting to see where this thread goes, especially with Burns now a series regular.
• Some darkly funny on-the-nose dialogue from Joplin: “I think what your mother is saying is you need to be with someone who doesn’t abuse you.” “Well, she’s one to talk.”
• Elizabeth Perkins’s favorite line from Joplin is when “that beautiful old man” says, “You can’t call me names in my café.” But it turns out it was from a different show.
• I wonder if any other students from Gene’s acting class will show up, like Sasha (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) or Jermaine (Darrell Britt-Gibson).