Barry Berkman, the hitman turned actor who’s kinda still a hitman, has never been completely at peace. But as season three of the HBO series named for him begins, he is especially rattled. In the opening scene of the first episode, debuting Sunday night, he gets so frustrated by two men discussing forgiveness that he ends up shooting both in the head, even though he was only hired to kill one.
Devoid of purpose and prone to hallucinations after a vengeful shooting spree at the end of season two, Barry, played pitch-perfectly from beneath dark clouds by Bill Hader, spends time scrolling through a website called Hitman Marketplace to see what gigs are available. In the premiere, “forgiving jeff,” Barry seeks out the world’s most casual Chechen gangster, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), and tearfully begs for work just to give his days some kind of structure. But Hank can’t help Barry because he’s trying to embrace a new direction in his own life. “It’s like that line in Shawshank Redemption,” Hank says dramatically, “Get rich or die trying.” Which is absolutely not a line from Shawshank Redemption.
So much of this exceptional third season of Barry, returning to HBO after a three-year absence prolonged by the pandemic, is steeped in two contradictory tones or elements bumping up against each other. There are moments delivered with dramatic intensity and undercut by absurdity, like that NoHo Hank misquote or a scene in episode six when Barry dictates, loudly and in great detail, disturbing text messages while casually shopping for clothes. During multiple scenes, the action in the foreground and the background work are at obvious, hilarious odds with one another. In the second episode, two romantic partners argue in their kitchen — “I don’t understand why you’re leaving me.” “You have too many dogs.” “Me??” — while roughly 30 dogs can be seen through the window behind them, chasing an intruder in their backyard. Ironies and subtext haunt many of the lines of dialogue. “What I did was terrible, and I’m truly sorry,” Barry says while acting in a scene. Given the things Barry has actually done and the person he’s speaking to as he says this — I won’t say who because spoilers — that sentence resonates on multiple frequencies.
One of the things that makes Barry so good — and it’s so good this season that I not only want to recommend it to Vulture readers, I want to hand out flyers to random people on the street, imploring them to watch — is its ability to balance more than one concept at a time. Very few shows can jockey between genres and handle each with as much finesse as Barry. It’s an extremely funny comedy and it’s a suspenseful crime thriller that effectively keeps its audience guessing. This season, thanks to the story line that focuses on Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and her first experience as the showrunner and star of her own streaming series, it’s also a satire of contemporary TV as barbed and wry as anything on The Other Two. And given its collisions between hitmen, international crime syndicates, and innocent bystanders, Barry continues to excel as an action series. There’s an extended chase sequence in the sixth episode of the new season that will knock off your shoes, socks, and, quite possibly, all of your toenails.
What’s so fitting about Barry’s ability to do multiple, sometimes contradictory things at once is that its characters are essentially struggling to do the same thing in their own lives. Under the continued stewardship of series creators Alec Berg and Hader, who wrote and directed several of the new episodes, Barry continues to kill but still believes there’s a path to some form of redemption for himself. Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), Barry’s acting teacher reeling from the season-two revelation that Barry killed his girlfriend, struggles to reconcile his anger with a yearning to compensate for his own past sins as an egotistical narcissist. Sally is trying to make a streaming drama based on her experiences with abuse while surrounded by industry phoniness, ignoring the extent to which she’s still being abused. Both NoHo Hank and Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s former boss, can see the possibility of a life away from criminal enterprise, but of course [Al Pacino voice] every time they think they’re out, something pulls them back in.
Everyone in the cast keeps their characters grounded in the recognizable even when the situations they confront are heightened and exaggerated, but two actors in particular must be singled out this season. The first is Winkler, who persuasively travels to darker, more layered places in his portrayal of Gene than ever before. Goldberg also beautifully rises to the occasion in demonstrating that Sally is a deft compartmentalizer and multitasker, a pair of skill sets that are really two sides of the same coin. In the first episode, there’s a fantastic long take of Sally walking across multiple sets during production of her series and offering feedback to various below-the-line creatives as she goes. Eventually she takes her place opposite her co-star, played by Elsie Fisher of Eighth Grade, makes one last comment on a costume option, and immediately snaps into character when action is called. The scene is designed to show us how capable and talented Sally is; it reveals the same is true of Goldberg.
With Barry, Better Call Saul, and Atlanta all airing after long hiatuses, audiences are currently being treated to an embarrassment of filmmaking riches on TV. Like the other two series, Barry is consistently directed with precision and authority, without ever being too showy or overly precious. This is a series crafted with rigor and care that tells the stories of L.A. residents who are messy and ridiculous; again, we’ve got two contradictory concepts that work together impeccably. To reinterpret that Shawshank Redemption line one more time: Either get busy watching Barry, or … like, get busy doing something else that won’t be nearly as satisfying.