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Some Things Never Change in ‘Barry’

Whether it’s hitmen, actors, or hitmen trying to be actors, characters on ‘Barry’ are constantly putting up a wall of artifice at the expense of personal growth

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

It’s been nearly three years since the HBO dark comedy Barry aired its second season, and while a lot has changed in the real world—a pandemic, a new president, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, and so on—things have essentially remained the same for the eponymous hitman. After spending the show’s excellent second season trying to escape his past in pursuit of acting, Barry Berkman (played by writer, director, and cocreator Bill Hader) had a violent breakdown in the finale, shooting a host of Chechen, Bolivian, and Burmese mobsters during a fit of uncontrollable rage. (Not that Barry was making much progress on the whole “no more killing” philosophy to begin with.) For Barry, wiping the slate clean is as arduous as making it in Hollywood while remaining true to one’s artistic integrity—a challenge embraced on the other side of the series by aspiring actress Sally Reed, who twists the moment she left her abusive ex-husband into a triumph of female empowerment.

The third season picks up after a brief time jump—the internet’s SEO foot soldiers can get you up to speed if you need a refresher—with the ensemble’s lives changing, though not necessarily for the better. Estranged from both of his Svengali-like mentors, acting coach Gene Cousineau and hitman handler Monroe Fuches, Barry is taking odd assassin jobs on the black-market equivalent of Craigslist. It’s a gruesome version of going through the motions, and acting is no longer a priority. Meanwhile, Sally has leveled up into the writer, director, and star of a show loosely based on her own life that she’s making for a nascent, female-focused streaming service. The revelation that Barry and Sally are now living together doesn’t even feel substantial; their relationship is defined by apathy.

In a surprising twist, the character most satisfied with how everything is going is NoHo Hank, the scene-stealing Chechen gangster who is dating Bolivian mafia leader Cristobal Sifuentes, after they spent much of the previous season flirting with each other under the guise of uniting their organizations. The fact that the person being truest to themselves is also the closest to genuine contentment probably isn’t a coincidence. Whether it’s hitmen, actors, or hitmen trying to be actors, characters on Barry are constantly putting up a wall of artifice at the expense of personal growth—even if, in the case of Sally, it could benefit their professional lives.

The momentum driving the third season is those walls beginning to come down. Of course, Barry didn’t bring his wall down for himself as much as it was decimated by Fuches, who in the Season 2 finale told Gene that his favorite pupil killed Detective Janice Moss. By the Season 3 premiere, “forgiving jeff,” a devastated Gene cooks up an ill-advised scheme to shoot Barry with a pistol gifted to him by beloved character actor Rip Torn (RIP). But instead of avenging his slain girlfriend, Gene watches his gun literally fall apart on him at the crucial moment. Feeling that he has no other choice, Barry takes his mentor out to the desert and prepares to execute him, only stopping when a panicked Gene tells him that he has to earn forgiveness—echoing a conversation our hitman had earlier in the episode with Hank. With that incentive, Barry says that he knows what he has to do to make Gene forgive him. (The kicker: He orders Gene to hop back in his trunk before the credits hit.)

Considering the wide—and frankly, terrifying—grin that spreads across his face, Barry really seems to believe that whatever he’s concocted will set him on a path toward redemption. It’s the true mark of a sociopath that Barry envisions a world in which Gene will forgive him for killing his girlfriend, or that there can be any form of absolution whatsoever. But by the very low standards of Barry’s uncompromising ensemble—and Barry in particular—it’s also a sign of progress. Rather than continuing to ignore the atrocities he’s committed, at least Barry is finally acknowledging them.

It remains to be seen whether Sally will have a similar (albeit less morally conflicting) epiphany while working on her new show, Joplin, in which she plays a single mother raising a daughter in Missouri after leaving an abusive relationship. As much as Barry excels as a bleak character study, Season 3 has also set itself up to be a searing indictment of the modern entertainment industry. Moving away from Gene’s acting class, where students would be lucky to find a role on a TV series in which they get to utter a single line, Sally’s ascension at a fictional streaming service underlines not just the compromises required of making art in a profit-driven environment, but how the fates of these projects are often left in the hands of people who don’t care about the artistry. To wit: An executive (played by Weeds alum Elizabeth Perkins) looking at footage from Sally’s show is so detached that she polls the room to see whether a teenage daughter living with her mom is a relatable experience. (While never mentioned by name, it’s hard not to think of Netflix determining the fates of warmly received shows with cold, unfeeling algorithms, or that Hader and cocreator Alec Berg aren’t pulling from their own experiences in the industry.)

Killing for hire and show business seems like an odd pairing, but Barry has expertly wedded these professions and the self-delusion required to navigate them successfully. Whether it’s a hitman with a history of turning to violence to solve all his problems thinking he can be absolved of his sins or a showrunner charging along with a series that stretches the truth of her history with abuse, Barry continues to shine a light on damaged characters who refuse to look at themselves in the mirror. The results haven’t been pretty going into Season 3, but as is true to Tinseltown, the show must go on.