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At What Point Do We Stop Calling ‘Barry’ a Comedy?

Heading into this weekend’s Season 3 finale, it’s increasingly clear just how bleak ‘Barry’ has become

Spoiler warning

A confession: When the title character of Barry appeared to be in genuine danger, I wasn’t rooting for him to make it. Quite the opposite, in fact; I was hoping he didn’t.

I wasn’t gullible enough to think the former Marine, current hitman, and aspiring actor would actually succumb to a poisoned beignet. (Fool me once with the potential demise of an HBO antihero and I’ll post some enthusiastic tweets about Kendall Roy. Fool me twice …) The Emmy-winning dark comedy already has been renewed for a fourth season, and while killing himself off would free some room on cocreator, star, and director Bill Hader’s plate, it would also stop the story in its tracks.

But headed into last week’s penultimate episode—and now, this weekend’s finale—I was conscious of just how bleak Barry has become. Hader and his collaborators had long since issued a verdict on whether Barry Berkman could ever atone for his deadly past. The answer is a resounding no, not least because the killing has continued into the present. Barry’s would-be assassin is the widow of a fellow veteran whose death by suicide Barry staged to cover up for his crimes. The contract killer turned thespian wants redemption in order to enjoy a full and fruitful life. His refusal to understand that one has to come at the other’s expense only accelerates his downward spiral.

It’s no longer just Barry’s audience that understands this basic truth. By the midpoint of Season 3, virtually the entire cast has come to know Barry’s true nature: His former acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), who knows Barry killed the love of his life; his ex-girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who Barry verbally assaults in front of her colleagues; his Chechen buddy NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), who saw Barry massacre an entire monastery full of armed mobsters. Having unmasked its protagonist to the viewers at home, Barry has spent the intervening episodes removing its other characters’ blinders, one at a time.

Season 3 pairs these revelations with a kind of structural unmooring. The acting class that united the show’s two halves—violent criminals on one side, oblivious Hollywood types on the other—is over, spinning everyone off into largely self-contained subplots. Barry continues his mad dash away from accountability, pursued by the ghosts of his not-really-former life. With his ex-protegé well beyond our sympathy, Gene takes up the mantle of a lower-stakes, more feasible redemption arc, making amends to those he wronged as an insufferable hothead back in the ’80s. Sally learns the hard way that success can be as fleeting as it is hard-won, gaining and losing her own show based on the whims of a faceless algorithm.

The result has been a season that’s less streamlined, less laugh-out-loud funny, and more melancholy than Barry’s previous installments. There are still jokes, many rooted in a physicality that’s proved Hader’s bona fides as a director as well as a writer and performer: Gene fumbling with a gun while attempting to confront Barry in the premiere; the motorcycle chase in “710N,” culminating in a slapstick shootout at a car dealership. But the laughs feel increasingly like brief reprieves. Even Hank, Barry’s most purely comic creation, is now tied up in a tragically doomed romance with his Bolivian rival.

The downbeat feel is amplified by a kind of dream logic that guides the increasingly heightened events. Barry is still a closely observed satire that thrives on detail; it’s a great character study that may also be the best portrait of the San Fernando Valley this side of Licorice Pizza. That realism carries over to bits like the fictional streaming service BanShee, which the writers appear to use as a punching bag for their grievances with this tech-dominated, data-driven era of culture. (“Taste clusters” is a real Netflix-ism that gets cut-and-pasted into the script.) But it’s also tempered by surreal reversals like Sally’s classmate-turned-assistant Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) getting her own series overnight, or Gene going from outcast to accepted sage in a similarly short span of time. Long before Barry hallucinates a beach in the middle of a suburban street, the wild oddity of acclaimed standalone “ronny/lily” had started to bleed into the rest of the show.

Nothing has embodied the borderline supernatural side of Barry more than Barry himself. In “ronny/lily” Barry and Fuches (Stephen Root), his former manager turned nemesis, united against a “feral mongoose”—in reality, a tween girl—who terrorized them into submission. But the further Barry goes on, the more Barry comes to resemble his pint-sized assailant. Like Lily, he appears to be virtually unkillable, resurfacing again and again to keep haunting his victims. He’s well past antihero territory, or even antagonist. Barry is his own show’s big bad, a monster created by his own denial.

Barry always has been adept at evading consequences. In Season 3, though, that skill appears to transcend the laws of physics. He practically teleports in and out of Gene’s house to blackmail him into staying silent; we’ve never seen Barry on a motorcycle, but he’s instantly able to outmaneuver an actual biker gang. And while his abilities only seem to increase, Barry’s also shed the attachments that gave him a semblance of human connection. Gene no longer wants anything to do with him; Sally, a survivor of domestic violence, has finally recognized the danger right in front of her, though it took a younger costar’s concern to help her notice. Barry and Sally’s relationship was never ideal, but it also anchored him to something approaching an emotional baseline.

On shows like Barry, where the protagonist lives a double life, the tension usually derives from when the main character’s lies will catch up to them. With Barry, the dread comes from the increasing certainty that karma is nowhere close. In “candy asses,” Barry goes straight from the frying pan into the fire, surviving the poison only to encounter a grieving father who thinks Barry murdered his son. (Barry wasn’t directly responsible for that death, but because he is for so many others the distinction is effectively moot.) Not only does Barry escape despite being helpless, mute, and incapacitated—it’s his captor who ends up taking his own life. Barry doesn’t even need to have basic motor functions to wreak havoc on everything around him.

Headed into the finale, Barry is on a collision course with his ex-Afghanistan buddy Albert Nguyen (James Hiroyuki Liao). Unfortunately, it’s not Barry we should be worried for. Barry has managed to make its central figure’s almost inevitable success every bit as terrifying as his potential failure, if not more so. As an audience, we’ve long since given up on Barry’s redemption; even basic repercussions increasingly seem too much to ask. Given the moment of cultural backlash we’re living through, Barry feels eerily on the pulse. Always bleak, the supposed comedy is inching ever further into horror.