Hit HBO comedy-drama series “Barry” finished airing its third season this past week and news of a fourth season followed shortly after. The show — starring former “Saturday Night Live” actor Bill Hader — had gone two years without releasing any episodes and with the long wait came high expectations.
From the very first episode, “Barry” has been a show that offers a refreshing blend of dark humor and drama unlike anything else on television. The show follows an ex-marine assassin who, in the midst of an existential crisis, decides he wants to become an actor. Pressure to deliver episodes as captivating as their premise could’ve killed even the most experienced showrunners in Hollywood, but despite the pressure, “Barry” has consistently aired thrilling and hilarious episodes since its Season 1 premiere in 2018. And while the first two seasons had enough tension and comedic relief to satisfy viewers and critics alike, the most recent installment reaches even darker and funnier places than before.
The root of this heightened quality is actually a piece of the show that has remained crucial throughout its entire lifespan: the fascinating contrast between his experiences as an actor and his experiences as a hitman for hire. But if the key ingredient for the show’s increased quality this season has always been a part of it, why is the series better now?
Well, for one, the show takes a different approach to this dynamic in the latest season. This season focuses on the similarities between the characters Barry shoots scenes with and the ones he shoots guns with, rather than juxtaposing their differences. At first glance, actors and hitmen seem to have very little in common. One is a master of imitating life, and the other is a master of taking life away.
But while their work experiences couldn’t be farther from each other, the third season of “Barry” shows us that the problems they face aren’t all that different. Sure, most hitmen don’t perform their work for an audience, but their frowned-upon business of killing people puts them on public display and strangles their ability to be perceived as normal. Actors suffer a similar fate. When you think of an actor, it’s hard to detach them from their line of work and think of them as normal people, too. So how does “Barry” turn this shared attribute into a compelling series filled with comedy and drama? By treating them as if they were normal people.
It might be hard to believe that a series that treats its characters as if they were normal would be any more exciting than spending a day people-watching at Starbucks, so let’s use a few examples. First, one of the earliest clients Barry encounters in the series is Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a Chechen mafia member who, under the command of his boss, hires Barry to murder someone. Despite his affiliations with violent people, Noho Hank is extremely polite, sensitive and bubbly. He violates the mafia henchman archetype by acting like a regular, approachable person. Yet by being a typical individual, every scene featuring his likable personality feels anything but normal since the viewers don’t expect it.
While Noho Hank has been a character in the series since Season 1, the tendency to treat outcasts as normal people didn’t fully develop until the third season. Rather than using only actors and mobsters to portray this abnormal normalcy, this season gives much more screen time to people who don’t act or kill others. In the second episode, which is arguably the funniest of the whole series, the best jokes arise from scenes that pull the background extras into the spotlight and push the main characters into the background.
In one scene, the camera focuses on a woman inside a cafe as Barry is seen through the window inconspicuously shoving his acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), into the trunk of his car. A later scene shows a woman breaking up with her partner for having too many pets while Cousineau runs for his life through their backyard. Just as the words come out of her mouth, we see what she means as a ridiculous number of dogs chase after Cousineau. In both of these scenes, the intensity of the plot is temporarily relieved by shooting each scenario with a “normal” lens to give off a hilariously offbeat tone.
While the third season uses this strategy to elevate humor, it’s best used to create dramatic elements. For every scene involving comedic relief, there is an even better one involving dramatic tension. The most notable dramatic element that completely shifts the tone from previous seasons is the mental decline of the main character, Barry. Suffering from intense guilt, Barry has become disheveled and manic, giving the show a much grittier atmosphere.
On top of that, he starts to seem more like a villain than a protagonist for the majority of the season’s run, as his reluctance to kill and his desire to redeem his past both come to a halt. Ironically, the distant and cold version of Barry makes the character feel even more human than before, as his horrifying past starts to consume his psyche. Rather than donning the disciplined and calm persona he developed in the military, Barry wears his inner turmoil as a badge of honor. And even though he starts behaving more like a stereotypical hitman, the pain that drives his behavior is the most human it’s ever been, making it incredibly difficult not to sympathize with his struggles.
Despite Barry’s return to humanity, several other characters stray away from it in the most interesting development in Season 3. Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), is perhaps the best example of this. In the first half of the season, Sally finally achieves success in show business when she is given the opportunity to write and star in her own show. The show follows her history of abuse but eventually gets canceled despite the positive reviews.
The rapid shift from Sally having her dream job to having it suddenly stripped away leaves her character in an understandably rough place. That, mixed with the decline in her boyfriend’s mental health, is enough to make anyone lash out, but Sally takes it to a whole new level. Without giving away too many spoilers, Sally’s character evolves into a version of herself that is as terrifying as it is heartbreaking. This dramatic change isn’t included to make her character less likable, however. It instead serves to make viewers reflect on what factors lead to a person’s loss of moral character.
In addition to Sally, Season 3 captures this loss of human decency in the average American citizen. For the first time in the show’s run, the audience glimpses what it’s like to be a family member of one of the people Barry has killed. After having a bit of a falling out at the end of Season 2, Barry’s former murder manager, Fuches (Stephen Root), aims to get revenge by giving Barry’s name and address to his victims’ families. By giving them the means to avenge the deaths of their loved ones, Fuches molds the innocent minds of mourning people into the same murderous villains that he turned Barry into.
What follows is a tragic, but at times hysterical, cat-and-mouse game that puts Barry at the opposite end of the barrel. With this, the audience is not only given a new perspective to evaluate the hitman’s murderous tendencies, but also one to view everyday people with. Since all it took was a little push in the right (or wrong) direction for these average people to seek vengeance, the blame becomes a bit harder to pin on Barry himself for all the grisly crimes he’s committed.
While the season owes its primary success to the excellent revival of the dynamic between actors and hitmen, its new approach makes the show all the more captivating. Re-humanizing the troubled hitman strengthens his connection with the audience and the dehumanization of everyone else shows how easy it is to fall into his shoes. Moreover, the season doesn’t just remind viewers that hitmen are people too. It also warns that inside every decent person lies a killer within.