Early in the third season of HBO’s dark comedy, Barry, there’s a chase scene: Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler, flees the trunk of a car in which he’s been held captive and sprints through suburban Los Angeles, eventually jumping a fence into someone’s backyard. The camera then shifts — we’re suddenly in the dining room of the middle-aged lesbian couple who live there, mid-breakup, as one woman says to the other, “I just don’t understand why you’re leaving me!”
“You have too many dogs,” the other replies, as through the window we see no fewer than two dozen dogs, large and small, rushing to attack Gene.
“Me?” says the first woman.
At its core, Barry has always been a show about self-delusion. A hitman (the titular Barry, played with nice-guy sincerity by Bill Hader, who co-created the show along with Alec Berg) longs to leave his sordid profession behind, not due to the moral implications of killing people for money, but because the gig is alienating in the same way all jobs are: shit pay, bad hours, asshole boss, and a lack of fulfillment. He stumbles into an acting class while tailing a mark and is instantly wooed by the promise of transformation that a life on the stage and screen might provide. The joke, it turns out, is that everyone Barry meets in his new life is just as venal and full of shit as those in the past he is trying to escape. These people include Barry’s eventual girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), an obnoxious theater-kid type who lords her comparative talent over the rest of the class, and Mr. Cousineau, who became an acting teacher after his temperament got him blacklisted from Hollywood (he once brought a loaded gun to audition for a home intruder role on Full House, “just to feel the weight of it”). Other key players are Monroe Fuches (a maniacally funny Stephen Root), Barry’s sadistic and manipulative former handler, and Noho Hank, a Chechen mobster whose increasingly dubious relevance to the plot is nearly outweighed by Anthony Carrigan’s hysterical performance.
The first two seasons of Barry veered toward a more traditional dark comedic tone and structure, vacillating between madcap humor and bleak solemnity with a well-executed if familiar cadence. But there were hints in the lead-up to this season of a very different, much weirder show somewhere within it — namely, in “ronny/lily,” an episode in the second season that breaks from the form and tone of the show to send Barry on a surreal manhunt against a martial arts master and his inhumanly powerful, seemingly feral young daughter. This season, too, feels like a slow-building fever dream, thanks in large part to Hader’s distinct directorial style; within its swirl of disparate moods, things like a six-minute motorcycle chase or a business negotiation conducted entirely in grunts and vocal flutter co-exist easily with moments of pure horror and misery.
The characters live in a kind of purgatory, born of a total and devastating lack of self-awareness.
And there is plenty of horror and misery to go around. The first half of the season focuses on the aftermath of Mr. Cousineau’s discovery that his girlfriend, a police detective named Janice who disappeared at the end of the first season, was murdered by Barry after she uncovered his true identity. Barry, delusionally confident as ever that redemption and a fresh start are within his reach, develops a crackpot plan to “make it up to” Mr. Cousineau by landing him a small part on a hit legal procedural. Mr. Cousineau accepts this offer; the alternative, Barry tells him, is that he kills Mr. Cousineau and his family. Sally, meanwhile, has been plucked from relative obscurity to write, direct, and produce a semi-autobiographical show for a female-oriented streaming service called BanShe. Professionally and artistically, Sally is thriving — an impressive tracking shot in the first episode shows her expertly keeping the plates spinning on set, reveling in the controlled chaos — but her relationship is beginning to unravel. When Barry pins her against a wall and screams in her face in a moment of rage, she reverts to old survival mechanisms from her past as a victim of domestic violence, minimizing the severity of his actions and staying for an apology that never comes.
Things fall to shit: Sally’s show, despite garnering critical acclaim (98% on Rotten Tomatoes!), is immediately canceled due to the mercurial whims of “the algorithm” (Hader and Berg find clear delight in taking the piss at Netflix, as they should). She then screams insults in her former assistant’s face in much the same way Barry screamed at her; the assistant surreptitiously films her and leaks the video, and in an instant, her career is over. Meanwhile, Fuches, hellbent on engineering Barry’s downfall, poses as a private investigator and offers up Barry’s name to the families of his victims, hoping they might take matters into their own hands. Of course, they do; of course, Barry narrowly survives; of course, a ripple of slightly convoluted plot elements clears the way for Mr. Cousineau to take his revenge.
Structurally, all of this is very messy, to say the least. Several of the show’s major arcs seem to disappear partway through, or else transform in a way that lacks narrative closure; more than a few plot points feel as if they were added in solely for the purpose of throwing the viewer off of the scent of what’s to come. On a sprawling hour-long show, this loose approach can work; here, in just eight half-hour episodes, it often feels disjointed. But this might be the point, at least in part: where Barry’s tone has inched toward eerie weirdness, its formal aims appear to have shifted, too, away from the conventional arcs of a comedy-drama into a wide open canvas for Hader’s and Berg’s (but particularly Hader’s) vivid experimentation. In the final two episodes, reality itself begins to come apart at the seams: dream sequences portray Barry on a beach standing in a crowd among his victims; Hank is held captive in Bolivia and hears, through the wall of his cell, his crime associates seemingly mauled to death by a lion; Janice’s father holds Mr. Cousineau in a bizarre interrogation, their faces framed in closeup, nearly touching. The entire final episode is so visually and narratively uncanny that you are left waiting for the gag to be revealed — it was all a dream, a dying hallucination, a dramatized wish. But the rug is never pulled; the bottom of the show has simply fallen out, revealing a vast audiovisual palette elevated by truly inimitable performances from Hader, Goldberg, Winkler, and Carrigan.
Barry’s turn toward total surreality is perhaps fitting: its characters live in a kind of purgatory, born of a total and devastating lack of self-awareness. They long for change — to break from the past, to make something of themselves, to become better people — and, at times, take steps toward breaking the cycles of violence that dominate their lives. But they inevitably slide back, hobbled by their inability to see themselves and their patterns amid the towering self-mythologies they’ve constructed. Only Mr. Cousineau, broken to the point of ego death by Janice’s murder and Barry’s threats against him, is able to rise above and find redemption. Barry, on the other hand, is still psychologically imprisoned on that beach, surrounded by the people he’s killed, with no escape save a vast and open ocean.
It’s unclear where Barry might go from here in its now-confirmed fourth season. The last moments of the finale see Barry finally carried away in handcuffs, presumably putting an end to both his hitman and acting careers, while Sally boards a flight back to her hometown in Missouri. But given the way the Hader and Berg have broken the show wide open, the possibilities feel genuinely limitless. Like another recent HBO cult hit, Barry could easily continue to bend across genre and tone, perpetually burning itself to the ground and remaking itself. The one thing Barry can’t, or at least shouldn’t do is attempt to be like it once was. The show’s foundational cycles have been irreparably broken, and what’s left behind, if often lacking in the consistency and coherence of its earlier seasons, is sublime, horrifying, and floridly experimental in a way that resembles nothing else on TV.
R.E. Hawley is a writer and designer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, The Outline, and Real Life.