As We Head Into The Season Finale of this hit show, We Are Witnessing Greatness
Assessing Season 3 of Barry
In the first decade of the 21st Century a new kind of series emerged with the coming of the Golden Age: the dramedy. Showtime in particular developed many in the 2000s, most of them centered on deeply flawed women, from long running hits like Weeds and Nurse Jackie to more flawed successes like United States of Tara and The Big C. Some of them were truly magnificent for awhile (I truly count the nominations for Nurse Jackie and the wins that Edie Falco and Merritt Weyer got among the best decisions the Emmys made in the 2010s) and some went into dark territory early and lost their narrative thread (not only did I think Weeds deeply flawed, my viewing of it made me ignore Breaking Bad for most of his run, which was my greatest mistake as a reviewer).
The general success of many of these series led to many networks trying to find their own variation, some with greater success than others. FX has managed a fairly good lock on them recently, with extraordinary series like Better Things and Atlanta. Netflix has had some interesting variations with Russian Doll and Dead to Me (both of which I hope return for a third season soon.) But right now the current candidate for the best on the air but one of the best series on TV anywhere is HBO’s Barry, which takes some of the darkest material imaginable and can get both extraordinary drama and brilliant laughs.
Much of the credit must go to Bill Hader, the creator of the series, headwriter (along with Alec Berg, co-runner of Silicon Valley) director of every episode this season and the lead. I never had much use for Hader before Barry; now I realize what a genius he is. An ex-marine turned hitman suffering from extreme PTSD Barry Berkman spent the first two seasons of the series trying to find a path as an actor. After the chaos of the Season 2 finale, he has lost nearly everything he has gained. Without Fuchs, he is disconnected in his job as a hit man. His efforts to try an earn forgiveness for Gene Cousineau, the man who helped guided were the efforts of a man who has long since lost his humanity. He locked him in his trunk for an episode, threatened him into getting a cameo which backfired tremendously, engaged in abusive behavior to his girlfriend Sally, missed the premiere of her series because he was busy on a job, was dumped her that night and when he tried to let her in on part of his true nature, revealed far too much and showed what a monster he was. The fact that he has spent the last two episodes trying to escape a series of killers bent of revenge almost seems incidental to him now, and the fact that he has managed to escape death speaks more to their incompetence and his blind luck. Hader has already deservedly won two Emmys for his acting; his performance this season has demonstrated overwhelming he deserves a third for acting. I have no doubt the Emmys will treat him generously this month.
If the series was only focused on Barry, it would be too overwhelmingly grim for words. What makes Barry a work of art is how much it has no emerged from everybody acting around him to everyone trying to work without him. And it has led three actors — two of whom in my infinite wisdom I thought didn’t deserve Emmy nominations for Season 2 — to do exceptional work, showing humanity and hilarity.
The first is Sarah Goldberg as Sally, the physically abused girlfriend of Barry. I am not shocked that there is a cadre of fans on the internet who dislike her; as with any series that features truly awful men at the center, their significant others invariably get trolled for just existing. Considering how many people hated Debra Morgan, Dexter’s sister for daring to try and stop the serial killers spree, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people hate Sally just for interfering with Barry’s progress. But Season 3 has shown Goldberg with some of the most hilarious moments of the season. Watching her do everything possible to promote her autobiographical series Joplin has been hysterical, following inept programmers who don’t understand the concept, rush the premiere because there’s a show that’s vaguely similar, finally have her succeed behind her wildest dreams only to have the streaming platform cancel it the next day because ‘the algorithm tells them its not going to work’, going back to work with a far inferior project at that same service, finding out her loyal assistant stole her idea, and then being called out as a monster for berating her an elevator — has been something that you would literally consider too unrealistic a satire if you hadn’t spent any time in Hollywood the last couple of years. I imagine there are still millions of fans angry with her for daring to break up with Barry after she finally found him too abusive; on the record, not only on that but everything else she’s done this season, I am completely Team Sally.
Then there has been the magnificent work of Henry Winkler as Gene, Barry’s mentor in the first two seasons who in the last minute of Season 2 learned his student had murdered his girlfriend. He tried to take revenge on Barry only for it to go hysterically, horribly wrong, spent two episodes trying to get out from under his thumb (and the moment he struck Barry in the third episode is a high point in a season full of them) then tried to run for his life, only to find out his agent is now accepting his calls and people he demeaned are willing to forgive him. Gene has been doing a much better job of making amends than Barry has. When he met a former lover (the always wonderful Laura San Giacomo) at a dinner party given by Joe Mantegna (playing himself) he decided to try and earn forgiveness for ruining her career. In the sixth episode of the season, he agreed to a new job but only if Annie directed it. He gave her all the money for it, and completely listened to everything she said, even though she admitted to her AD that she had no idea what she was doing. But will all this come to a close now that the cops are closing in on Barry?
But perhaps the biggest shock of the season has been the work of Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, the completely incompetent Chechnya crime underling. Everything that has gone wrong for him this season has been due to his affair with Colombian drug boss Cristobal. Trying to save their relationship while keeping everything afloat, everything that can go wrong has, from a bombing that killed his insane father-in-law and brought Cristobal’s just as psychotic wife back from Colombia, Hank has lost his lover and his business and, after making an incredibly misguided decision to Colombia his freedom and maybe his life. (In typical fashion the first man he asked about Cristobal shot him with a poison dart. It took two minutes for the shooter to do this and Hank could have gotten away, but his nature prevented him. “I thought that was what you were doing, but it seemed rude to leave,” he said just before he passed out.) I don’t think the future is bright for Hank; but maybe Carrigan can get another nomination?
In the most daring move of the entire season, Barry and Fuchs, his mentor now determined to destroy him, have not been in the same room all season. (Hader has said this is by design) Stephen Root is one of the great character actors of our time, and he is so prolific that calling his work on Barry his crowning achievement would be a bit of exaggeration. But aside from Hader, he seems the most skilled at mixing pure evil with perfect comedy. That may be due to the fact that Fuchs is not nearly as smart as he thinks. Given a chance to live in peace herding goats, he turns down a chance to be an assassin again, but then determined to get an apology from Barry, turns around on that. He then hears a fable from a lover telling him about the evils of revenge and completely misinterprets it. He has spent the second half of the season, finding the families of the people Barry killed (at his instruction) telling them who did and sending them after him in revenge. Two episodes ago, his efforts as revenge got him shot in the chest and once again he was rescued by a loving family and nursed back to health. He was offered another peaceful opportunity to stop, but when he saw an article about Barry, he went right back to getting revenge. Then in last night’s episode, he went to the father of the detective who Barry murdered, only to learn that the man was a master of psych ops who while imprisoned in Vietnam convinced his torturer to kill himself. Fuchs got so obsessed by this fact; he didn’t notice the man was driving him to the police station. Even then Fuchs managed to find a way to turn the situation to his advantage — though considering he’s now in a police station filled with (inept) cops who he think he’s an ingenious assassin called ‘The Raven’ its kind of hard to see how he’ll get out of this alive, much less free.
I’m not the kind of person who really recognizes or appreciates direction, but it’s hard not to watch the word Hader has done a director this season, as well as the camera effects that have gone into it. From a single take showing Sally walking through the set of her TV show to the continuous shots following a motorcycle gangs controlled (and horribly flawed) efforts to kill him to the brilliant cuts in the extraordinary ‘Candyasses’ which followed Barry’s poisoning to walking down a beach intercut with a bereaved father trying to figure out what he does with him. And just as in ‘ronny/lily’ way back in Season 2, there have been truly daring choices in that episode. From not having Barry speak a single word in the episode to him sitting in a crowd that we slowly realize has all of the people that Barry have killed over the years in it being brought back to life as we see his latest ‘would-be’ assassins has shot himself rather than him.
And in addition to the magnificent leads there are so many other great actors doing excellent work in this series. From the wonderful Fred Melamed as the agent who thinks he can appear Gene’s bedside as if it were normal, to D’Arcy Carden as the ever cheerful assistant (seriously somebody, give her own series!) to the ever talented Elsie Fisher as the child lead on Joplin who recognizes right out how dangerous Barry is to Elizabeth Perkins as the most clueless executive in history (“Did you live with your mother when you grew up?” Priceless.)Throw in the cameos from so many actors (Joe Mantegna’s work was worth a Guest Actor nomination in itself) and you have one of the most extraordinary casts in the history of television.
I don’t know how Barry is going to survive the season finale; much less through season 4. (Another thing I love about how HBO has promoted upcoming episodes. We see a ten second shot of a scene which in the next episode leads to a vital moment. Westworld isn’t promoted with this brilliant vagueness.) The promotion of the season finale shows a freshly dug grave, which makes you wonder who’s going to end up in it? All I know for certain is however longer Barry lasts I am onboard. Because in the world of this show you know three things for certain: no one, good or evil, is as smart as they think they are. Hollywood is only slightly less ruthless than the business of contract killing. And everyone would be better of if they just took the advice of the local baker. (Maybe Hader and Berg can give him his own series for his next project.)
My score: 5 stars.