Can HBO’s Barry regain the slow-burn tension of it’s first two seasons after a fast paced and plot-heavy third chapter that dragged the series down?
The following contains spoilers for all three seasons of Barry, now streaming on HBO Max.
The third season of HBO’s dark comedy Barry continued the titular hitman-turned-actor’s journey to avoid falling back into his old life while rebuilding the relationships fractured in his deadly wake. As if to make up for an unexpected three-year gap between episodes, Barry pushed its plot twists and turns into overdrive, covering as much ground in Season 3 as the first two combined. The quality of the series remains intact and each development is a logical one, but this decidedly frenetic pace has overtaken the original slow burn that viewers were used to.
Major plot points were initially doled out over time, with effort made to wring every possible bit of dramatic tension from them. Not so in the third season — set six months after Season 2 — in which things happened at such a rapid clip there was little time for events to sink in before the next shocking turn. On the surface this hardly seemed to an issue, giving Barry a daringly unpredictable momentum akin to the title character’s villainous descent. But it means the structure and themes of the first two seasons might not be achievable again, to say nothing of it making it harder to maintain the discomforting tension lurking around the edges of Barry Berkman’s new life when there’s a constantly upturning status quo.
Hired by a Chechen mob boss to kill his adulterous wife’s lover in the pilot, Barry tailed his target to an acting class taught by controversial thespian Gene Cousineau. Finding his true calling in the arts, Barry discovered leaving his old life behind was easier said than done when he had to kill the officer investigating the murder, Detective Janice Moss. Barry would spend the second season maneuvering around the ongoing issues between the Chechens and their allies and adversaries, while helping acting mentor Cousineau cope with the death of Moss, whom he’d begun romancing.
The closing episodes of Season 2 saw Cousineau learn about Barry’s role in Moss’s death thanks to Monroe Fuches, Barry’s ex-handler who sought to upend his protégé’s life out of spite. Rebuilding his relationship with Cousineau would form the basis for Barry’s personal arc in the first half of Season 3. The idea that he would need to earn forgiveness sparked a fervent desire to jump-start Cousineau’s stagnant acting career, with Barry’s impassioned plea relaying the purpose he’d found in Cousineau’s classes leading to a positive Variety write-up for the show business pariah. This led to Cousineau’s reintroduction to social circles he’d found himself excluded from, but also turned him into the series’ worst character.
Aiding to entrance Barry into acting, fellow student and eventual girlfriend Sally Reed finally got her career on track in the third season, writing and starring in semi-autobiographical streaming drama Joplin. A well received premiere screening gave Sally the confidence to break up with Barry in the aftermath of a frightening outburst he’d made in front of her colleagues, including teenage co-star Katie (whose concern foreshadowed an unfulfilled payoff). Sally rebounded from Joplin’s swift cancellation with a writing job on another series, but after an aggressively profane confrontation with her former assistant Natalie was recorded and leaked online, her career prospects were in ruins. Attacked in the season finale by an enemy of Barry’s and forced to kill in self-defense, a shaken and disturbed Sally left Los Angeles.
Chechen cartel member NoHo Hank and former manager Fuches had similarly evolving arcs, with each installment suggesting a new long-term set-up before abruptly changing direction. With Barry as the occasional link between all of these otherwise disparate and involved plot lines, most of the main characters spent the run separated from each other. The only characters to spend much time together were Barry and Cousineau, and even then the two were separated in the second half of Season 3 after their plots diverged, only crossing again in the finale.
Having to deal with several seasons’ worth of story in half the time also meant fewer comedic opportunities — to the point where there was barely a single joke in Barry‘s pitch-black season finale. While the narrative conceits saw the show move away from Cousineau’s acting classes, the absurd pomposity of those scenes was easy source for humor, even in Barry’s bleakest moments and the third season failed to offer an alternative. Perhaps most damningly, the plot-heavy structure prevented a stand-alone installment like the second season’s violent farce “ronny/lily”, wherein a blackmailed Barry was called into a hit against a target he would learn the hard way was a Taekwondo master, as both he and Fuches suffered at the hands of the mark and his terrifyingly ferocious pre-teen daughter.
Although the third season remains thematically connected to the first two through Barry’s continued desire to push forward after his plans for a new life blew up in his face, it will almost certainly be seen in retrospect as a low point for the HBO series. Hader and co-creator Alec Berg would do well to slow the pace in the upcoming fourth year of the show — if such a thing is even possible after everything Season 3 put its characters through.
The first three seasons of Barry can be streamed on HBO Max.
George Morrow currently lives in Southern Ontario, Canada, and studied creative writing in British Columbia. He’s been a contributing writer and columnist for several publications, wrote and illustrated his own 250 page graphic novel “TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America” (available now from fine digital retailers), and had a suggestion make it into print in the “Captain America: America’s Avenger” Marvel Handbook. He’s read far too many comic books and watched far too many movies and television shows.