Detective Janice Moss’s (Paula Newsome) memory lingers in the final frames of Barry’s third season.
At the start of the Season 1 finale, Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) vows to his handler Fuches (Stephen Root) that he’s done killing. A tall order for the hitman, but maybe attainable once he makes it to a picturesque getaway with girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), and Janice, Cousineau’s girlfriend. That is, until Janice deduces Barry’s involvement in recent murders. He murders her to protect his secrets, then climbs back into bed with Sally. He can still leave behind his past, he assures himself—“starting now.” Not a guilt-ridden mantra, but a willful delusion that he’s broken again… and again and again.
By Season 3’s waning seconds, Barry refocuses on Janice. Directed by Hader, “starting now” calls back to the first finale, though we know better by now to expect that the title phrase means a fresh slate for the wannabe reformed hitman. Janice’s father Jim (Robert Wisdom) enlists Cousineau to help him set up Barry, who falls for the bait by once again equating violent acts with love. As was perhaps always inevitable, Barry gets caught. But Hader ends the season not through the eyes of Janice’s murderer but by considering how the trauma of her death still permeates.
The episode’s final moments are silent and shot from inside the house, showing the aftermath of Barry’s arrest taking place through a window. The gathered police dissipate, Cousineau gives a goodbye wave, and Jim is left standing alone on the grass. He might have caught Barry, but that doesn’t bring Janice back or change the fact that he has to walk back into an empty home. From our perspective, his downward gaze points toward a framed photo of his daughter smiling.
By the show’s own design, Barry’s rising body count has never overpowered the accompanying dark comedy. Bloodshed is simply par for the course for a show with a reluctant contract killer tangled up in the warring factions of a criminal underworld. And while Barry didn’t shy away from his most ruthless acts, the murders of Janice and his Marine buddy Chris (Chris Marquette), it was also easy for us to keep rooting for Barry to get away with it. After all, the most predictable alternates, prison or death, would likely hasten the show’s end. (It perhaps also helps that Barry has never been particularly bright.)
Season 3 rebuffs this audience instinct. Barry descended from a bumbling anti-hero to full-fledged villain by threatening the two people he claims to love, Cousineau and Sally. It’s a shift that co-creators Alec Berg and Hader have also bolstered through Fuches recruiting his vengeance army of Barry’s victims’ relatives (consider the insidiously cruel detail that Barry still attends the charity runs dedicated to Chris). Still, up until the finale, Barry has evaded any lasting consequences through convenient luck, his own skills, the incompetence of others, and acts of mercy. Much of the season’s violence has corresponded with thrilling setpieces, like Episode 6’s motorcycle chase, and morbid humor, like Barry’s customer service call in Episode 4 when he can’t get the bomb to detonate.
Conversely, the finale’s violence is brutal and exacting. Throughout the stomach-ache-inducing episode, Barry forces us to confront the aftermath of violence in uncomfortably close quarters. Hader keeps these moments from being gratuitous though, instead telegraphing their impact by lingering on characters’ changed faces.
After an excruciating near-minute of Sally being choked by one of the Episode 6 bikers, she stabs him, then beats his offscreen body in a soundproof room. We watch her beat him to death in silence and from a physical remove, but the distance shatters with an extreme closeup of Goldberg’s face as the horror and shock sets in. The following scene plays out in reverse when NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) hears his fellow Chechen prisoners ripped to shreds by a panther offscreen. Driven by adrenaline, he fights free. Elena’s (Krizia Bajos) death is quick, and her assistant dies offscreen. But even as he embraces his lover Cristobal (Michael Irby), Hank looks haunted by the violence he’s strived to avoid enacting with his own hands.
Similarly, it’s another closeup that breaks Cousineau’s resolve when Jim interrogates him, sitting so close that we see their noses touching. Of course, Cousineau never actually forgave Barry this season, but his fearful silence became much easier to swallow after Barry’s actions led to his success. Cousineau embarked on a forgiveness tour of his own that, while seemingly sincere, also wasn’t entirely unselfish. In contrast, his choice to help Jim seems to come from love. It’s a lesson that Barry still hasn’t managed to learn, apparent from his confrontation with Albert (James Hiroyuki Liao). In the opening moments of this season, Barry refused mercy (“There’s no forgiving Jeff!”) in the same spot where Albert decides to spare him. But as he breaks down, Barry’s driven by animalistic fear for his life and what might come next—not true remorse or a desire to actually earn forgiveness. He still can’t do the right thing without a gun pointed at him.
When Barry’s near-perfect Season 1 finale aired, I decried its Season 2 renewal as the latest case of creators not knowing when to let a good thing rest. The first finale, down to its memorable last words, capped off a compelling character study with just enough ambiguity. It’s been exhilarating to be proven wrong since then, but once again, “starting now” could double for a satisfying series finale. Barry, who has been narrowly escaping death all season, couldn’t outrun his past forever. Maybe he’ll reunite with Fuches in a prison cell. Driven by love, Gene gave the performance of his life. (Remember when Barry told him, “You’re a bad actor, Mr. Cousineau” earlier this season?) Pushed past her limits in LA, Sally returns home after discovering she has the capacity for violence she excised from her life. Hank and Cristobal reunite, but violence has scarred them too.
This time though, I’m not wary of what might come next in the already confirmed Season 4. Even as Barry shed its comedic slant in the final two episodes, Season 3 found a genre blend that works, balancing Hollywood satire, a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance, the surreal beach visions of a man unraveling, and the damaged lives he left in his wake. Berg, Hader, and co. have possibly written themselves into a corner, but their title character’s gotten out of worse scraps before. Yet instead of Barry, I’m rooting for the writers to find a way out—starting now.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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