Barry Returns For Its Third Season With A Chilling Premiere

It's been three years in the real world since Bill Hader graced our screens as mentally unstable hitman/actor Barry Berkman (known to his actor friends as Barry Block) in the brilliant HBO show "Barry." Actually, it's been just over three years — even though HBO renewed the show for a third season in 2019, the pandemic being what it is, the show's production was delayed for quite a while. But while viewers have spent a long time away from Barry and his bloody exploits, the show's third season — with recaps done by me, hi there! — doesn't spend a great deal of time holding its viewers' hands to help get you back up to speed.

Here's what you should recall as we dive into the third-season premiere, "forgiving jeff." (And yes, the lowercase is intentional for the grammatically anal among you.) The second season ended with Barry's avuncular acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) recalling — just after being cleared of the death of his girlfriend, LAPD Detective Moss — that Barry's amoral ex-partner Fuches (Stephen Root) not only showed Gene his girlfriend's dead body, but also whispered that "Barry Berkman did this" in Gene's ear. Barry, meanwhile, ended the season by laying waste to a group of foreign mobsters in an L.A. monastery in the failed hopes of killing Fuches himself, without yet realizing that his acting mentor may know more about his true identity.

Can You Earn Forgiveness?

Now, if the title of this premiere didn't make it clear, the grim opening scene of "forgiving jeff" serves as a hint as to this season's major theme: forgiveness and how you get it. Before we see anything, we hear a man wailing in the background, "Please forgive me!" But it's not Barry begging — he's standing in a deserted field, snacking on something while the off-screen wailer pleads for forgiveness, specifically from a very angry and cheated-upon man who first wants Barry to cut off the wailer's eyelids. (And yet Barry keeps on snacking. He's got a strong stomach.) After Barry gets a garden tool to do the job, he finds out that the wronged husband is ... well, read the episode title. "He's sorry he f**ked my wife!" the husband says, forgiving Jeff. And that would be all well and good, but Barry dispatches both men cleanly with bullets to the head, before walking to his car and shouting, "There's no forgiving Jeff!" The setup here is almost dreamlike, but the message is as much that Barry sees no chance for forgiveness of his own wrongs, let alone for others. Or, at the very least, if you call a hitman to do away with someone, don't change your mind at the last second.

As dreamlike as the opening feels, the next scene makes clear that we really did see Barry kill those two guys. He's living with fellow acting partner and girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who realizes as she's getting ready to go to work that Barry never came to bed the night before, which he explains away as angling for some work that "fell through," leading him to drive around for a while. Sally doesn't get suspicious, primarily because she's locked into heading to the set of a show she's co-created and co-stars in, "Joplin," derived from the success of her audition at the end of the previous season and inspired by a past abusive relationship. More on that later.

A big part of the "Barry" puzzle, of course, is the exuberant Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), who's called upon by the LAPD — led by Detective Mae Dunn (Sarah Burns) — for an interrogation about the monastery attack. NoHo Hank is nervous, but it's admittedly closer to stage fright, as he knew the cops would come calling. NoHo Hank learns a valuable detail in his interrogation: that Barry used Hank's Chechen pin (which Hank gave to Barry as a sign of having no further debt with his band of criminals) to frame the Chechens for Moss' death. Hank is understandably displeased, though he hides it as he learns that the detectives think Moss' death and the monastery attack are linked. Hank takes the chance to shift blame from himself — though the cops have photos of him outside the monastery — to someone else: Fuches, who Hank dubs "the Raven," the mysterious figure who killed Moss and the other gangsters. "But who knows where he is?" Hank says slyly.

Waiting For Things To Blow Over

That is, as we quickly learn, because Hank knows exactly where Fuches is: in a shack in the mountains of Chechnya. "Hank said you could come back to L.A. when everything cools over," a grumpy gangster tells Fuches as they share bowls of cereal with goat milk (the latter pulled direct from the source by Fuches). As mad as Fuches is about not getting a chance to watch some college football ("I guess streaming's a no-go?" he asks), he seems pleased at the arrival of a comely Chechnyan woman with new boxes of cereal.

The final piece of the puzzle is Gene, who we then see at the LAPD being shown photos of various gangsters at the monastery. Unsurprisingly, he quickly and firmly identifies Fuches as being "connected to Barry," only to learn two things: one, that the cops have readily swallowed Hank's naming of Fuches as the Raven, and two, that Barry has been cleared no matter what he may have done to ruin Gene's life. While Gene may not know the extent of Barry's bad deeds, we do, as we see Barry trolling for gigs on the helpfully named website "Hitman Marketplace" and asking someone looking for her husband to be offed about what flowers to buy Sally. (The consultation does not go well.)

Sally, meanwhile, is showcasing a finished episode of "Joplin" to a TV executive, portrayed by the always-wonderful Elizabeth Perkins. The clip we see is notable mostly for the presence of Sally's scene partner in the show-within-the-show, an actress played by Elsie Fisher of the excellent "Eighth Grade." Perkins' exec, however, gets hung up on the baffling trifle detail of whether the mother and daughter in the clip ... live together. "Well, they're mother and daughter ... so, yes," Sally says, near the end of a meeting that goes about as well as that quote implies. Before she heads to set, Sally instructs her ex-acting partner and now-assistant Natalie (D'Arcy Carden) not to talk in meetings, a faux pas she made to agree with Perkins' exec.

Sally, at least on the outside, has fully blossomed into her more powerful role — after the meeting, we get to watch a masterfully laid-out single-take shot in which she walks through the various sets within the soundstage where "Joplin" shoots, making wardrobe and lighting decisions while getting ready to film a scene with Fisher's character. She's soon joined on set by Barry, flowers in tow as planned. Things go well at first: as she prepared him earlier, Sally asks if Barry can stay for lunch, only for him to — as planned — say that he can't because of an audition. But as Sally compliments Barry, we hear the sound of a gunshot followed by the sight of Sally bleeding from her forehead. This one is a hallucination: Sally keeps talking like normal, and it's just in Barry's head that he sees his girlfriend with a gunshot wound in her head. But ... y'know, not a great thing to visualize.

In A Bad Spot

NoHo Hank, meanwhile, crows about how he fooled the cops to his fellow Chechens, saying that all crimes related to the Chechens or Bolivians from last season can be pinned on Fuches. There's just one wrinkle, as we see NoHo Hank driving up to his house so he can surprise in the shower ... Cristobal (Michael Irby), leader of the Bolivian mob, with whom he now lives in a loving relationship. Of course, the fact that NoHo Hank and Cristobal seem pretty happy with each other probably means they're not fated to last long (if countless other TV romances are any clue). The only sticking point they have is our title character, who they can't help but discuss even tangentially. "He killed all my buddies," Cristobal says of Barry, as Hank tries to get his boyfriend to think less of Barry, and instead plot an expansion in the Western side of the US.

Cristobal doesn't want to talk further about Barry, which makes sense. NoHo Hank, however, is faced with Barry in the flesh, as the latter appears in his backyard out of nowhere. "You and Cristobal are an item now?" Barry says before all but begging NoHo Hank for proper work. "I'm in a bad spot ... I think I'm losing my mind, man," he said before saying he needs a purpose in life. But NoHo Hank spells it out for Barry: "Forgiveness is something that has to be earned." The purpose spells itself out soon enough, as Barry is shocked to see an incoming text message from Gene, who requests Barry's presence at the old acting studio. Barry hopes it's for good reason, but we know immediately that it's not: when Gene sees Barry text back, we get a good look at a revolver he's preparing to use. Now, as ominous as this reveal is, it leads to the absolute funniest moment of "forgiving jeff." The gun, apparently, was a gift from legendary actor Rip Torn, whose note to Gene reads "Couscous, try not to blow your dick off with this. — Rip (dictated but not read)." As with other episodes of "Barry," when this goes for the laugh, it goes big.

Joking aside, Gene seems pretty clear-eyed the next morning as he goes to the acting studio, giving his grandson a big hug and saying "It's all going to be OK" in a manner that implies he's on a suicide mission and he knows it. When Barry arrives at the acting studio, it's in a state of abandoned disrepair, with a hand-written sign bidding farewell to Gene's various students. Gene's not interested in talking about that, though. "Remember that day in the woods? I've been thinking about that day a lot," he says calmly. He then reminds Barry about "Kenneth Goulet", AKA Fuches, and wastes no time in stating what he knows: "I know you killed Janice," Gene says as he reaches for his gun. He gives Barry two choices: turn himself in or "f**king die."

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now, the show's called "Barry," so it won't surprise you to learn that our title character escapes death once again. The gun Rip Torn gifted Gene may once have worked, but it literally falls apart after Gene tries to cock the safety. "...Oh," he utters quietly. Barry, for his part, looks truly heartbroken and torn as he whispers, "I'm sorry," and all but jumps out of his chair. We quickly cut to the deserted field from the opening scene. This time, Barry's pointing his gun at another pleading man: Gene. And just as before, Barry hallucinates the sight of someone close to him with a gunshot wound in their head — although Barry is holding a gun at Gene, he hasn't fired it. Gene is still pleading for his life, saying he forgives Barry, only for Barry to repeat what NoHo Hank said about forgiveness being earned. "Then f**king earn it!" Gene shouts. That, apparently, works on Barry, as he has some private epiphany, realizing what he can do "to make it up to you" and psyching himself up that this secret plan will work ... before ordering Gene at gunpoint to get back in the trunk.

I know that "Better Call Saul" is all the rage for many people, but it's hard for me to watch "Barry" and not think of how much this show is following in the footsteps of "Breaking Bad." Though this show still has outrageous moments of comedy — I may have startled my cat when laughing at the Rip Torn-pistol visual gag — Hader and co-writer/co-creator Alec Berg are leaning more and more into the Greek tragedy of Barry Berkman's life in this premiere. Though Barry is not on a path of criminal power a la Walter White, the more he tries to not be his old self, the more he becomes worse than his old self, and the more it seems likely that this show will — like "Breaking Bad," and here I warn you I'm about to spoil an immensely popular show's eight-year-old finale — end with its lead character being killed.

Wrapping Up

But not yet! And unlike, say, the jaw-dropping "Ozymandias" from "Breaking Bad," when one of the more purely good characters here finds out about Barry and speaks the truth, he only gets held at gunpoint without being killed. It's as surprising to me that Gene doesn't wait to push Barry as it is that Gene survives the episode. Barry may understand, deep down, that killing Gene would rip whatever shred of a soul he has left fully apart, but he's prepared to do it. Both Hader and the ever-reliable Henry Winkler are excellent in the last few minutes, and Hader especially does wonders with the physicality of a man hanging on to whatever sanity he can still find.

As with past seasons, "Barry" will air eight weekly episodes this year (with the first six made available to critics in advance). For now, it's harder to see how the industry-focused satire will connect with Barry's internal struggle. At least in this opener, Barry's connection to Hollywood is on the periphery, with Sally's work on her show serving as a palate cleanser between the moments of intensity on her boyfriend's hidden side. That said, "forgiving jeff" serves as a solid season opener with a truly surprising cliffhanger – what justification does Barry have to save Gene's life?

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • I love that the front space for the Chechens in Los Angeles is a store literally called "Plants!"
  • It's probably for the better that the deserted field of the opening and closing is a real place, and not some hallucination on Barry's part, but that opening scene is so off-kilter. The guy who shifts from wanting to destroy a cheater to forgiving him switches his tone so quickly that it feels unreal.
  • I have to assume that Hader — a well-known cinephile — cast Elsie Fisher for reasons beyond just loving her work in Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade." We'll see soon enough.
  • Speaking of that, Hader is in the director's chair (he directed five of the episodes from the first two seasons) and makes a great return. As funny as some of the jokes are, his visual choices feel heavily inspired by the Coens. (Especially since you could look at the last scene as an homage to "Miller's Crossing.")

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