Barry began its very first episode with the violence already over. Bill Hader, playing the eponymous hitman, walks over to collect his gun from the nightstand next to his victim, who lies in a bed stained scarlet from the bullet in his head. He unscrews the silencer from his pistol and pockets it with the discomfort of a man who quit smoking a year ago yet couldn’t help but buy a pack of menthols. He knows where the gun belongs and feels better with it there. But he doesn’t necessarily like himself at the moment.
Partway through the third season of Barry, which premieres on HBO this weekend, the show returns to this moment. The series, about a hitman who decides to give up his murderous career and take up acting classes, is on one level a fish-out-of-water comedy about a killer discovering a love of theater. On another level, it’s among prestige TV’s most thoughtful ruminations on violence. After a three-year, COVID-19-related delay in production, Barry returns to continue cracking jokes and contemplating violence — especially the sort you don’t do with a gun.
When season 3 returns to the moment Barry began with, it does so by quietly expanding the scene. We see the victim take a phone call. The episode makes it clear: This victim, like every victim, had a family, a life. And none of the jokes the uncomfortable man with the gun makes throughout the show are funny enough to take that away.
This is a grim way to set up comedy, but Barry is at its best when the show’s writers are putting their protagonist through the moral wringer while also learning how to act, help his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) navigate showbiz from its bottom rung, and deal with frequent frenemy NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a Chechen gangster who rises through the ranks despite a distaste for violence and a demeanor more suited to being an influencer of some sort (but the good kind). Comedy lets Barry’s writers and performers deftly field all of these complex feelings, the fact that violence is abhorrent and yet compelling to watch, without feeling like it’s moralizing. Every squirm comes with an equally big laugh if you wait a few beats.
Yet Barry’s best joke is also its most dangerous one: Bill Hader himself. A comic actor who broke out on Saturday Night Live thanks to his awkward-yet-outrageous demeanor, Barry has expertly leaned on the dissonance that comes with casting the guy who played Stefon as a cold-blooded killer. The challenge of the show, according to Hader, who co-created Barry with Alec Berg, has always been telling the story about a hitman without making the hitman look cool.
A 2018 GQ profile noted that Hader went so far as refusing to pose with a gun in his photo shoot, and emphasized Barry’s discomfort in promo posters where Hader does carry a firearm. The tricky part is that, no matter how hard Barry tried to resist glamorizing that violence, people were drawn to it.
It troubled Hader that, after he shot a scene in which he guns down two men, people kept telling him how attractive he looked doing it. “A woman was interviewing me—and I’ve never had anyone say something remotely like this to me in my career—but she said, ‘When you gun those guys down at the end of the pilot, it was straight-up hot.’ It’s supposed to be crazy disturbing, so I’ve failed.” Mostly, though, Hader succeeds (in the sense that the killings are not glamorized, not in the sense that he’s unattractive). Barry’s work as a hitman is as rote and depressing as his time in acting class is hilarious.
Perhaps this is why in its third season, Barry begins to zero in on the multitude of ways a person can be violent. With season 2 ending in a bloody gang-fueled conflict, Barry has reached an extreme with its physical violence, and begins to dive deep into violence of a more emotional sort, the kind that had been contained, mostly, to Barry’s acting classes. Now, at the start of season 3, Barry’s mentor and acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) knows that Barry killed his girlfriend, Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) at the end of season 1.
Among Barry’s many visual achievements is the fact that whether or not blood is spilled, its cast and crew always make it so the viewer knows — through the camera slowly creeping in on aggressors, in the always-visible faces of victims, through ambient sound or lack thereof or the blocking and staging of passersby — when they are witnessing violence. It makes sense that Barry is so careful to convey this, because Barry also is a very good show about actors.
And so, as Barry has wondered since season 1, what’s the difference between performing good and being good? Six episodes into Barry’s third season, Barry is discovering that even with his considerable skills and growing performance acumen, there is precious little that will help him bridge that gap. There are many ways to do violence to another. There are precious few to repair it.
Barry season 3 premieres on Sunday, April 24 on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes weekly.