‘Barry’ is at its best when Barry is at his worst. And Season 3 is a master class

Bill Hader stands by a lone tree with a barren hillside behind him
Bill Hader in “Barry” Season 3.
(Merrick Morton / HBO)

HBO’s dark comedy “Barry” started in 2018 with a joke that should have carried it for only an episode or two: a Midwestern hitman walks into a Los Angeles drama class and discovers he’d rather act than kill. But the series, like its murderous namesake, has always had more bubbling under the surface. And Season 3 is at a full boil.

Revenge or redemption? That is the question hanging over “Barry” when it returns Sunday after a three-year hiatus — and several dead bodies in between seasons. Barry (Bill Hader) is still hoping to leave his killer life behind for a career in the dramatic arts, but at this point he’ll settle for convincing himself and others that he’s not a bad person. Unfortunately, nothing is ever that easy for the socially inept sharpshooter. His quest for forgiveness begets ever more violence, pulling the story in masterfully funny, tense and disturbing directions, and proving that this half-hour comedy is still one of television’s best suspense-filled thrillers.

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Series creators and writers Hader and Alec Berg have always infused “Barry” with psychological depth, but in Season 3, the stoic, seemingly emotionless Barry is ready to blow. The former Marine turned murderer-for-hire has been at the center of a stressful juggling act for two seasons, hiding his true identity from his self-centered, aspiring actress girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg,) and his self-important acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). His former mentor and partner-in-crime Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) knows the real Barry, as does Chechen mobster/underworld butterfly NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). They comprise the other side of his life.


But neither of Barry’s social sets is fully aware of what’s going on inside his head: that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, operates on the periphery of human emotion and occasionally pictures a bullet hole in the foreheads of the folks around him.

Henry Winkler leans back in a chair
Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau in “Barry” Season 3.
(Merrick Morton / HBO)

This season he’s sunk to new lows, playing video games all day and executing hits at night that he’s searched on the dark web. Sally has finally found some success writing, directing and starring in her own semi-autobiographical streaming series, “Joplin,” and NoHo Hank is also in a better place, living the life of a mob boss on his own terms — before reconnecting with Barry. Carrigan always manages to play his over-the-top character with nuance while exposing him to new extremes, but even more so this time around.

One more, rather important wrinkle: Though Barry doesn’t know it, the grieving Cousineau has been plotting to kill him since discovering the hitman killed his girlfriend — a detective who’d gotten close to uncovering Barry’s secret. Gene’s now a broken man with payback on his mind, and the vindictive Fuches has similar plans, albeit for different reasons. And in the supporting cast, Sally’s friend Natalie (the fantastic D’Arcy Carden) returns as her doormat assistant on the production of “Joplin.”

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Every new ball added to Barry’s high-pressure juggling act threatens to ignite the tinderbox that is his psyche and unleash whatever it is — rage? guilt? Armageddon itself? — that’s bottled up in there. Barry knows he needs to fix something inside himself, but he struggles to pinpoint exactly what, or where to start, and feelings are tricky for the assassin. (That’s where stagecraft comes in handy.) As the tension builds in Season 3, so does the action, which leads to some dazzling shootouts, brutal gangster warfare and nail-biting escape sequences.

There are too many spoilers baked into the new plot to get specific, and HBO asked that reviewers not reveal key elements, but it’s safe to say that “Barry” is at its best when he’s at his worst — and Season 3 is very, very good.