Barry is back, uneven, and still one of the best shows on television

Season 3 is the series’s darkest and weirdest yet, and while the wild turns threaten to lose the show’s thread it’s still as absorbing as ever.

Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

This story contains spoilers for seasons two and three of Barry.

A long three years after its last, spectacular second season aired, the premiere of the new season of Barry opens by chucking everything out the window. After Barry, the war vet-hitman who hopes implausibly to become an actor in order to reinvent himself and stop murdering people, went on a killing rampage at the end of the last season, he has now given up on the redemption he’s been desperately seeking throughout the show. Out in the middle of nowhere, a man that Barry is doing a petty hit job for suddenly changes his mind about killing Jeff, the man who’s slept with his wife. “I’m forgiving Jeff,” the man says while Jeff, bloodied and standing in the grave he’s been forced to dig for himself, thanks him. Suddenly, Barry shoots them both in the head.

In the past, while Barry struggled to keep on the straight and narrow, he kept going back to killing — but usually, in his defense, to ostensibly get out of a pinch or to protect others. Here, callous and cavalier, he kills two strangers out of annoyance and bitterness. “You can’t just forgive Jeff!” he screams to two dead bodies out in the wilderness. It’s a concise opening: this season is going to be a rocky one. And it is, but the opener also slightly over-promises on a season that can be somewhat uneven and at times veers into directions that, partly intentionally, threaten to lose the show’s thread. But on the other hand, season three also maintains Barry’s title as of one the best shows on television.

Barry is not the only one in a very different place now. Taking place months after the events of season two, everything has changed. Sally is running her own television show (her narrative and its prodding at trauma and how Hollywood treats “female stories” can be funny and insightful, but also far less rich than last season’s work in these areas); Mr. Cousineau’s class has shut down, and he seeks vengeance against Barry for killing his lover Detective Moss; Fuches is exiled to Chechnya; and NoHo Hank is in a relationship with the Bolivian mob boss Cristobal (it’s one of the biggest and most interesting and satisfying turns this season).

Meanwhile, Barry has become a version of these characters he’s struggled to scrape off of himself: in a reversal of the usual dynamic, he finds Hank and asks him for work in his rock-bottom desperation. In a later episode, he appears like a specter at Cousineau’s house in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the way Fuches has perpetually turned up and haunted Barry.

These dramatic shifts from familiarity are both necessary for any series entering its third season, and also why these new episodes can naturally feel slightly unsteady. But the season is trickiest for how far it goes to obliterate a central dramatic question: Can people change? In the first episode, the theme of forgiveness comes up again and again. “Forgiveness has to be earned,” Hank chides Barry, dispensing a rare moment of wisdom before he falls again into a trademark malapropism. Later in the episode, Barry, anguished and about to commit another unforgivable act, echoes the line to Cousineau, leading his acting teacher to erupt in response, “Then fucking earn it!” It’s as powerful of a thesis statement for the new season as you can ask for.

But what follows for Barry, a wobbly line to forgiveness and to him wanting again to change, is in fact far more monstrous than the murderer we know him to be. He has a frighteningly violent outburst toward Sally — someone he has been naively enamored with and only treated gingerly as a fake ideal for his own self-actualization — and he becomes despicable in his treatment of Mr. Cousineau, ironically in order to patch things up. The extremity and inconsistency in his character this season are intentional — Barry is so far gone now that the decency he has tried to hold onto is possibly lost forever. But this new dark side comes close at times to overturning what made the show’s pathos so powerful: Barry as a tragic figure, someone who despite his pitfalls was a sympathetic antihero who deserved redemption.

Nevertheless, among the six episodes available for review, it’s hard not to maintain your complete trust in the show. You’re in for the ride because Barry is so tight on all its fronts. It is still an astonishingly economical series: as a half-hour comedy-drama with only eight episodes a season, there is never any filler, and its episodes’ opening and final scenes remain unmatched.

And it cannot be overstated how visually and formally it is one of the most creative and dynamic shows currently on air. Much of this feels guided by the hand of Hader himself, who directs most of the episodes this season and imbues the show with distinctly auteur-like electricity, both in its comedic and dramatic moments. There may not be an achievement as stunning as the all-timer that was “Ronny/Lily” that he directed last season, but sections like the second half of “710N,” the season’s sixth episode, along with the ways simple moments are blocked, are, on a technical level, among the most absorbing scenes on TV.

The show’s offbeat humor is, also, still as strong as ever, though some whackier gags fall flat. It’s also a strong showcase, again, for its all-star cast: Anthony Carrigan is still our lovable oaf as Hank, who gains some necessary depth in the show’s exploration of his new relationship with Cristobal; Sarah Goldberg (Sally) and Henri Winkler (Cousineau) are consistently stellar; and D’arcy Carden is also a welcome surprise in an expanded role for Natalie.

The bigger pivots here for season three, filled with some wilder swings and new territories that don’t always land perfectly, were inevitable, particularly with its long wait in-between seasons. But even if Barry is as lost as ever and change feels like a farce, it’s still as fun and poignant as ever to want to see him try. We still want to see him earn it.