This post contains spoilers for the third season finale of Barry, which is available now on HBO and HBO Max.
The Barry Season Three finale, “Starting now,” takes its title from a running gag in the Season One finale, where hitman/actor Barry (Bill Hader) kept insisting that he was going to live a violence-free life from that moment onward, only for more opportunities for murder to come up, most notably when he chose to kill cop Janice Moss after she figured out about his day job. When Barry said “Starting… now!” right after murdering Janice and right before that episode cut to its closing credits, it was a complete summation of the show Barry had become by that point: tragic and horrifying, but also very darkly amusing.
The phrase, and the sentiment behind it, returns in this week’s episode, this time uttered by another law enforcement officer who has surmised Barry’s secret identity: FBI agent Albert Nguyen (James Hiroyuki Liao), who served in the Marines with Barry in Afghanistan, and whose near-fatal shooting triggered Barry’s first killing rampage. Albert tracks Barry down to the desert where our title character is disposing of a body — ironically, of one of the few people this season whom Barry didn’t kill — and holds a gun on him. Albert confronts Barry about the whole murder-for-hire business, and particularly about Barry’s decision to kill their old comrade Chris back in Season One. (As with Janice, Chris died for the sin of putting Barry’s exciting new life in Hollywood at risk.) Barry has just had an emotional breakthrough — the first one since he joined the Marines, if not the first of his life — and understands just how monstrous he is, and what fate awaits him when he dies. Rather than answer Albert’s questions, he collapses into a ball on the desert floor and begins to sob. Whatever plan Albert had is out the window, and instead he acknowledges that Barry saved his life after the shooting, and that Albert’s daughter Elsie would not exist without Barry. He insists that through his job, he has encountered evil, and that Barry is not evil(*), and tells him that this all has to stop — “Starting now.” He walks away, leaving Barry a heaving, guilt-ridden, existentially despairing mess in the middle of this arid landscape.
(*) Marge Gunderson might not agree with his policework 100 percent there, especially if we’d seen all the things Barry has done that Albert doesn’t know about.
So, no, “Starting now” is no longer a laugh line — even a nervous laugh as a release after the intensity of Barry killing poor Janice. It is instead a symbol of Season Three’s gradual descent into psychological hell — for Barry, but also for the majority of the show’s great cast of characters.
We know that Barry can go pitch black with its tone. Much of Season Two was relentlessly bleak outside of the scenes with Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank, after all. As if to demonstrate how much rougher things have become, the finale — directed by Hader and written by him and Alec Berg — even put Hank into nightmare territory, shackled to a radiator in the dungeon of the Bolivian drug cartel, listening in terror as his colleagues Yandar and Akhmal were mauled to death by a panther in the next room. As a director, Hader has become diabolically clever about how to depict the violence that is present in every aspect of Barry’s world, and here he makes the correct choice to present the panther attack entirely from Hank’s perspective in the next room: an aural ordeal that is on the verge of bursting through the wall. It is so much scarier that way(*) than if the show had done something with a CGI panther (even a realistic-looking one), and it perfectly sets up the moment when Hank’s fear gives him the strength to break the chain on his handcuffs, take a rifle away from one of the Bolivian guards, and shoot the panther through the holes it created in said wall. Even that could be presented as something of a hero moment for the oft-cowardly Hank, but Carrigan plays it too haunted for that, and it’s followed by him discovering his lover Cristobal (Michael Irby) being subjected to a crude electroshock version of gay conversion therapy by his scorned wife Elena (Krizia Bajos). Hank rescues him, killing Elena in the process, but neither man seems remotely OK with what they’ve just had to endure.
(*) And my goodness, if you watch this show with the captions on, you saw Hank cowering next to the radiator as phrases like “(bones crunching)” and “(shrieking)” appear to describe the sounds he is hearing. It was a lot.
And the panther attack is arguably not even the most disturbing thing to happen to a character in the finale! That distinction would probably belong to Barry’s ex-girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who has returned to him hoping to enlist his help in getting revenge on her former assistant Natalie. Barry, having recently awoken from a traumatic dream in which he was confronted by many of his past victims — a vision that at the end warned him that Sally and their acting teacher Gene (Henry Winkler) might be next — wants no part of this, for himself and especially for Sally. After spending most of the series’ run oblivious to the consequences of his actions on both himself and others, Barry finally understands that he is going to hell when all is said and done, and he doesn’t want Sally to join him there. Before he can convince her, though, Shane (Anthony Molinari) — a member of the dirt bike gang that tried to kill Barry a few episodes ago(*) — barges into the apartment, knocks out Barry, and attempts to choke Sally to death on the floor. No method of murder is exactly a walk in the park, but this is a particularly difficult one to witness. It’s not just that it goes on for so long as Sally futilely slaps and pushes at Shane as the air and life start to go out of her body, but that the show has talked at length about how her abusive ex-boyfriend once choked her before she finally walked out on him. It is the worst possible death Sally Reed could endure, and she ultimately won’t allow it, stabbing Shane in the neck and then beating on him with an aluminum bat as he bleeds out in the soundproof recording studio of Barry’s roommates. (It’s the inverse of the panther attack, where you can see but not hear what’s happening.)
(*) You can be forgiven for not remembering exactly which member of the unofficial Barry revenge brigade Shane was, or for not being able to follow various plot mechanics of the season, particularly when it comes to how various members of said unofficial brigade happened upon Barry at different points in the season. Plot inevitably seems last on Hader and Berg’s to-do list, and you just have to go with it, because the character work, the comedy, and the drama are all so great in spite of how confusing things can sometimes get.
As Barry is burying Shane out in the desert (in the same spot where he killed two people in the season premiere), Sally is understandably flying home to Joplin, Missouri, to get away from what she just did (and from the man who put her in the position to do it), and Hank is stuck in that dungeon, Gene is reluctantly meeting with Jim Moss (the great character actor Robert Wisdom), Janice’s special forces interrogator father. Jim has turned his garage into an interrogation room, empty save for two chairs facing each other. He repeatedly asks Gene variations on the question of whether he loved his daughter, and soon the scene begins to transform from an interrogation into something that Gene would have had his acting students do, akin to Sanford Meisner’s famous repetition exercise. The gist of the sentence is the same each time, but the ways in which Wisdom delivers the lines, and the small variations in phrasing, utterly transforms the meaning until of course Gene’s resolve shatters and he tells this imposing man (it helps that Wisdom is vastly bigger than Winkler in every way) everything.
It is not the only scene to use the Meisner technique. After Sally kills Shane, Barry repeatedly tells her “I did this” and wants her to acknowledge the sentiment. (At first, she assumes he wants her to just repeat the phrase back at him verbatim, as if this is all her fault.) Albert’s questions about Chris repeat and expand in a similar way. Barry has barely done any acting this year — the showbiz portions have largely followed Gene and Sally as each has experienced extreme Hollywood highs and lows — but the whole premise of the series is to examine the thin line between killing onstage and killing in real life, and using acting as a way for Barry to confront the cost of who he is and what he does when he’s not acting. Even as “Starting now” takes place almost entirely in hitman world, it’s important to place it in the context of Barry as would-be thespian, and each scene becomes more powerful, scary, and sad, as these phrases are said again and again and again.
Driving home from the confrontation with Albert, Barry gets a call from Gene, who claims to be planning to kill Jim to prevent him from revealing the truth about Barry, and in turn to derail Gene’s improbable late-career renaissance. It’s all an act — Gene doing what he so often asked of his students, by using trauma from his own life to make his performance seem more realistic — and Jim has a small army of heavily-armed LAPD officers waiting when Barry enters his home to kill him in Gene’s stead. Gene gets a moment of extreme satisfaction as he sees Barry arrested and potentially removed from his life forever, and the episode and season conclude on another remarkable choice from Hader and director of photography Carl Herse. The aftermath of Barry’s arrest — Jim speaking with Janice’s old colleague Mae Dunn (Sarah Burns), Gene giving a statement to other cops — takes place outside the house, but we witness it from inside, through the living room window. At first it seems like an echo of how the Sally-Shane scene is staged, but the purpose is different here. It’s a long, completely static shot, designed so that at first you will pay attention to what’s happening through the window, your gaze perhaps moving from the left of the screen (where Jim is saying goodbye to Mae) to the right (where Gene is still being interviewed), until finally you can’t help but notice the most important thing in the whole tableau: a framed photo of Janice Moss resting on her father’s end table. This is what Barry does, who gets hurt, why we are all here. Whatever fun and games we have had — and this season had plenty of laughs in earlier episodes, from the Looney Tunes-style mayhem often taking place in the background of scenes to a streaming executive (guest star Vanessa Bayer) communicating largely in grunts to Sally’s agent — cannot, and should not, disguise this. Barry kills people, and now he is on the verge of paying a tangible price for that.
Even more than the “Starting… now!” joke from the Season One finale, the conclusion here feels incredibly like a series-ending moment. It is not, of course, and Hader did a round of interviews insisting that he, Berg, and the other writers know how the series can continue to function after this point. It will be a challenge, for sure. It’s not just that Barry’s secret identity is now public, that he is incarcerated (as is his bitter ex-handler Fuches, still so wonderfully played by Stephen Root), and that so many of the other characters are scattered to the wind. It’s that once Barry is willing to take everyone and everything to this intensely dramatic place, how exactly can you bring any or all of it back to a place of comedy? Can Hank still be funny when we know what he’s experienced? Can Gene or anyone else be?
After the extraordinary season Barry just completed, though, I have learned to stop betting against Bill Hader. Season Two was, again, almost oppressively dark at times, yet Season Three managed to bring back the humor without undercutting the thematic or emotional points. And if Barry’s arrest really is the end of wacky Chechen mob hijinks, Sally obsessing over Rotten Tomatoes scores, Fuches falling in love in exile, etc., then maybe that’s OK, too. Hader, Winkler, Goldberg, and everyone else have long since proved their dramatic bona fides, and Barry would be far from the first crime-adjacent show to gradually shift from a light-dark balance to something entirely focused on the latter. Somehow, Breaking Bad got from Jesse Pinkman’s, “Yeah, SCIENCE!” to him wailing about how Mr. White can’t keep getting away with this, you know?
What a season. What a finale. How in the world can Barry continue after this? I can’t wait to see them attempt it.