Barry Isn’t a Comedy Anymore. But It’s Become an Even Better Show.

Season 3 of Bill Hader’s HBO series about a listless hitman, which ended Sunday, marked a stark shift toward the show’s darker impulses.

Bill Hader of HBO's "Barry" kneels in the desert during Sunday night's Season 3 finale.
In Season 3, "Barry" doubles down on its protagonist’s depravity, stripping him of any boyish charm. (Merrick Morton / HBO)

This article contains spoilers through the finale of Barry, Season 3.

The first murder on Sunday night’s devastating Season 3 finale of Barry, the HBO series about a listless hitman, happens silently. Barry (played by Bill Hader) watches in horror from outside a makeshift sound stage as Sally (Sarah Goldberg), his former acting classmate and ex-girlfriend, bludgeons a man who tries to choke her after she gets in the way of his attempt to kill Barry. It’s a riveting scene, one that wordlessly telegraphs the extent to which Barry has failed at protecting those around him—not from outside threats but from the carnage wrought by Barry himself.

For a dark comedy, this scene is also notably free of anything resembling jokes. The show’s first two seasons found consistent humor in the juxtaposition of Barry’s miserable life as a low-rent assassin with the campy acting classes he stumbled into while on assignment. Although Barry never took murder lightly, per se, the show mined plenty of comedy from the ensemble surrounding its sullen protagonist, as Barry strained to pantomime the sunniness around him. But Season 3 has marked a stark shift toward the show’s darker impulses, as well as a move away from leaning on Barry to be its emotional center. That shift has made Barry a better show—and a more interesting one than it would’ve been if it had stuck to its hitman-with-a-heart conceit.

Hader’s Barry has long embodied the contradictions in the phrase dark comedy: He’s in turns wooden and effortfully chipper, droll and earnest. In Seasons 1 and 2, his attempts to fit in among plucky Millennial thespians showcased Hader’s impressive deadpan and elastic face. Similarly zany were his dealings with the Chechen mob and overzealous fellow ex-Marines, one of whom cheerfully watches pornography on his living-room TV in full view of visitors. Meanwhile, Barry could also be frighteningly blank, a cold executioner and manipulator whose full capacity for violence we were only beginning to understand.

But as the show progressed, that blankness could sometimes feel so prominent that it left little room for other characters’ inner lives. For the first two seasons, Sally, his acting classmate turned girlfriend, mostly personified the vapid, self-absorbed Hollywood culture that initially seemed so foreign to Barry. NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) was the show’s most reliable comic vehicle as a quirky Chechen crime boss. Barry’s erstwhile acting mentor, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), began the series as an avuncular coach overcompensating for his own stalled career.

In Season 3, the show brings the lives of these supporting characters—and the pain they feel in their relationships with Barry—into sharp focus. By doubling down on its protagonist’s depravity and stripping him of any boyishly charming veneer, the series stops searching for the vulnerability beneath his facade and commits to focusing on Barry’s dangerousness. It’s the strongest season yet for Hader’s acting, which veers between lupine freneticism and existential torpor. But it also takes an unusual risk: It makes us stop empathizing with its protagonist almost entirely. By the time the widow of one victim tries poisoning Barry, it’s hard not to wish that she’ll succeed (if only because that might make for the first documented case of death by beignet).

Barry’s steep descent doesn’t just render him incapable of redemption. It also seeps into the lives of all the people he’s closest to, and all the loved ones of his victims. The show wisely deepens the story lines of its supporting characters, all of whom suffer the consequences of Barry’s violence—or enable it.

Sally begins the season on a high: Joplin, the series she created and stars in, earns rave reviews (“We got a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!” she shouts in disbelief at the show’s premiere). But as her career prospects grow dimmer, her lack of self-awareness turns into something more sinister and complex. A young actor in Joplin witnesses Barry verbally assaulting Sally on set and expresses her concern to Sally the night of the premiere. Standing outside the gilded venue, Sally breaks up with Barry. From then on, the series shows the residual impact that Barry’s anger and vengefulness have on Sally’s life. She herself slowly grows more comfortable with violence as the season progresses, whether it’s against people in the industry she thinks have wronged her or more deserving targets. In the end, she descends in an almost Lady Macbeth–like spiral that culminates in her fleeing Los Angeles after brutally murdering the man who tries to choke her to death. It feels like a callback to an abuse scene that Sally had acted out in class with Barry back in Season 1, but her former helplessness has been replaced by a menacing new focus and agency.

Meanwhile, Season 3 finds NoHo Hank in the throes of an intense and compelling love story. In one of the season’s first reminders that violence ripples out far beyond its intended targets, a bomb nearly kills NoHo’s lover, his former Bolivian mob rival, Cristobal Sifuentes (Michael Irby), alongside the targets Hank had actually hired Barry to kill. When NoHo sees the state Cristobal is in, he panics and then immediately draws him into a protective embrace. His relationship with Cristobal is sweet and funny—they’re saved as “Luke” and “Lorelai” in each other’s phone—but it’s also treated with real gravity.

Then there’s Gene, whose arc drives much of Season 3. At one point, a manic Barry threatens Gene and his family. Immediately afterward, Barry professes his love to Gene and insists that Gene do the same, the still-fresh promise of violence hanging in the air. The close-up on Winkler’s face in this moment is gutting; his fear fills the frame. By the season’s end, it’s clear that Gene’s forgiveness is what Barry wants more than anything, and Gene ultimately refuses to give it to him. In a pivotal moment in the finale, Winkler’s face, again seen up close, manages to telegraph not just his own fear but Barry’s betrayal, too. Here, it’s Gene who holds the power—and emotionally carries the show. It’s a profound reversal for a season focused less on spotlighting its protagonist than on exploring, with meticulous attention, the effect his brutality has on those around him.