It’s been 35 months since Barry was last on the air, but it only takes about 28 minutes to reassert itself as one of the best shows on television. When we last saw the title character, he’d just relapsed hard into the violent life he’d been hoping to escape. With this season’s premiere, “forgiving jeff” (lowercase theirs), co-creators Alex Berg and Bill Hader kick off a new story that sees hitman Barry Burkman (Hader) striving for forgiveness in a world that might be just absurd enough to give it to him.
Barry begins this season in as sorry shape as we’ve ever seen him, emotionally numb and back in business as an assassin for hire. Despite having severed ties with both his manipulative handler Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) and the affable gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Cerrigan), Barry no longer seeks to escape this life of violence. He’s been keeping busy doing freelance wetwork for jealous spouses, but his full-time occupation is hating himself and everyone else. At the end of last season, Barry unleashed the cold-blooded murder machine within and he’s now totally resigned himself to it. He’s a bad person and he’s beyond forgiveness for the evil that he’s done. Of course, no one knows him well enough to notice that he’s basically dead inside, and life goes on around him.
Barry has alienated himself from NoHo Hank, who’s been the closest thing he has to a friend. Not only did he murder most of Hank’s crew during his rampage, but he’s also attempted to frame Hank for the murder of Det. Janice Moss in order to exonerate poor innocent Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Hank cleverly shifts the blame to the fictional Chechen assassin “The Raven,” a ruse that will allow him to deliver Fuches as a fall guy if necessary. (Fuches himself is on the lam in Chechnya, deprived of his beloved Ohio State football.) Hank may want to patch things up with Barry, but not at the risk of his newfound domestic bliss with former partner in crime Cristobal (Michael Irby). Besides, as Hank says, forgiveness has to be earned. Meanwhile, Gene has learned that Barry is Janice’s real killer and pledges to exact revenge using a pistol he received as a gift from the late actor Rip Torn. Compounding his status as the most heartbreakingly sad character on the show, Gene’s acting school has also folded since the end of last season.
Sally Reed (Sarah Goldman), on the other hand, is riding a major career upswing. She’s become the frantically busy writer, creator, and star of Joplin, a TV drama built off of the themes of her fraudulent stage memoir. Sally has often been Barry’s avatar of Hollywood self-delusion, and she’s now more deeply mired in bullshit than ever. A studio executive (Elizabeth Perkins) watches the underwhelming dailies from Joplin and offers some completely nonsensical notes that belie how little she’s paying attention and how detached she is from the average person. Everyone on set requires Sally to sign off on their work, not just to keep the production moving but to receive validation for their individual creative choices which will be practically imperceptible in the final product. Sally herself tries to cultivate an image as a feminist hero elevating the women around her, but she’s all too eager to dehumanize her friend-turned-assistant Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) just like any other big shot. And, of course, this entire enterprise is predicated on the idea that Sally is the next big television auteur and possesses a level of talent that we, to date, have never witnessed from her.
All of this is, ironically, conveyed through the remarkable craft of star, co-creator, co-writer, and director Bill Hader, who spends this episode showing off behind the camera. As is typical of this series, “forgiving jeff” is beautifully, carefully composed and choreographed. The long tracking shot of Sally traversing the set of her show is an obvious highlight, but the short scene in which Gene bids goodbye to his son and grandson before his fateful encounter with Barry is an impressive one-take wonder that delivers a powerful punch with only a quick 90-degree pan and some really good blocking. Equal care and precision is demonstrated in both comedic and dramatic moments, allowing Hader, Berg, and company to maintain the show’s tragicomic tone.
The episode’s comedy has an arc of its own, a sort of silliness bell curve that’s goofiest in the middle and meanest on either end. We open with Barry’s pitch-dark meltdown as he executes both his target and his merciful client (“There is no forgiving Jeff!”). In the meat of the episode, there’s a lot of time spent with NoHo Hank, who brings a range of cringe humor (his police interrogation), vaudeville (his and Cristobal’s “Barry”/“buddy” dialogue), and pure cartoon (the sign on his front business reads, simply, “PLANTS!”). By the end, we’re back with Barry again, stifling a laugh from the funny but also truly sad moment when Gene’s pistol comes apart onto the floor. When we return to the location of the opening scene, we know that one of our main characters’ lives is in real jeopardy, and when Barry decides he doesn’t need to kill Gene, there’s both a sigh of relief and a chuckle at the mad glee in Barry’s eyes.
By the time we cut to credits, Barry has begun to awaken from his depressive stupor, having found some hope for redemption that is, for the moment, opaque to us. Whether Barry can really wash the blood off of his hands is a subjective matter, and he’s likely to find that everyone he’s wronged has a different threshold for forgiveness. Will he be able to earn it from Gene? From himself? Should he be? This season on Barry…