Season 3, Episode 5, “crazytimeshitshow”

Bill Hader in Barry

Bill Hader in Barry
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

Before I set eyes on “crazytimeshitshow,” I was ready for literally anything. A whole episode with zero Cousineau, Sally, Natalie, Lindsay, Katie, Leo, Batir, Detective Mae Dunn, Hank, or Cristobal. Not even a cutaway to Akhmal of “King of Suck Balls Mountain” fame. No sign of Chaos Muppet Fuches. Just Barry in a shack in the Rockies with a Last Man On Earth beard, spending thirty minutes, I don’t know, hunting and being hunted by a killer grizzly that turns out to be a robot. At the end of last week’s Barry, the title character felt that unmoored.

This week wasn’t quite so apocalyptic. Instead, it was shockingly circular: an origin story thread pops up and raises the stakes. Welcome back, ex-Marine Albert Nguyen (James Hiroyuki Liao) who served with Barry (Bill Hader) in Afghanistan and cheered Barry’s first sniper kill in a season-two flashback. Albert, you’ll recall, got shot in the face during a village recon, which prompted Barry to go on a shooting rampage that left an innocent Afghan civilian dead. Barry was discharged; Fuches took advantage of his depression and turned him into an assassin. Present day: Albert, bearing a scar on his cheek, is now an FBI special agent. He shows up in the office of Chief Kraus (Gary Kraus) and Mae Dunn (Sarah Burns), announcing in that thick New Yawk accent, “I’m here to help you catch whoever killed Detective Janice Moss.” This is the kind of move that makes you wonder if there’ll be a fourth season. (There will be a fourth season.) Even so, Barry’s end might eventually come at the hands of the guy who witnessed his birth as a killer. Or Barry will whack Albert à la Moss, completing the circle of death.

As season three heads into its final four shows, Barry is shuffling the deck and laying out fresh cards. I’m still hooked, even if the title character made a move that felt too sloppy and jokey and undermined a character that was already a device. More on that below.

First: violence. Barry never has a shortage of it. Almost every episode features at least one person being shot, stabbed, kickboxed to death, strangled, or (last week) blown up by a Japanese-Korean dark-web bomb. This week, the Bolivians, under the fresh command of Cristobal’s estranged gangster wife, Elena (Krizia Bajos), raid the Chechens’ heroin/plant farm with a squad of black SUVs, at the same time the cops roll up to arrest the Chechens for further interrogation (per Albert’s orders). A shootout ensues between the LAPD and the Bolivians, during which Akhmal (Turhan Troy Caylak) is shot in the arm, again (Barry clipped him last season), and a Bolivian in a bomb vest rushes a police car and explodes. No idea what the body count is, but the Bolivians escape with Akhmal, driving to Cristobal and Hank’s place to abduct Elena’s wayward spouse. (Boy, the LAPD suck.) Noteworthy: The crazytimeshitshow unfolds from a comical remove, as Batir (JB Blanc) Facetimes with elders from Grozny from a highway overpass. This distancing of violence contrasts poignantly with an intimate final scene between the mother (Annabeth Gish) and son (Alex MacNicoll) planning a revenge attack on Barry outside his apartment. Nervously gripping the gun in the car, the mother accidentally shoots the son. Greek tragedy becomes domestic farce, with Barry left in the middle of the street wondering if that was a gunshot he heard.

Yet, although there is carnage of the bang-bang type, most of the brutality is emotional. There was heartbreak and dashed dreams for everyone: Sally, Cousineau, Bolivian avenging angel Elena, Hank, and even semi-sociopath Barry.

The day after Joplin premiered with 98-percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Sally discovers that Diana Villa (Elizabeth Perkins), the top executive at BanShe, is canceling the show. “The algorithm felt it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters,” Villa purrs, looking positively medicated. Sally, backed by Lindsay (Jessy Hodges) and Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) points out that it’s only been 12 hours, maybe they should let word of mouth do its thing. “The algorithm takes word of mouth into account,” junior executive Casey (Joanna Sotomura), blandly assures Sally. “But it considers other things too. For instance, if you were to see someone eating dessert within the first two minutes of the episode, they almost always finish the season. And it’s not just dessert, the same goes for Central Park, kittens, Dev Patel.” “Fuck the algorithm,” Sally screeches. At which point, Casey discretely closes the glass conference-room door. (Casey’s speech about the tractability of TV viewers chimes sinisterly with Barry’s PsyOp laundry list later.)

On the set of Laws Of Humanity, Cousineau is trying out Steps Eights and Nine, making amends and asking forgiveness. He’s been given an extra scene with his dying wife (use that emotional memory, Gene!) after impressing producers by punching Barry in the face in a (real) fit of rage. Now, Cousineau, famous for his egomaniacal, abusive explosions, is all smiles and humility. He stops the showrunner and sincerely apologizes for throwing tea in his face years ago on the set of Murder, She Wrote. Tears well up in the showrunner’s eyes; he accepts the apology. Healing happens. Cousineau smiles. Later, he shows his son, Leo, a house he’s renting for him (thanks to the duffel of blood money Barry left him). And yet, at a dinner party thrown by Joe Mantegna, the Gene Cousineau Redemption Tour will come to a grinding halt.

Barry—recently dumped by Sally—temporarily moves back in with former Cousineau classmates Jermaine (Darrell Britt-Gibson) and Nick (Rightor Doyle), who give him room for a sleeping bag in the middle of their chaotic “audition room.” Barry turns to Hank and Cristobal for advice, and, as usual, Hank is pretty much on target. “You’re trying to be two guys at once, and that is simply not sustainable,” Hank observes. When Barry tries to downplay how much he shouted at Sally, Hank sees through it. “You have massive, massive rage issues, and I think they are triggered when you feel slighted?” Hank and Cristobal suggest Barry try “something creative” to show “the real you.”

This advice prompts a scene at the end of the episode that, despite being perfectly well-acted and shrewdly scripted, struck a false note for me.

Sarah Goldberg and D’Arcy Carden in Barry

Sarah Goldberg and D’Arcy Carden in Barry
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

Barry has returned the apartment he was sharing with Sally (after a brief, perfectly creepy run-in with the avenging son, who’s casing the joint). Barry leaves his keys on a counter, along with a dream board inspired by Hank’s counsel. The board makes for a funny sight gag (see below), but it’s another reminder that Bill Hader and Alec Berg have set limits on how much we will ever get into Barry’s messed-up head. As tenderly as Hader acts moments of sorrow or desperation, Barry will always be a device, a punchline. I guess we should be used to it by now, but I still long for sudden depths of humanity.

Before Barry can leave the apartment, Sally enters in tears. Barry comforts her on the couch and, learning of the cancelation of Joplin, offers to take revenge on the producer: “I just want to freak her out a little bit.” Barry’s tone is that of a warm, supportive boyfriend, but the content is that of a serial killer. “For instance,” Barry murmurs, gently wiping Sally’s tears away, “I could send her a picture of herself sleeping, as a way of saying, ‘Hey, not cool, what you did to Sally.’ The whole point is to isolate her and make her feel like she’s going insane. Replace her dog with a slightly different dog. Change the furniture in her house so she thinks she’s shrinking. Basic stuff, mostly I learned in the military, some of it on a sub-Reddit. Basically you plant a seed and then they just hang themselves. So it’s super-nonviolent. But by the end, her brain will have eventually eaten itself.” Sally is horrified and tells him to leave.

Now, I love this sick little monologue, but it felt like a joke that chipped away at Barry as a plausible character with interior life. Maybe Barry has been insane from the top of the season. But letting his guard down, showing Sally his amoral soul—so soon after the self-delusion of the dream board—seemed like a dark, smug laugh instead of something more complex. Or Barry has simply stopped caring if both halves of his life collide.

Either way, it felt like a small misstep in a show that is trying something exceedingly difficult: an elaborate comic conceit wrapped in a tragic vision. Barry’s moral compass turns on two interrelated dichotomies: forgiveness vs. vengeance, and happiness vs. success. No character can have it all. As Cousineau attains greater career success—being invited to Joe Mantegna’s home for a dinner party—he is refused forgiveness by an ex-lover (Laura San Giacomo in a dynamite, seething cameo) who resents him for ruining her career as a stage director. Sally’s success with Joplin made her manic and cruel, then miserable when it was ripped away, but she refuses to take vengeance on the producer, which is a sane choice. The mother-and-son revenge team stirred up by Fuches opt for murder, which means they will never know happiness, especially after the accidental shooting. The cycles of chasing either showbiz success or retribution feed each other, ensuring sorrow for anyone who stays in the game. Barry will only know peace if he gives himself up to the police or dies. That could make Albert the angel of death.

Stray observations 

  • This week’s title is a throwaway line by the head Elder from Grozny, played by ’80s film badass Michael Ironside (Scanners, Total Recall, Starship Troopers).
  • Barry’s dream board includes Willie Nelson, Budweiser, cars, U.S. Marines, Twix, comedy & tragedy masks, Michael Jordan, Ohio, donut with rainbow sprinkles, and Metallica. In case you were wondering, as Barry says, “What I’m about!”
  • When briefly discussing audiobooks to download for a road trip, Hank tries to hide his distaste for the Percy Jackson series from fanboy Cristobal.
  • Anyone else call it “Rotty Ts” like Natalie?
  • The second of visible pride shared by Chief Krauss and Mae when Albert calls Krauss “Big Cat”—before he tears them all a new one.
  • Dead ex-Marine Taylor’s dirt-bike rider sister doesn’t care about avenging her brother until Fuches mentions that Barry owes him $1,700 for a hot tub.
  • Joplin is replaced on BanShe’s homepage with The New Medusas: “3 goddesses who just wanna have fun. Don’t get caught staring!” And a trio of model-ish actresses with snakes for hair.

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