It had to come to that. After seven weeks of ugly reflection and mounting fear, the third season of barry comes to a shocking but inevitable, status quo-shattering conclusion. “Starting Now” is a daring, breathless half hour of sheer stress, shot brilliantly and punctuated by the show’s best dramatic performances yet.
Barry Burkman (Bill Hader) awakens from his recent near-death experience, haunted by the glimpse of the afterlife that has been offered to him. Standing on the metaphorical shores of death (whether imaginary or supernatural), Barry has measured the damage he’s done in life, and as he scrolls through the faces of his victims, he’s shocked to see both Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) and Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) among them. They may not be dead, but he’s dragging them with him to hell. By the time he gets home from the hospital, he seems to have found some clarity that could send him on a less destructive path, but as the rest of the story unfolds, it becomes clear that his demise is already set and that there is no escape is possible. † All season long, Barry has used up the audience’s remaining sympathy, teetering on the brink of becoming totally irreparable. The finale makes him human again, just in time for us to see him suffer for his crimes.
And there’s a lot of suffering to go around in this episode, providing nearly every member of the main cast with an Emmy-bait moment of pure emotional turmoil. The first to get started is Sarah Goldberg as Sally, who arrives at Barry’s apartment in a manic state and asks him to help her stalk and torture her friend, rival Natalie. Barry had once been eager to make his true, violent self useful to Sally, but now he refuses, hoping to spare her the eternal damnation he now knows for sure lies ahead of him. But before he can explain himself further, a survivor of the biker gang who was wiped out when he tried to kill Barry in “710N”, storms into his bedroom, knocking him unconscious, then strangling Sally almost to death. The eerie image of Sally being pinned to the ground as her breath is taken is all the more terrifying as it echoes the abuse she endured at the hands of her ex-husband Sam, once portrayed by Barry onstage . So when she manages to get the upper hand over her attacker, she’s merciless and stamps a lifetime of pent-up anger into his skull with a baseball bat.
Goldberg’s entire performance in this scene is brave and deeply disturbing, but it’s her shock in the wake of the carnage that sticks the most. She’s totally lifeless, shattered by what she’s been through, and when Barry tells her to repeat, “Barry did this,” it hurts to see the suggestion take root as though through hypnosis. Barry may believe he is saving Sally by helping her rehearse a new memory of the event while the trauma is still raw, but this is just another abuse of her vulnerable state, for his protection as well as hers. He can make this disappear, and then they are bound together by the secret. It’s his way back into her life. So when Sally boards a flight back to Joplin, Missouri towards the end of the episode, it’s a sigh of relief. She made it, maybe for good.
Although Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has been sidelined for much of this season, he should not be missing from the highlights of the final. His escape from the dungeon beneath Sifuentes’ mansion is pure horror movie hell. His part of the episode is the most bizarre, as he sits alone in a cell while his Chechen cohorts are apparently mauled to death by a lion in the next room. When he escapes to the floor above, he witnesses the nightmarish scene in which Cristobal (Michael Irby) is tortured by his wife Elena (Krizia Bajos) and an exotic dancer (Adrian Quiñonez), who uses an electric shock to destroy the sexuality of her. Cristobal trying to change. Everyone is pulling their weight in this scene. Bajos sells her character’s wickedness as well as her character’s desperation, Quiñonez’s cartoonish enthusiasm for the exercise adds to the dreamy atmosphere, but of course it’s Irby and Carrigan who make the strongest impression with their tearful embrace after Hank kills Cristobals executioners. sent. They may never completely escape the suffering they just experienced, but at least they will make the rest of the journey together.
Next up is Barry’s own breakdown, when he’s caught burying the biker’s body by FBI Special Agent Albert Nguyen (James Hiroyuki Liao). With gun drawn, Albert confronts Barry about his bloody career and repeatedly asks him how much he paid for this murder and for their friend Chris. There’s a sick irony that in either case, as with Detective Janice Moss, the answer is “nothing.” All three deaths were collateral damage in some way. Barry collapses, sobbing, screaming, unable to string even two words together to answer for himself. Bill Hader has never looked smaller or more vulnerable as he turns his body into a mutilated, pathetic mess. Even after the incredible twists and turns of Goldberg, Carrigan and Irby, Hader is determined not to be left behind. Also the performance of James Hiroyuki Liao should not be overlooked; Hader’s side may be the ostentatious side of the scene, but it’s Liao who drives it forward, convincing us that Albert would give his friend one last chance to change his life, “start now.”
Those are, of course, the exact words Barry says to himself at the end of the first season, after he kills Janice Moss. Two full seasons later, Barry finally takes responsibility for her murder.
The endgame is set in motion when Jim Moss (Robert Ray Wisdom) calls Gene Cousineau to his house and uses his legendary interrogation skills to wring the truth about Janice’s death from the terrified drama teacher. Wisdom is a stone statue that possesses a stillness and tranquility that attaches importance to every movement and every word. Director Alex Berg accentuates this power by ramping up the interrogation in a single take that begins with the two characters sharing equal space, then sharpens Gene as he feels more isolated, then lets Jim intrude into that tighter frame. Eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose with superior will, Gene bursts. And yet, despite being the aggressor in the scene, Jim is the one who gets the most sympathy, and credit for that goes to Wisdom. Jim may be a soldier waging psychological warfare against a hopelessly mismatched adversary, but the grieving father is always there too.
When Gene calls Barry in a stew of panic, sadness, and confusion, we naturally assume he’s had a breakdown of his own. Barry finds him sitting in front of Jim’s house with a gun, talking about how Jim knows everything and will ruin them both. Barry, now wanting to protect Gene as he protected Sally, takes the gun from him and walks in, chasing Jim around his house and taking aim. But before he can fire, Barry is shocked to discover that he is completely surrounded by a comically huge SWAT team. It’s a trap set not only by Jim but also by Gene, who now approaches him with total composure, still a great actor. The season closes with Barry finally caught, but lingers on a perfectly composed final shot of Jim’s living room, with Jim alone in the window and a portrait of Janice facing us in the corner of the frame.
Throughout this season’s tale of reckoning and fallout, Barry finally felt getting caught as the only acceptable ending. The real question was whether Hader and Berg were ready to ring that bell, to rock the show with at least one more season to go. Now they’ve done it, and at the time it means the most. We’ve seen Barry crumble and express regret for wanting to see him all year and a glimmer of hope that he might finally stop, but we know that wouldn’t be enough. He has destroyed too many lives, broken too many hearts, walked away unscathed from too many disasters of his own making. So if he willingly walks in… Another one, again† we know he must be stopped. Barry killing Jim Moss should be the end of the show. Barry being handcuffed brings the possibility of a semblance of a satisfying (if not “happy”) ending for the series, whether we get another season or five. It’s the only road that leads to Barry – the person or the series – becoming something truly new.
From now on.