The editorial staff of The Onion are a famously secretive bunch. They do not publish their names, they do not accept submissions, and they rarely give interviews or appear in public. But years ago, they did pull back the curtain to acknowledge one of their secrets: “We took the old formula ‘tragedy + time = comedy,’ and we got rid of time. Tragedy = comedy.”
Hence, such stinging, brutal, timely headlines like “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ Rule’” the day after religious fundamentalists destroyed the World Trade Center. Or the steady drumbeat of “No Way To Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” after our increasingly frequent mass shootings.
Is it so funny it hurts? Or does it hurt so much it’s somehow become funny? That’s always been the central question for Barry, which has always been the blackest of black comedies. But as last season laid bare Barry’s sociopathy and the poisonous effect he’s had on everyone in his life, we’ve gotten rid of both time and comedy. This is just tragedy. (Not that the episode isn’t as darkly funny as ever.)
Everyone is haunted by the events of last season. Noho Hank and Cristobal have found a love nest in Santa Fe, finally feeling safe… but Hank is still jumpy, and haunted by the time he spent imprisoned by Cristobal’s family. Sally is flying out of LA… but has a nightmare on the plane of the man she stabbed (in self-defense) at the end of last season. And then there’s Barry himself, in jail for Janice’s murder, still hallucinating, yelling at himself in the mirror and punching the walls.
He collect-calls Cousineau to ask about the sting that put him in jail. “Did you guys trick me?” But now the childlike innocence behind the question, and insistence to Cousineau that “I love you,” just come across as quietly terrifying. There’s no more pretending that Barry’s just a confused kid who let things get out of hand, and Cousineau’s having none of it.
Sally goes home to Missouri to escape the fallout of her series being canceled, the video of her screaming at her assistant going viral, her breakup with Barry, and the stabbing. But she almost immediately wishes she hadn’t. Before she’s even off the plane, her phone blows up as the news of Barry’s arrest breaks, and it’s enough to send Sally over the edge. Her mother refuses to even acknowledge the emotional breakdown her daughter is going through, and her dad is sympathetic but entirely unequipped to deal with anything on a deeper level than “hey, kiddo.”
They make the mistake of sitting down to watch Joplin, Sally’s semi-autobiographical, acclaimed-then-quickly-canceled TV series. Her parents had never bothered to tune in, and her mom is mostly upset that the show dramatized and used the real first name of Sally’s abusive ex. “Now I’m going to have to call his family and tell them,” she grouses. And she’s skeptical of Sally’s claim that her most recent ex is a murderer. “You sure know how to pick ‘em.”
The show’s central focus is on Barry, someone who’s desperately searching for love and human connection, but completely unequipped to make those connections. But the show also takes pains to show that it’s only a matter of degrees between Barry and a lot of other people. Sally’s mother isn’t the violent sociopath Barry is, but her prickly indifference to her daughter’s suffering is far crueler than any of Barry’s misguided attempts to win Sally’s affection. He’s a creep, he’s a murderer, and he thinks offering to terrorize her rival is a grand romantic gesture. But at least he genuinely wants to be there for Sally in his misguided way, even if the execution is horrifying. Sally desperately needs emotional support, and with her parents unwilling or unable to be that for her, she has no one left. (And just to be clear, Barry would be the worst person in the world to offer her emotional support, but the fact that her parents are no better is pretty bleak.)
The cruel irony is that the only person who lends any emotional support anywhere in this episode is Barry. It’s usually a too-convenient TV conceit when two co-conspirators end up in the same prison, but the feds deliberately put Fuches and Barry together, hoping Barry’s former handler can give them info on more of his murderous past. Fuches is all too eager to cooperate, wearing a wire in the hopes that teasing a few confessions out of Barry will earn his freedom.
But Barry shocks him with a genuine apology. For landing him in jail, and for not listening to him when he advised against taking acting classes in the first place. “If I hadn’t tried to understand myself, we wouldn’t be here. I’m sorry, Fuches.” Barry’s apology draws something out of Fuches, as by episode’s end, he’s the one apologizing, for taking advantage of Barry and leading him down this dark path. Will this lead to absolution for either man? Probably not. In Barry’s world, tragedy plus time just equals more tragedy.
• The only person feeling good this episode is Gene Cousineau. He has no qualms whatsoever about putting Barry behind bars, he’s eager to be the key witness against him in court, and he’s enjoying the fame that’s come with being the man who put him behind bars. He also agrees with Janice’s father that neither of them should talk to the press, and not turn Janice’s murder into a media circus. But by episode’s end, he’s calling a reporter at Vanity Fair and promising the whole story. At the end of the day, needy, self-centered Cousineau is just a gentler sociopath, whose humanity always comes second to advancing his career.
• Sally’s mom is also confounded by the semi in semi-autobiographical. “But you don’t have a daughter!”
• Bill Hader directed the last three episodes of season three; he’s directing this entire season, and wrote this episode, the finale, and one episode in between.
• HBO released two episodes of Barry on Sunday; we’ll get to the second one, “bestest place on the earth,” later in the week.