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A Killer Ending

With the final season of ‘Barry’ set to begin on Sunday, Bill Hader and his cast discuss closing the curtains on such a surprisingly momentous series

Harrison Freeman

When he finished shooting his final scene as the hitman/wannabe actor Barry Berkman, Bill Hader didn’t really have time to think about it. “Gavin Kleintop, the first AD, went, ‘Hey, that’s it,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, wild. All right, next setup.’”

But the Emmy-winning cocreator, executive producer, writer, and star of Barry isn’t nonchalant about parting ways with a character he’s played since 2018. It’s just that since HBO picked up the show, he hasn’t been able to focus on only one part of it. Every aspect of the comedy is the product of his singular imagination. And as his confidence as a filmmaker has grown, so has his influence on the series. Hader directed 18 of the 32 total episodes, including all eight in the upcoming fourth and final season.

“From the get-go, it seemed like he knew what he was doing, but I think he’s really come into his own in terms of his taste, what he wants to get across, what he wants to convey, and what he thinks is interesting,” says Anthony Carrigan, who plays the loquacious Chechen mobster NoHo Hank on Barry. “And I know for a fact, from having conversations with him, that he’s basically been giving himself permission to just want what he wants. And I think that’s a really important part in a creator’s process, where you go from saying, ‘Does this work? Does this work? Does this work?’ to then, ‘I think this is working. I think that I want to do this.’”

“This is some crazy personal vision,” adds Robert Wisdom, who plays Jim Moss. “So it’s like working with Francis Coppola in [Apocalypse Now]. You are walking into this jungle, and only one person can get you out. And that’s Bill.”

With Sunday’s premiere of the fourth and final season, Hader will start to reveal his extraction plan—but ending a series about a contract killer is tricky, especially one who’s proved to be so irredeemable. “The story definitely evolved. It started out with this guy trying to better himself,” Hader says. “You know, that was a joke; some people called the show Breaking Good. It was kind of like that. And then we started to get to know the characters better in writing it, and moving forward you start to say, ‘I don’t know if this guy can do this. I don’t know if he really wants to do this.’”

Barry burst from Hader’s mind as the tale of a man who is extraordinarily good at the very thing that’s eating away at his soul. The concept was an extension of Hader’s own severe anxieties as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. “This whole idea of there’s something about ourselves that we hate,” Hader says. “Or something about ourselves that does constantly get us in trouble. And can you actually change that? And what was interesting is that you get through that by acting in life. You know, you kind of put on a costume hopefully to hide this other thing. And how long can you do that? And how do you work through it?”

Pretending to be someone else helped Barry compartmentalize his life as a disgraced veteran turned hitman, but it didn’t really change him. He could only keep his homicidal nature in a box for so long, and it was just a matter of time before his actions caught up to him. As Season 4 begins, he’s in a jail cell on murder charges. But, in a display of the show’s evolution from a comedy to what Sarah Goldberg, who plays Sally Reed, calls “a drama with a few jokes,” Barry isn’t the only one facing a reckoning. Everyone else in his life is left to consider the harm he’s caused—and wonder whether he’s rubbed off on them. “This season it kind of became like all the other characters had Barry’s disease,” Hader says, “where they were all trying to see, ‘Is this my nature?’”

Acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) has finally turned Barry in to the police, but only after becoming famous by exploiting his relationship with his protégé, a former Marine who’s a war hero in the public’s eyes. “My Achilles’s heel is attention,” Winkler says of his character. “He tries to be a better person and fails when he has the inkling that he can get in the spotlight again.” And then there’s the hyperdriven actress Sally, who sees her once-promising career go up in flames when a recording of her verbally abusing her assistant leaks and goes viral. “She wants things so badly,” says Goldberg, “that she puts everything into it all at once to the point that she tilts the cup over.”

Barry has become bleaker than ever. But it does still have jokes. “It was hard to talk about someone who kills people and have it be entirely funny, but you also didn’t want it to be humorless,” Hader says. “I will say I do think Season 4 is funnier than Season 3.” The show continues to be TV’s best showbiz satire, down to the industry’s smallest frivolities. One of last season’s most celebrated bits features Sally being moved through a car-wash-like press junket for her new series, getting peppered with innocuous questions like who should play the next Spider-Man. (She thoughtfully suggests Ben Mendelsohn.) Hader lifted that gag straight from his own career: While he was promoting The Skeleton Twins, a dramatic comedy that deals with serious mental health issues, a journalist ended an interview by asking him what he thought about Ben Affleck being cast as Batman. Hader says that Season 4 also has similar details, “where you can tell it’s coming from life.” (Blockbusters, beware.)

And, of course, the show still features one of the most hilarious creations in recent television history: the effervescent NoHo Hank. The world has gone to shit around the style icon—he’s living in seclusion after saving his lover Cristobal from torturous captors—but he remains painfully funny. “Hank is such an eclectic personality,” Carrigan says. “I’m sure he kind of follows Perez Hilton and is on Reddit all the time. But he’s also ordering gadgets left and right, like spy equipment. So he’s just a peculiar, peculiar character.”

Still, what began as a satire that reveled in the culture clash of an ice-cold hitman from Cleveland joining an acting class in L.A. has been stripped of much of its lightness. It’s been frightening to watch, but natural considering the subject matter. The show hit a disturbing peak during last season’s finale, when a motorcycle gang member looking for Barry comes upon Sally and attacks her. After she manages to fight off the assailant and kill him, Barry makes it clear that he’s going to take the blame for what happened. He forces her to say, “Barry did this,” over and over again.

“I’ve been blown away by the elasticity of this tone, what it can hold,” Goldberg says. “And it’s a great lesson in storytelling that you can be bold and take big swings and the audience will go with you. I always knew we were going to a bleak and dark place, and I always pushed for Sally not to be excluded from the darkness. So I was ever hopeful that I was going to get my Woman Under the Influence, opening night Gena Rowlands turn. That was my dream. That’s what I begged Bill for. And he came up on his promise.

“That bit where Bill and I are repeating back over and over to each other, that wasn’t scripted,” Goldberg continues. “That just happened. So there were fun surprises within the intensity of it all, and then they’d call cut and I would just try to like, dance around, laugh, joke, keep things really light so we could have the energy to go again.”

While shooting the scene, Hader remembers being astounded by Goldberg’s ability to shed a single tear for a closeup. “You have a moment like that … you know, I was left speechless by what she was doing,” he says. “And I thought about it for months, and it really affected me. And I just thought, ‘Wow.’ What an honor to be present for something like that. To work with someone like that, you know? That’ll stick with me forever.”

Before Barry, Hader was mostly known for his comedic performances. But as Winkler is quick to point out: “He always wanted to be a director. He started wanting to be a director and got sidetracked to Saturday Night Live.” So when Hader landed his own series, the onetime production assistant and editor came prepared. “His confidence as a director is just massive,” says Stephen Root, who plays Barry’s mentor/handler Monroe Fuches. “I mean, he directed the first episode of this show, and that was the first thing he directed. And he did a great job. And then he did a couple more, and then five more. And then this season, by directing every episode, it’s his total vision of what this show should be.”

As the series has progressed, Hader has shown himself to be well-prepared for dramatic moments, big and small. For last season’s finale, he coached Carrigan through a scene where Hank was chained to a radiator, listening to a panther feasting on his comrade in the next cell over. “He was right in front of my face feeding me all this stuff,” Carrigan says. “And we basically had a shorthand where he could just tell me anything, and I was just open to reacting. Now that’s something that you don’t get until you actually get to know someone and work with them.”

The predator is never seen, but the sequence is as horrifyingly gnarly as any of the show’s most ultraviolent images—at one point, someone vomits, and the puke splashes under Hank’s door. “I would hate to be directed that way,” Hader says with a laugh. “Anthony just did an amazing job. And I’m screaming and yelling and doing panther sounds, and he, I mean, looks scared for his life.”

This is the sort of humble back-and-forth that you get when talking to the cast of Barry, and in these moments you can get a sense of what’s made the show so special: Everyone is genuinely effusive talking about their boss, but he’s merely desperate to deflect the attention back on them. “There’s a scene in Episode 4 this season where Anthony gives maybe one of the best performances I’ve ever seen,” Hader tells me at one point before self-effacingly adding: “You just kind of get out of the way.”

It’s exhilarating, then, to catch Hader in a moment of confidence. He recalls watching Episode 6’s epic motorcycle chase while editing Season 3 and feeling like he’d achieved something impossible. “I was on a high for two weeks,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe how good that looks and how good it sounds.’ And it’s exactly what I had in my head. And we achieved that. HBO let me do that. We shut down a freeway.”

In 2019, shortly after telling The Ringer that NoHo Hank’s style inspiration is the suburban Glendale Galleria mall, Carrigan was shopping at a Costco—in Glendale—when he saw someone wearing one of Hank’s flashy tops. “I was just like, ‘That is a Hank right there,’” Carrigan says. “And I tried to FaceTime Bill, but I never got him. So I had to let him go back into the wild.”

These are the kind of surreal, silly moments that the cast of Barry already misses. While filming a prison scene opposite Hader this season, Root remembers improvising a line that caused the director to completely lose his focus. “For about five minutes, he just fell off onto the floor and went and laughed,” Root says. “And our DP said, ‘OK, thank you, Bill. But now we’ve got to actually shoot it.’ The most fun I have is just watching him. Whether he’s crying because something bad has happened, or something silly happens, and he’ll go into giggle fits. That’s been the greatest part of the experience, just watching this man with his emotions on his sleeve.”

That experience, the Emmy-winning Winkler admits, isn’t something he thought was even possible for himself. But almost 40 years after Happy Days wrapped, he’s now part of another iconic show. And now it’s almost over. “Bill just leads you to some promised land,” Winkler says. “What’s it like being over? When I did the first one, I thought, ‘Will I ever do anything as impactful as that?’ And here we are.”

Hader isn’t quite sure whether he nailed the ending, but he’s proud to have made it there without compromising his plan. Unlike a certain hitman, he’s actually been helped by having a creative outlet. And if making Barry has taught him one thing, it’s that work doesn’t have to be soul-crushing. “It’s the doing of it that is the most rewarding part of it, you know?” Hader says. “It really is. That’s what I’ve learned through this whole thing.”

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