At the beginning of Barry’s fourth season, Monroe Fuches wants to cooperate with the FBI. After going to prison for his connection to the Chechen mob, he discovers that his former hitman, Barry Berkman, whose wrath he’s avoided over the last several months, has just entered the same prison block. Desperate for protection, Fuches quickly arranges a meeting with two agents to tell them that Janice Moss—the detective Barry killed at the end of Season 1—was “just the tip of the iceberg” and that he’d like to give up more information against Barry in the hope of starting fresh on the outside.
Upon agreeing to wear a wire, Fuches cautiously attempts to elicit a confession in the yard. But Barry stops his momentum with a heartfelt apology. The admission startles and overwhelms Fuches and ultimately convinces him to scrap his plans to squeal. “I took advantage of you,” Fuches tells him later in the bathroom, on the brink of tears. “I’m so sorry. I love you, Barry. I love you.” Convinced they’ve made amends, Fuches returns to the FBI the next day and nixes their deal, scoffing at the idea that he’d ever turn on his protégé. “Gonna get me a new life, witness protection,” he tells Barry. “I said, ‘Fuck off, I can’t do that to family.’”
But the gesture is meaningless. Not long after speaking to his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), Barry realizes he’ll be able to strike the same deal that Fuches rejected. So, despite sharing a seemingly tender moment of absolution with the man he’d been feuding with for three seasons, Barry swiftly burns another bridge with Fuches and takes the FBI’s free pass out of jail. “He doesn’t really think about how that’s going to affect Fuches,” said Bill Hader, the show’s cocreator, executive producer, writer, director, and star, on an episode of The Ringer’s Prestige TV Podcast. “You see how kind of thoughtless he is and selfish he is.”
In many ways, Barry is predicated on the backstabbing, flip-flopping, love-hate relationship between Barry and Fuches. Though they first met when Barry was just 7 years old, the pair’s hot-and-cold professional partnership began after Barry’s discharge from the military, when Fuches took in the soldier with PTSD, harnessed his gun skills, and turned him into a lucrative contract killer. After a steady diet of low-stakes, Midwestern murders, things between them unraveled in Season 1 when an unsuccessful hit job in Los Angeles mixed them up with the Chechen mob. Throughout the rest of the series, Barry’s attempts to find redemption (mostly through enlisting in an acting class) and escape his handler’s manipulative grip repeatedly fail, causing irreversible collateral damage, including the deaths of dozens of innocent people.
“It’s like being in the mafia. You can’t quit,” says Stephen Root, who plays Fuches. “He needs Barry to know that he’s doing the best [thing] for him, and if Barry can’t see that, then that’s his mistake, and that has to be rectified. That’s the revenge cycle that Fuches goes on with him at all times.”
As the darkly comedic HBO show approaches its conclusion this Sunday, Barry and Fuches seem to be headed on a collision course. After an eight-year time jump, Fuches is released from prison, sheds his khaki pants persona, and fully transforms into “the Raven,” the ominous moniker that Chechen drug lord NoHo Hank gave him in Season 3. He’s ready to unleash revenge on Barry with an army of ex-cons. With Barry simultaneously returning to Los Angeles, it’s inevitable that the two characters who started the series’ killing spree will have a chance to finally end it. “It’s this very simple relationship,” says Anthony Carrigan, who plays Hank. “Fuches wants an apology, and Barry wants to be seen for who he really is. ... Are they going to get what they want?”
When Hader began writing Barry, he was torn about whether Fuches should be Barry’s contemporary or an older mentor. But after bringing Root in to read for the pilot, Hader and cocreator Alec Berg decided on the latter, embracing the idea of a more paternal handler with rage and power issues. “What’s funny is when we shot the pilot, this guy was very much at 11,” Root says. “He was a screamer. He pretty much was always out of control.”
After filming for the pilot ended, Hader, Berg, and HBO executives watched the episode’s footage and decided there was nowhere for Fuches to go emotionally in the rest of the season. Soon, they were reworking all of Root’s scenes, dialing him down into a calmer manager. “We reshot Fuches as essentially a bad uncle, somebody who was going to take care of Barry in a very softly spoken ‘I love you; tomorrow, we’re going to go kill this guy’ way,” Root says. “He started it out at a much lower volume, much closer to Barry.”
Root eventually learned more specifics about his character’s background, beyond Fuches being a self-serving manipulator. As we discover over the rest of Season 1, Barry’s father served in Vietnam (whether he was with Fuches is never clarified) and later saved Fuches’s life while living in Connecticut in the 1960s. As a token of gratitude, Fuches swore an oath to protect Barry. But when we first meet him inside Barry’s Cleveland apartment, he’s focused only on money. Disregarding Barry’s request to take some time off, Fuches has already booked their next gig, a more lucrative and dangerous hit in Los Angeles for a Chechen mob boss named Goran. “He does see himself as responsible for Barry,” says executive producer Aida Rodgers. “He just gets swayed by greed and by more mundane concerns.”
As Barry starts his recon in Hollywood, he discovers his mark entering an acting class. Bored on the job, he sticks his head inside the theater and eventually takes part in some scene work as a prospective student. When Fuches later meets him inside his L.A. hotel, Barry feels inspired, discussing his plans to join the class. But Fuches calmly shuts down the idea with a safer alternative. “You could take up painting,” he says, unironically suggesting that Barry try the same hobby as Hitler and serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Then, he makes himself clear: “When you decided to do this for a living, you closed the door on being able to do anything else. You’re a killer, Barry. You kill the bad guys. … This is what you do. This is all you do.”
The statement has haunted Barry for the entire series. As he vaguely explains to his acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), Fuches helped him out of his depression upon his return from Afghanistan, giving him a purpose in life. “He told me that what I was good at over there could be useful here,” Barry says. In reality, Fuches took advantage of Barry’s fragile state for personal gain, preventing him from finding any other kind of extracurricular fulfillment. It’s a subtle manipulation skill he uses again and again to avoid being killed or imprisoned. “I think my strength is playing characters that are just a little bent in most places,” Root says. “I haven’t played somebody that’s just intrinsically a horrible person. I’m always trying to find some kind of human reason for him to be that way.”
Consider a scene a couple of episodes later, when the Chechens kidnap Fuches. Chained up to a headboard inside Goran’s garage, he writhes in pain and resorts to eating a humiliating steak dinner with his hands. Eventually, though, he finds a window of opportunity to prove his mental muscle, coaxing a top Chechen assassin to kill himself with just a brief chat. Shortly after, he convinces Goran to raid a Bolivian stash house, a plan that starts a turf war and ultimately sets him free. “He took what information he could get from them and, in four seconds, turned it into something for himself,” Root says. “It couldn’t be more Hannibal Lecter–like.”
“A lot of manipulation comes from a place of wanting to love, wanting approval and connection, and I think that’s the most fascinating thing Stephen’s doing,” Carrigan says. “That’s why you can have a character who is so rotten and yet you completely understand it.”
Throughout Season 2, Fuches’s paternal possessiveness only grows. As Barry dives headfirst into his acting class, hoping to avoid the fallout from murdering Moss—Cousineau’s detective girlfriend, who had just discovered Barry’s real profession—Fuches learns that his former hitman has fallen further under the acting teacher’s spell. The more Barry attends class and reckons with his trauma, the more he believes he can extricate himself from his profession and start a new life away from Fuches. “Mr. Cousineau, he understands me,” Barry tells his handler in the sixth episode. “He accepts me.”
After a brief pause, Fuches comes back with a dagger. “Did you tell him you killed his girlfriend?” he says. “You made a choice to kill her. Because you’re a violent guy, Barry. I built a world where that’s an asset.” As Berg told The Ringer in 2019, “Fuches has made him a killer, and [Barry] was kind of unwittingly pushed into this life.” However, “Fuches’s whole point is, ‘I didn’t make you this. You made yourself into this, and I accommodated you. And I gave you a place where what you are is good.’”
Ultimately, Fuches is right. Still, he feels threatened by Cousineau stepping into Barry’s life. “It’s his jealousy of not having a kid himself,” Root says. After this confrontation, Fuches returns to disruptor mode in the penultimate episode of the season, finding Moss’s body in the trunk of her hidden car and framing Cousineau for her death. After he vowed numerous times to get out of the killing business, Barry is overcome with rage—incensed that Fuches has disrupted another positive relationship in his life—and unleashes a massacre inside a monastery that Fuches narrowly escapes. “It’s so fickle from one moment to the next,” Carrigan says. “‘Oh, this is what I’ve always wanted,’ and then, ‘Nope, that person has to die.’”
In playing a sexagenarian handler to a hitman, Root didn’t initially think he’d be involved in many physical scenes. After all, it’s Barry who does the choking, stabbing, and killing. But over the first three seasons, Fuches endures just about everything an out-of-shape, polo-wearing manipulator can take: He’s punched, gagged, tooth-sawed, tied up, thrown down, bitten, and shot. “Basically, Stephen got the shit kicked out of him continuously over every season,” Carrigan says. Eventually, Root had to speak up. “I keep asking Bill: ‘Why do they beat up the old guy?’” he says with a laugh.
The answer, Root knows, is that Fuches can’t help but insert himself into dangerous situations. It’s in the character’s shifty DNA. Still, Root has been game to portray as much as his body can handle, letting stunt performers brave only the most intense moments. “They do the really hard work,” Root says. “I try to do as much as I can just so you can see that body, flash of beard, and can see it’s me.” After a certain point, the cuts, scrapes, and bandages became Fuches’s second skin, a badge of slimy honor and a reminder that he attracts violence wherever he goes. “We laugh about it all the time, like, ‘Oh my God, Stephen, you’re in the makeup chair again. You can’t stay out of it,’” Rodgers says. “He’s the instigator for all of it. Every terrible idea he has ends up being unhealthy. It’s an inevitability.”
“Ultimately, it requires the intelligence of a great physical actor to be able to play what your body has been through and do so in a way that is believable to everyone,” Carrigan says. “It’s been a joy to see him go through the wringer.”
The Barry-Fuches relationship, like Tom and Jerry’s, suggests that each must suffer equally for the other’s sins. That’s never clearer than in “ronny/lily,” arguably the show’s most surprising and entertaining episode. After Barry takes an unexpected beating from a champion martial artist during a hit job, he’s subsequently attacked by the man’s “feral mongoose” daughter. In the passenger seat of his SUV, Fuches shrugs off Barry’s immense pain and haphazardly superglues the open gash in his back. But Fuches receives his comeuppance when he insists Barry find and kill the child, circling the neighborhood until she jumps on top of his vehicle, sneaks through the back window, and surprises him by latching her teeth into his cheek. “We did that [shot] many different ways,” Root says. “That one surprised me. I didn’t know how far back in the car she was.”
At the beginning of Season 3, however, Fuches has a chance to heal and live out his life in bucolic bliss. After his narrow escape from Barry, he flees to Chechnya, where Hank—after telling the police that Fuches is a lethal assassin named “the Raven”—puts him up with a beautiful native woman on a goat farm. Despite not being able to watch his beloved Ohio State football games, Fuches briefly embraces a future of milking goats for his breakfast cereal and basking in his “little slice of heaven.” But when Hank calls him, hoping to pin the shoot-out on him, Fuches learns that Barry has repaired things with Cousineau and refuses to apologize for trying to kill him. Soon, Fuches is on a plane back to Los Angeles to blow up Barry’s life again. “This is where the universe wants him,” Hader said of Chechnya. “All he has to do is not be mad at Barry.”
When Fuches arrives, he goes undercover with a fake name, calling the family members of Barry’s victims and giving them the hitman’s information. This introduces more chaos and eventually gets Fuches shot by a motorcycle gang. On the brink of death, he’s rescued by a Mexican family 20 miles outside of the city, where they nurse him back to life. Again, Fuches is afforded a chance to live out a peaceful, romantic existence. Then, he sees a Variety news clipping of Barry that refocuses his vengeful thoughts. “He sees that newspaper, and all he has to do is say, ‘Forget it, fuck that,’” Hader said. “But Fuches is constantly taking the wrong lesson.”
As a last resort, Fuches calls up Jim Moss, hoping to tell him the full story about his daughter’s death and take Barry down with him. During a car ride together in which Fuches beefs up his military bona fides, Moss explains how, as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, he was shot down and captured, but he eventually weaseled into his interrogator’s head and forced him to kill himself. As Moss continues the conversation, Fuches can’t get over what he’s heard and attempts to find a rationale. “Did you get any sense of his home life? … He might have been a ticking clock,” he theorizes. As Moss pulls up to the police station, Fuches can’t believe that this man could manipulate a manipulator so thoroughly. Then, he turns and realizes he’s been tricked into custody the same way.
“The thing I thought about most was that this guy has always been a fraud,” Root says. “He can say he was in the Army, but he was shoveling beans in the background. That’s as much action as he saw. That’s his personality. ‘I was there. I was in ’Nam.’ But it’s all made up in his head as to how brave and wonderful he is, so he’s fooling himself all his life. He knows he’s fake, and it affects the way he feels about things because he’s a fake.”
As he’s proved time after time, Fuches’s best moments tend to come when he’s backed into a corner. In the penultimate episode of Season 3, he plays the charade of “the Raven” and sits down to speak with Albert, an FBI interrogator who served with Barry overseas. Initially, Fuches plays defense, but when he realizes that Albert has a close, traumatic connection to Barry, he subtly pivots into targeting the aggressor. “That switch,” he says, before popping the top of a Pepsi can, “that you saw go off when Barry was avenging you, I harnessed that into a very lucrative job for him.” In a matter of moments, Fuches has Albert on the ropes and knows exactly which strings to pull to get the agent to pursue Barry.
“He finds a moment to relish a small victory, and that moment with the Pepsi can leads to the best comedy,” Carrigan says. “He’s so in it and so kind of blinded by his own victory that he completely loses sight that he’s incriminated himself. It’s a testament to Stephen that he can disappear in those moments.”
Still, it’s a terrifying temperature change—even for a dark comedy. It’s something Root has harnessed since he started acting in the National Shakespeare Company, where he spent the first three years of his career. “The first thing I look at [in a scene] is: ‘Why is this happening?’” Root says. “When you understand everyone’s perspective, then you can play a much more complicated and layered version of that scene.” Ahead of Albert’s interrogation, Root remembers collaborating with Hader, the episode’s director, and deciding when he wanted to use a prop to accentuate his monologue. “We go over that and say, ‘Where does the turn happen? Where do you want to see it? Is it on the [sound] of the can when you open it? Is it when you say this line?’” he says. “We figured that out together.”
Jump ahead eight years, and Fuches has taken down any remaining facades. While Barry spent his new life out of prison adopting Christianity and raising a son with Sally, Fuches went in the opposite direction and adapted to living in shackles, painting his fingernails black, tatting up his entire torso, and becoming an undisputed leader in prison. It’s taken time, but his evolution from series antagonist to, as Carrigan notes, “this kind of comic book archvillain character” makes sense. “When you really map it out, this is a character who has been incredibly self-serving and kind of evil underneath,” Carrigan says. “So there is a foreshadowing there that he ultimately steps into who he really is. He stops lying about being this soldier, this good guy, and he just embraces what he is.”
When Root first read the arc his character takes in Season 4, he became a little anxious. “I said, ‘Look, this is a character that I would never go up for, I would never be cast for, so it’s going to be a real challenge for me,’” Root says. Hader agreed with him and gave him one note: “I want you to be sexy.” Root laughed. “I was like, ‘That’s not my milieu.’ But we got to do that and play a different side of this guy.”
After leaving prison with a throng of men, Fuches picks up a random barista and makes her his bride. (“His magnetism draws her in,” Rodgers says. “She can’t resist.”) Then, Hank hires him to be his security detail. But Fuches’s real goal is finding Barry. Though his protégé has been off the grid, Fuches can sense Barry’s imminent return, especially after Cousineau’s recent attempt to turn Barry’s life into a movie. “There’s always going to be a love for Barry deep down inside, but at this point, Fuches feels like he knows himself better than he’s ever known anyone,” Root says. “He’s gone through physical torture to become confident, which is something he never was.”
In some ways, he’s just attempting to fulfill the fabled destiny he learned about while living with goats in Chechnya. At the time, his host, Ana, who was worried about his bursts of anger, read him the story of the Bolam-Deela, a creature that gives a group of dead farmers the chance to either forgive the man who murdered them and go to heaven or get revenge on their killer. All the men chose revenge, but their souls were banished to the bottom of the ocean forever. “Vengeance is like drinking poison, hoping the other person will die,” Ana later tells him. But Fuches misses the point entirely. “At least he’d be dead,” he says. It’s a fitting reminder of how Fuches sees the world and what will be waiting for Barry when they meet one last time.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.