clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘Barry’ Got Its Hollywood Ending

The series finale of Bill Hader’s hyper-violent dramatic comedy felt anticlimactic. Here’s why that was a fitting conclusion for the hit man turned actor.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last scene of the Barry series finale is, fittingly, a sick joke. The titular character’s life has been turned into a humorless biopic that portrays him as an honorable Afghanistan War veteran who used acting to find inner peace, not as the stone-cold hit man he really was. Seeing Barry’s now-teenage son watch the movie within a show, melodramatically called The Mask Collector, I thought back to something Bill Hader once told me about people’s tendency to distort the truth: It’s often a very effective coping mechanism.

“It’s easier to go, ‘God, this is what I wish I would’ve done,’ and make that my story,’” the Barry cocreator and star said in 2019. “I think a lot of times we do that as humans. We change it in our heads and it becomes the real thing. ‘I told that person off.’ When, in reality, you didn’t. You didn’t tell them off. But you tell yourself that.”

In the entertainment industry, sanitized catharsis just sells better than unfiltered misery. “Those stories are the ones that mostly get made,” Hader added back then. “Because they’re stories that people like.”

As Barry’s handler and mentor, Fuches, reminds his protégé back in Season 2, William Wallace’s famous inspirational speech in Braveheart was made up. That’s the way the audience likes it. “They don’t want honest,” Fuches says. “They want entertainment.”

With his show, which wrapped up its four-season run on Sunday night, Hader took the opposite approach. Barry wondered what would actually happen if a contract killer from the Midwest moved to Los Angeles and tried to make it as an actor. The absurd premise leads to a believably absurd conclusion: A serial murderer, through outsiders’ lazy mythologizing, is remembered as a hero, while an innocent man takes the fall. It might be fake, but the film about Barry Berkman is the kind of self-serious blockbuster that really does win Oscars without bearing much resemblance to the truth.

It’s that style of flattened storytelling that Hader’s series was so good at satirizing, from Barry’s whitewashing of his unethical actions as a marine, to Sally Reed’s semi-semi-autobiographical prestige TV series, to Gene Cousineau’s self-aggrandizing take on his relationship with his violent student. At its bitter-cold heart, the show is a cautionary tale warning against tidy narratives. Barry was always building toward the type of “true” Hollywood ending that Hader found laughable.

Getting there, of course, was painstaking. Hader conceived the series, which premiered on HBO in 2018, as the story of a man whose gift for killing was killing his soul. It was, at the beginning at least, a way for the former Saturday Night Live cast member to explore his anxiety as a performer. But what started as a violent comedy eventually became a gory thriller only sprinkled with humor.

The progression was jarring at times, but logical. After all, it was a show about a hit man. As much as we hoped he would, the protagonist was never going to redeem himself. No matter how many Christian podcasts he listened to. Then again, the series was never about Barry’s growth. It was about Hader’s. Over the course of four increasingly intense seasons, he successfully molded his original idea into something even more complex. In the process, the movie buff—who started his career as a production assistant and an editor—proved himself to be the kind of filmmaker he’d once set out to be before his talents sent him in a different direction: one who prized big set pieces and small, comedic moments equally.

“He always wanted to be a director,” Henry Winkler, who played Cousineau, reminded me in April. “He started wanting to be a director and got sidetracked to Saturday Night Live.”

Hader directed the final eight Barry episodes and 18 of the 32 overall. “This is some crazy personal vision,” Robert Wisdom, who played Jim Moss, told me in April. “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. So you turned yourself over to him.”

That run didn’t just include great comedy. He shot some of the best action sequences—in TV or movies—of the past 10 years, including the Grand Theft Auto–like motorcycle chase in Season 3’s “710N” and Barry’s battle with a martial arts champion and his feral child in Season 2’s “ronny/lily.” One of the highlights of the series finale is a brutal split-second shoot-out in NoHo Hank’s headquarters that leads to a pile of bodies. As funny as those episodes could be, Hader made sure that the violence in them was properly brutal. The tone he set made Barry unique.

“This show walks the line between violence and comedy, and they’re not mixed,” Stephen Root, who played Fuches, said in April. “And that’s the first thing Bill said to us when we were doing the show. He said, ‘The violence is the violence and the comedy is the comedy. And never the twain shall meet.’ And I think that’s the strength of the show. When you’re watching the violent part of the show, it’s real. And everything else comes from character development and a good script. And if comedy comes out of that, that’s OK, but you never mix the two.”

By the time Barry reached the finish line, almost all the comedy had been stripped away. (I did, however, laugh a lot this season when a vengeful Barry showed off his L.A. bona fides by flying into Burbank, the area’s most peaceful airport.) For fans of the series, it was painful realizing that no one, except maybe Barry’s son, would get a happy ending. But the truth hurts.

In the finale, Fuches and his henchmen kill Hank, who dies in the bronze arms of his dead lover Cristobal’s statue. Fuches, who’s just admitted to Hank that he has no heart, does one good deed before escaping to parts unknown: He lets Barry’s son go. Sally goes back to the Midwest and directs high school plays while living with the fact that she voluntarily went on the lam with a professional killer and got away with it. Cousineau lands in prison after his stubborn need for attention causes him to become a murder suspect—then an actual murderer. And Barry finally dies, not at the hands of a gangster or a sniper or a cop, but killed by his former acting teacher, Gene, who shoots him twice. Felled by Rip Torn’s gun. What a way to go out.

Barry never even gets a Scarface moment. “As you get older you’re like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not real,’” Hader said in 2019. “Because reality’s a big bummer.” Before a bullet pierces his forehead, Barry’s last words are “Oh, wow.” It’s a perfectly anticlimactic death for a man who doesn’t deserve to go out in a blaze of glory.

But after all the pain and suffering Barry’s inflicted, several unlikely twists of fate result in the media portraying him as a brave martyr. That, and not his real tale, is what Hollywood chooses to tell. Uplift sells. Nuance doesn’t. And so Hader ends his series realistically: with a fake biopic about a soldier who dies trying to save his family.

This is the version of his story that Barry would prefer. We should be glad he’s not alive to enjoy it.