'Barry' fades to black (comedy) : Pop Culture Happy Hour The HBO series Barry ended on Sunday. Throughout its run, the dark comedy brought a delicate tonal balance to Bill Hader's hitman-turned-actor. Its sharp take on Hollywood was funny, but it never let us forget that Barry was a violent sociopath. Barry's final season made choices so surprising and emotionally brutal that everything that came before it looked almost light and frothy.

'Barry' fades to black (comedy)

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A warning - this episode contains explicit language.


WELDON: The HBO series "Barry" ended on Sunday, and for its first three seasons, the dark comedy sustained a delicate tonal balance. Bill Hader played a hitman-turned-actor, and the show's sharp take on Hollywood and the self-delusion of actors was funny, but it never let us forget that Barry was a violent sociopath.


"Barry's" fourth and final season made choices so big, so surprising and so emotionally brutal that suddenly everything that came before it looked almost light and frothy. And that finale - oof. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Barry" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Aisha, it's just you and me today, pal. So let's get into it...


WELDON: ...If we can. Good Lord. The HBO series "Barry" stars Bill Hader as Barry Berkman, a depressed hitman who's great at his job. But it's only when he stumbles into a terrible acting class, led by washed-up actor Gene Cousineau, that he finds a purpose. Cousineau is played by Henry Winkler. The fact that Barry's not any good at acting, at least at first, doesn't seem to matter - not to Cousineau, not to Barry's fellow student, Sally Reed, played by Sarah Goldberg, who falls for him.

For most of the run of the series, Barry strives to keep his acting life separate from his brutal day job, where he's mentored by Fuches, played by Stephen Root. Fuches acts as liaison between Barry and their main client, the Chechen mob, which is led, eventually, by NoHo Hank, played by the amazing Anthony Carrigan. But when this fourth and final season began, the worlds Barry strived so hard to keep separate had finally collapsed together. Barry and Fuches were both in jail, Cousineau was in hiding, and Sally was dealing with learning the truth about Barry and with having her show canceled. This season took some sharp and very risky turns - a time jump, assumed identities, a mob war and Cousineau's extremely halfhearted efforts to prevent a film getting made about his relationship with Barry, the man who murdered his girlfriend.

"Barry" was created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, who was a writer and executive producer on "Silicon Valley." And let's do a quick heads-up - this show spent four seasons asking if it was even possible for a remorseless murderer like Barry to find redemption and happiness. That final episode provided an answer which we'll be talking about. So if you haven't yet seen the finale, wait until you have to listen. Aisha, you first. Let's unpack this.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Oh, goodness. Wow. This show took me to so many different places that I never thought it would when I first started this show - what was it? - 2018 was the first season when it premiered. So we're five years past now. And I think what has always drawn me to this was the fact that, yes, on its surface, it is the prototypical premise of, like, ex-military guy turned hitman, you know, trying to get out and trying to, like - you know, trying to be better.

When the show premiered, it was kind of in this moment where we were seeing a lot of shows where they were wrestling with this idea of being good even though you've done terrible things, trying to be a better person. And while I think that over the course of four seasons it - that was a underlying theme, it definitely wasn't the focus. I think that there were so many other layers to be added to it which made it much more richer than just this idea of, like, good versus bad and that there are gradients to good versus bad. And I love the fact that this is - on top of all of the murder, and all of the questions about morality, there's also this very, very sharp skewering of acting in Hollywood and sort of the lies that not just actors, like, and performers tell themselves, but the lies that everyone might tell themselves to make themselves feel better. It has, like, shades of "BoJack Horseman" in the best way possible, especially the earlier seasons.

I went back and rewatched a - like, the first couple of episodes of the show, and, my goodness, like, it was all there. Like, the foundation was there. It's very dark. The first shot is you pan to a dead body that Barry has just killed. But there's so much humor, and this season it definitely took a turn. And there was humor, but we got kind of this Sopranos-esque, we're going to get really surreal and dreamlike and at times confusing. And I'm curious how that landed for you, Season 4 in totality and sort of the swinging from the rafters that Bill Hader was going for here.

WELDON: Yeah, it was a marked departure. And as I say, very delicate tonal balance in those first three seasons and a big risk, a big - and with a time jump - we'll talk about it - with the time jump, that's kind of where I started to feel like it might be losing some of that control. But, yeah, you mentioned Tony Soprano. This is the Walter White, Tony Soprano problem. He's evil, but I'm rooting for him? And I think that's fine, by the way. That's - like, miss me with the discourse because it's OK to share two conflicting opinions in your head. Audiences are smart. They can deal with it. That's fine. And at first, you know, this premise - it seems like it's a lot of other things. But, I mean, it was also always weird, you know? A hitman wants to be an actor. What's that about? Well, specifically, this hitman, who is a sociopath, completely cut off from his emotions, wants to be an actor because actors have to be in touch with their emotions.

So that was the genius of the show. That was the conflict of the show. The way the episodes are directed kind of puts you in Barry's head because whenever violence breaks out, it always is very sudden and incredibly bloody but we usually watch it from a distance with a static camera. That's kind of the style of the show. And we're so used to cinematic violence that it feels weird. Like, we're so used to, like, music cues and sound effects and extreme close-ups to kind of dramatize violence that when it happens the way it would play out in real life, it seems really innovative. And it shouldn't because that's just how violence happens. But what it is is very controlled. And that's what I want to get to here, because it was very effective, very controlled, but it also has a risk - right? - because doing that with the violence can come off like you're downplaying it or you're just playing it for laughs, right?

If you go back and read some of those early reviews, there were people accusing it of being glib and nihilistic and not having a moral center. And - I don't know - I always thought it had a really strong moral center because this question of redemption - like, he wants to be redeemed. That is a very - that's a moral concept. And there's a reason why whenever they mention Janice Moss, who was played by Paula Newsome - that was the cop that Barry killed in the Season 1 finale. She was Cousineau's girlfriend. That name comes up every single episode, it feels like. That murder doesn't go away. Did you ever wonder if the show was going off the rails tonally? Too glib, too dark, either direction?

HARRIS: I mean, Season 4, I definitely felt that a little bit, especially with the time jump. And there's a scene in Season 4 where Sally is alone with their son - 'cause now they have a son...


HARRIS: ...And we're, like, eight years ahead of where we ended previously in the first half of Season 4. We think she's being attacked in her home. And - so we know she's had an unsettling interaction with a colleague who was very aggressive and hitting on her. I was wondering, like, oh, how is this going to come back to her? And then instead of just, like, a straight-up he's attacking her in some way, she's, like, in the room. Her son is asleep. Passed out, actually, because she, unbeknownst to him, gave him alcohol to knock him out because she was - he was annoying her. We see, like, a figure come up behind her. And she doesn't see him and she's walking to the room and then she shuts the door and then all of a sudden, the house shakes and we're hearing these - someone yelling. Some of the audio was actually from when she was killing the guy at the end of Season 3.

WELDON: Oh, yeah.

HARRIS: Even just trying to describe it is confusing. Those big risks in terms of going from what was - it was never a realistic show, in a sense, but it always felt grounded in reality. And I do think that Season 4, there were times where it felt a little bit unwieldy, and yet, I was still with it. I still think that the ending is exactly everything I would want it to be.


HARRIS: Dark. So dark. A commentary - a larger commentary on this idea of, like, how we talk about true crime or crime and how we mythologize people we don't know, especially those who have done heinous things.

WELDON: Yeah. And just to clarify, the time jump - it's eight years later. Barry and Sally have a kid, this kid that you mentioned, this 8-year-old kid. They live in the middle of nowhere. They have assumed names. That's when I wondered if the control was slipping because this show has thrown a lot of really dark things at us. But the notion that this kid - this human life - is being raised in isolation by a serial killer who is so self-deluded that he's negotiated this weird kind of transactional faith that is very self-justifying just so he can convince himself he's a good person, which, to be fair, is the way a lot of people deal with - use faith. But also, with a woman so broken that she would be with Barry and have his kid that she has trouble even looking at, that she drugs. I mean, that's definitely the darkest thing the show has ever done. And I was like, OK, this can't be tossed off. If you set this up, you have to deal with the reality of it, and that is harrowing. And I don't know if the show knew how harrowing that was. I mean, I guess it does pay off at the end. But could you explain to me something, Aisha? Why did Sally go with him?

HARRIS: I've thought a lot about this. And having seen that scene earlier in the season of Season 4 where she visits him in prison because Barry has been - at the beginning of Season 4, he's in prison - and she says, I feel safe with you.


BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Why aren't you leaving?

SARAH GOLDBERG: (As Sally Reed) I feel safe with you.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) You feel safe with me? Is that what you said? You feel safe with me? Sally. Sally, that's beautiful. Do you really feel safe with me?

HARRIS: There's so many different ways to read the way she says that. And what I think is, is that, like, from the beginning of this series, Sally was driven. She wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be in Hollywood and, like, pretty much nothing could stop her. Like, she was a very single-minded, that kind of, like, overdetermined performer. That was a lot of the humor of the show was that someone could be saying something completely different to her, and she's on - having - on a completely different wavelength. And I think that when she realizes that, like, after - in Season 3, when her entire career is basically kaput even though she has a successful show and then she loses that successful show, now she's reduced to being an acting coach. And to her, that is the absolute worst fate. And so I saw it as, basically, she would rather just leave Hollywood altogether and, like, ditch those ideas. And she feels safe with Barry because he is the, like, one person who has been, like, more or less always by her side and always, like - he feeds her ego in a way that nothing else has been able to do. I mean, is it dark and twisty that that is what happens? Absolutely, yes. But that's dark and twisty, and also the fact that the time jump isn't just about Barry trying to get away from this thing, but the fact that he turns to religion...


HARRIS: ...And - (laughter) to me, made him, I mean, even scarier, like, because it's so common, and this is the way this often happens, is that, like, religion is used to mask these darker impulses. So that's how I saw it. How did you see it or take it?

WELDON: Well, I mean, like, OK, I totally see what you get - because they do set up that fact that she feels safe with him. She also - let's face it - she gets to use her Southern accent, even though it made no sense. She would just dye her hair.

HARRIS: I mean, it is another acting gig.

WELDON: Well, this is the thing, right? She's an actress, so she gets a wig instead of going down to the Piggly Wiggly and getting some Garnier Nutrisse. But the control came back for me in the final episode when Fuches gives that speech that kind of drives home and reminds us all this show does have a moral center. This show was never glib.


STEPHEN ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) And I fancied myself a mentor, fostering other men's natural abilities. But it wasn't until I was in prison and I got beaten to within an inch of my life day after day that I finally dropped the bullshit and just accepted who I am.

WELDON: He talks about self-acceptance, puts away the fiction that he was a good person. He becomes the Raven, which is very funny. And it's funny because he's talking about self-acceptance. It's the opposite of redemption because redemption is like, a higher power forgives me. The community around me forgives me. This is about, I accept myself. And that's what the whole damn show is about, because every character, as you mentioned, is struggling with this perceived self versus their true self, the self they want to be versus who they actually are.

HARRIS: Yeah. And I mean, just the irony of Fuches being the only character who really does end up accepting himself - Gene - oh, my goodness, this character. From the beginning, he was always obviously very self-absorbed and pompous and just kind of the worst kind of acting teacher you could imagine having. But by the end of the series, he's not just that, but he also is his own villain in a way and becomes undone by that. I loved that arc for him.

The fact that we later learned that he was kind of - he had a bad reputation within Hollywood, which might explain partially why he was, quote-unquote, "just" an acting teacher and not, you know, a star, which is what he clearly wanted to be, and the fact that he may have ruined a woman's career - to me, it was kismet in a way. And I loved that arc. And the fact that Fuches is, like, the one character who is just like, yeah, I accept myself. The moral is not necessarily, I guess, maybe, I'm going to be good, or I'm going to be better. It's, like, kind of just being fine with who you are and realizing that you're not actually going to be able to fundamentally change.

WELDON: Right.

HARRIS: Is that bleak as hell? Sure. But I think it's more true than I think we'd like to admit.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, my theory on why he got probably the most extreme, the darkest ending, is because - he gets, at least, the strongest moral judgment because he chose a moral path for a while.


WELDON: But then he wavered. And that's the Old Testament ending, right? That's the - you're going to get slapped down...

HARRIS: Ah, yes.

WELDON: ...Because - it's not because you didn't try to be good. It's because you tried to be good, and you didn't. But I would argue that Sally doesn't end up terribly. She may not be content, but she knows not to hook up with the hot lumberjack social studies teacher because who wants to talk about European economics for the rest of your damn life?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: Yeah, maybe. Right?


WELDON: She got off OK.

HARRIS: She got off OK. But I don't know if she's actually, like - yes, I guess she has that moment with her son where she's like, I've been a bad person. I've murdered someone, although technically she did that out of self-defense. So, like, I don't know if I would call that - but anyway, like, so we have that moment, yes. But I still don't know entirely if I think that she has changed much or, like, has come out on the other side in a way that is, like, good. But I'm curious about - we haven't even gotten into NoHo Hank, who I think is, like, probably my favorite character on this series.


HARRIS: Anthony Carrigan is just so - I don't even have the words for it. But, like, as dark as this season was, he had some of the best comedic moments in the show. He kind of turned into the sole comic relief...

WELDON: It's true.

HARRIS: ...Whereas everyone in the previous seasons had moments of levity here and there, but he still maintained this sort of very lighthearted, yet maniacal vibe to him. And I think for me, one of the greatest moments in the series was in Season 4, Episode 2, where him and Cristobal, his, like, former enemy who is now his lover - and here's where it gets really zany, is that they decide they're going to invest in sand and try and turn this into a whole thing because, like, California needs sand. And they decide to get all their goons together and pitch them in the middle of a Dave & Buster's.


HARRIS: Let's just hear a little bit of that scene.


MICHAEL IRBY: (As Cristobal Sifuentes) Now, we have a pitch that will bring us all together in a way that we will all profit, where we will all succeed beyond our wildest imagination. But there must be zero bloodshed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Hello. Can I start you guys with an appetizer?

IRBY: (As Cristobal Sifuentes) Yes. We'll have some jalapeno poppers for the table, please.

HARRIS: So in that scene, which is brilliantly shot - I think, like, they have a dolly or something or a camera in the middle of a table, and this giant, round table and all the goons are sitting around it. And Cristobal and NoHo Hank are, like, pitching and moving around the room. The camera is moving with them, and they are handing off, like, seamlessly. Like, Cristobal will say one thing. Hank will say another thing. Just the absurdity of this show and the fact that they are talking about bloodshed and doing all these dastardly things in a very busy Dave & Buster's where anyone could be overhearing them - those were the things that, like, helped me push through the, like, darkness of this season. I really think that that relationship between Cristobal and NoHo Hank was just, like, really, really interestingly done. Like, what did you think about that?

WELDON: Oh, man. It's - again, it's exactly right, Aisha. It's what keeps you coming back. Just Anthony Carrigan's - the way he says Barry and just his wardrobe - that guy has such a great look, and I hope he gets more work because he's so good here. And I just - it's a very specific look that might be just for this specific character, but just the relationship between Cristobal and NoHo Hank was given a kind of matter-of-fact treatment that I really appreciated. I thought it was kind of sweet how NoHo Hank ended up in the arms, more or less, or at the feet, anyway, of Cristobal, figuratively speaking.

We should mention that this last season was directed entirely by Bill Hader. Of course it was, because he said I couldn't let it go. I couldn't let anybody else do it. And it's - stylistically, he is such a student of film, and you can tell. It's in every frame. He was recently on the Conan O'Brien podcast, and he talked about how he realized that Barry gets dumber every season, the - kind of like Homer Simpson, because, you know, he starts off this season becoming more and more childlike. Like, he calls Cousineau from prison, and he says, did you trick me? Because it's just - he's such a narcissist. He's such a sociopath. I'm going to miss NoHo Hank, I think, maybe most of all. Can I talk about the one quibble with the finale?


WELDON: It carries so much weight 'cause it's the last thing we see is - we see the movie that they eventually make about Janice's murder. That is the only false step because it just frankly goes on too long. We get it the moment we see it. Maybe 10 seconds is all we need. And I understand why they did it, 'cause on paper, it is the synthesis of the two strands of the show coming together, the Hollywood stuff and the violent and the hitman stuff. It's perfect. Like, you need - we need to see it. We always have needed to see it, except we didn't always need to see it because frankly, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" got there first. You know, we've seen this before. Mr. Herman, Mr. Herman, telephone call for Mr. Herman. But that's a quibble. How'd that land on you 'cause, again, it's the last thing we see?

HARRIS: It felt a little on the nose in a way.

WELDON: Yeah, right?

HARRIS: And like you said, we often, usually, throughout this series got just, like, glimpses of what was happening. Most of it was behind the scenes. Most of it was, you know, Sally trying to pitch her show or trying to save her show, even though it was a critical darling and not getting hit. Like, it was things taking place, like, in the working of the...

WELDON: It was rejected by the algorithm, yes.

HARRIS: Exactly. Yeah, I definitely think that maybe that part felt a little too perfect. At the same time, I understand why he might have done that just because it does seem like, OK, we've had all this time and now - we even had earlier on, Cousineau being told that - this was a lie, but being told that Mark Wahlberg was really interested in playing the Barry character. And, like, I would have liked to maybe have seen a little bit more with the son. I mean, we do get, like, a moment that I wasn't quite sure how we were supposed to read, and maybe it's just supposed to be ambiguous, where he kind of smiles at the end. But it's like, you know that certain scenes are not - well, all of them are not really how...


HARRIS: ...They happen, but, like, the scene where Barry rescues Sally and the son. We know the son knows that's not how it happened. It's complicated. It's a little on the nose. But I think overall, even with that slight quibble, I think it sticks the landing thematically, if not on that very final moment.

WELDON: No, you're right 'cause thematically, what's happening there is self-deception, right? I mean, like, he's accepting the...


WELDON: ...Self-deception. He's accepting this version of events because it makes him think better about his dad, who was so screwed up. Well, we want to know what you think about "Barry." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Aisha Harris, great talk. Thanks for doing it.

HARRIS: Thank you.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Rommel Wood and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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