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A close-up of Bill Hader looking sad at something to the left Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

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Barry is whatever show Bill Hader decides it should be

Gallows humor, anti-war cinema, and NoHo Hank — Hader and his HBO show have it all

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In the series premiere of HBO’s Barry, the title character (Bill Hader) delivers what Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) thinks is an improvised monologue about a soldier returning home from Afghanistan and killing people for money. The specifics he conjures — about a family friend who’s like an uncle lining up this job where he only kills “pieces of shit” — are vivid, and the performance feels almost uncomfortably authentic. It should be; after all, it’s really a confession. But it impresses Cousineau so much that he invites Barry to join his acting class. Each subsequent time that Barry gives a competent performance onstage, the reaction is similar — stunned silence that gives way to effusive praise. The subtext is always the same: How did he do that?

Early in Barry’s run, the same could have been asked of Hader, who is still probably best known as Stefon, the giggling nightclub guru from Saturday Night Live. But as Barry enters its third season, it’s no longer surprising to see Hader carry an emotionally nuanced scene on his back. The Barry character is his multidimensional masterpiece as an actor. Hader’s infused him with gallows humor, deep pathos, and a seemingly limitless capacity for violence. And best of all, it works. Hader has come into his own as one of the finest actors on TV over Barry’s run, and he’s done it by using the character to push his own limits.

If watching Hader flex that kind of range was somewhat astonishing at first, it’s because his pre-Barry resume didn’t really indicate he could handle it. Hader joined the cast of SNL in 2005 with very little previous on-screen experience. He quickly settled into a kind of utility-man role, lending a pliable toolkit of solid impressions and infectious silliness to whatever sketch needed him. He showed up in blockbuster comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up, getting a few good lines in but mostly existing as a foil for his co-stars to riff against, and he joined the lucrative animation voice-over circuit along with just about every other famous funny person of his generation.

He co-created and starred in Documentary Now!, a formally ambitious satire of nonfiction filmmaking, but the characters he played on that show were more typically broad caricatures than nuanced, human creations. In all these roles, Hader was a frequently hilarious team player who did everything that was asked of him with generosity. But it took a pair of crucial film roles in the mid-2010s to truly test his acting mettle: the quiet Sundance indie The Skeleton Twins and the Judd Apatow romantic comedy Trainwreck.

In The Skeleton Twins, he plays Milo, a troubled gay man whose suicide attempt brings his estranged twin (Kristen Wiig) back into his life. The movie is a bit of a soporific drag, but Hader evinces Milo’s deep pathos as his layers of sarcastic self-defense peel away and we learn more about his traumas and struggles — pathos he’d use again to brilliant effect in bringing Barry’s undiagnosed PTSD to life. Trainwreck is primarily a vehicle for Amy Schumer’s ribald comedy, but in letting everyone else (including an underrated LeBron James, who apparently forgot how to act between then and Space Jam: A New Legacy) have a turn being the funniest person in the room, Hader’s moments of hilarity hit that much harder. He was still displaying the generosity he showed on SNL and elsewhere, but now he was doing it with a lot more screen time. The flashes of greatness he showed in more limited roles was translating to gigs where he was a top-billed man. The next leap he took was even more dramatic.

Barry premiered in 2018, toward the end of the auteur-driven TV boom that saw shows like Louie, Master of None, and Atlanta dominating the critical conversation. Those shows purported to provide a lens, however fractured, into the real lives of the people who made them, splitting the difference between their public personas and the more ordinary people they saw themselves as. Hader certainly runs Barry like an auteur; he’s credited as creator, executive producer, writer, director, and top-billed star. But the Marine turned assassin he plays diverges so dramatically from his autobiography that the Bill Hader persona as it existed in the popular imagination is almost entirely absent. Barry’s secret shadow life means he’s a different person to everyone he interacts with, and Hader embodies all those people with aplomb. Frequently on Barry, Hader is playing straight man to somebody — Winkler, Anthony Carrigan as the uproarious NoHo Hank, his childlike acting classmates. It’s a choice that forces his comedy to operate in a more understated register, a state in which it thrives.

Barry standing and holding his backpack strap in Gene’s office Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO
Barry in a hoodie walking past a very blue light Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

To a large extent, Hader’s performance dictates just what kind of show it is, moment to moment. When he’s not tapping into the profound grimness of his life, Barry is a truly terrible actor (“Hey Ike, you shitbird! Want a little piiiie?”), and Hader’s hammy presence in those scenes yields some of the show’s biggest laughs. They’re necessary moments, because practically everything else Hader does is awash in darkness. On even his more successful jobs, he’s a calculating but exhausted killer, dispatching his victims with resignation and weariness. When a hit goes awry, he turns into a creature of total self-preservation, one who will do anything it takes not to get caught or killed. He’s also prone to paroxysms of random violence, as in the season 2 finale, when he indiscriminately kills nearly everyone at the Burmese mob’s monastery hideout while seeking revenge on his former partner, Fuches (Stephen Root). In his many moments of guilt over the heinous acts he’s committed, he becomes despondent and depressed, and the show challenges the audience to find Barry sympathetic — or to at least empathize with his situation — despite whatever desperate frenzy or evil he’s just unleashed. That’s high-wire work, but Hader handles it with grace.

Hader is a noted cinephile, and a lot of his work on Barry feels like a deliberate nod to the “came back different” canon of American films, mostly made during and after unpopular wars. There are shades of First Blood’s John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in Barry’s blood-soaked rampages, and his moments of extreme alienation recall Bob Clark’s 1974 post-Vietnam nightmare, Deathdream. Like Dan Stevens’ character in 2014’s The Guest, Barry’s training as a killer came from Uncle Sam, who promptly lost interest in helping him the minute Fuches walked him out of the veterans hospital. More recently, Barry’s thwarted attempts at orderliness were echoed by Oscar Isaac in Paul Schrader’s austere Abu Ghraib drama The Card Counter, suggesting a two-way conversation between Barry and the broader anti-war cinema. And yet, Hader steps into that oeuvre as a bit of a red herring. Anyone who tunes in to see what this beloved SNL alum is up to will be treated to a timely critique of the American war machine. It’s a canny bit of agitprop that Hader’s committed performance helps sell.

Barry talks to Gene, who’s sitting on the ground holding a script and looking up exasperated at Barry Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO
Sally looking sad Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

In the first few episodes of Barry’s off-kilter third season, the walls are closing in for Barry — even more than they already were after the monastery massacre. The line between the actor and the assassin has been obliterated, and his relationships with the few people he trusted are in ashes. The darkness Hader brings to the character in this season seems to come from a deeper, crueler chasm, and his behavior becomes so unhinged that it feels like a dare to keep laughing at the show’s increasingly pitch-black comedy.

In “Limonada,” the season’s excellent second episode, Barry unleashes a terrifying torrent of verbal abuse at his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), when she fails to come through with a part on her show for Cousineau. Barry literally kills people for a living, but that tirade is hard to watch in a way that feels new, even on a show as steeped in violence as Barry. Barry thinks yelling at Sally will allow him to help Cousineau and redeem himself in the process, but in reality, he’s hurting all three of them, furthering a cycle of abuse and trauma that he’s long since lost the ability to break.

This wrinkle reveals the dark heart of the show, one it’s been moving toward all along — that violence is inherently corrosive, and that keeping the good and evil within a person separated never lasts long. The darkness eventually poisons everything. To play Barry as the least likable character on his own show requires Hader to summon the generosity he’s displayed throughout his career and twist it into something corrupt. He’s as game as ever. This may be the start of the ultimate unraveling of a character who was never all that put-together to begin with, but with Hader in the driver’s seat, the audience is in good hands.

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