exit interview

Bill Hader Wanted the Barry Finale to Feel Like a Panic Attack

The writer, director, and star maps out season three’s journey to its final frame.

Bill Hader directing the third season of Barry. Photo: HBO
Bill Hader directing the third season of Barry. Photo: HBO

This post was originally published on June 12, 2022. With the release of Good One today, we have republished it to include the episode.

When he started writing the third season of Barry, Bill Hader knew where the story would start and where it would end. In episode one, Gene Cousineau would find himself in Barry’s trunk. In the finale, Cousineau would assist in Barry’s arrest. What happened in the middle was the question, and it soon became apparent to Hader and his writers that the journey would be hard-fought for both characters. Without acting class, Barry finds his life without purpose and meaning. Cousineau realizes the path to forgiveness demands sacrifice. This darkness bleeds into each storyline, including NoHo Hank’s forbidden love affair and Sally’s fall from grace. Then, right before the first table read, COVID-19 shut production down for a year and a half, and a dark season grew darker.

This left the final episode with nary a joke and maybe only one laugh, from a line you could’ve easily missed. All the main characters reach their breaking points: Cousineau is interrogated by Jim Moss, nose to nose, and forced to reckon with who and what he loves. Sally narrowly escapes being strangled to death and brutally kills her attacker. NoHo Hank, handcuffed to a radiator in a dank prison cell like he’s in a Saw movie, overhears a man being torn apart by a panther, then turns a machine gun on his captors. By comparison, Fuches gets off easy by landing in jail. Hader doesn’t much care if Barry feels like a comedy, but it’s still a bold move for a show looking for its third Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nomination in three seasons. Hader explained why it was time for Barry to get caught, how Cousineau found the courage to give the best performance of his life, and what season three is saying about forgiveness, love, and existence.

You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode, below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple PodcastsSpotify, StitcherOvercast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Let’s start with how it ends. Did you start with his arrest and work backwards? Did you build to episode eight without knowing where you’d end? Was it a combination of both? 
First day of writing season three on the whiteboard, I wrote down, “Cousineau knows, Barry knows Cousineau knows and throws him in the trunk of a car, and that’s in episode one. Sally’s going to have her own show and at some point it’s going to go away. Cristobal and Hank are a couple. Fuches is going to start a vengeance army. And then last episode, Cousineau catches Barry and Barry goes to jail.” That was always where we were headed as we were writing. During that time, you have to be open enough to go, “Oh, we might get there and say, forget it.” But every step of the way, this just made more sense.

Why did it have to end in his arrest? Did you ever consider killing Barry? 
Well dying, the story’s over, and I thought there was more story. There’s only so long a guy can get away with this. I know I feel watching shows sometimes, “They’re trying to keep the thing going and now it’s getting ridiculous to keep the thing going.” And so, I think he would get caught. He’s not Jason Bourne or Walter White. He’s not a genius. He’s a very dumb guy. And it made sense, the idea of Gene Cousineau wanting justice for Janice and then getting it by the end, but he has to go through a transformation himself to get it.

The episode is titled “Starting Now” which is a callback to the first season. It is also what Albert says to Barry. I want to talk about those last few scenes: Albert says to Barry, “Starting now you’re going to stop doing this,” which seems to absolve Barry. Then he has a call with Sally where he expresses his love. But then he gets the call from Jim Moss and he goes to Cousineau, and now he’s back in that killing mindset. What is going through Barry’s head in those three scenes? Is he back to the same killer he was before the meeting with Albert?
I find that really funny. I don’t think anybody else will find it very funny that he’s given his humanity back — he’s about to get killed, he’s accepted death, he gets his humanity back from the guy that really started it all. And then Albert says, essentially, “You’re forgiven and you’re not evil. But I can’t have anything to do with you. Get out of here.” And Barry is fine and so he’s planning the future with Sally, who unbeknownst to him is taking off to Joplin.

Then he gets that call from Jim Moss and he calls Cousineau and finds out that Cousineau’s possibly going to kill Jim Moss. He’s feeling like, “What is happening? All these people from acting class are turning violent.” Look at the mess he’s made.

He goes there because he loves Cousineau. And when Cousineau says, “He knows you killed Janice, he knows everything,” now it’s like, “Cousineau, get the fuck out of here. I gotta go take care of this.” Everything he’s just been given he completely throws out the door. Which is what Fuches does, which is what Sally does. It’s a constant cycle of making the same mistakes over and over again, which is a thing we do in life.

That moment especially reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which you’ve alluded to as an inspiration for this season. Essentially the idea that Barry would be a good person if at all moments someone was holding a gun pointed at him. 
Yeah, we allude to that in a scene with Joe Mantegna, in episode five, where Cousineau says, “You really put things in perspective when you got a gun on you.” And Joe Mantegna goes, “I know exactly what you’re talking about.” That feeling is very much in the whole show.

During the raid, a SWAT team surrounds Barry and you can’t quite read his reaction: He’s sort of bewildered, and then he sees Gene, who is making a very specific face. Can you talk about what’s going on with Barry and Gene? How did you want to shoot this to communicate it to the audience?
When Barry hears the guy say, “Drop the gun,” he’s a little in shock. And then I like Jim Moss turning around and looking at him — I called them the Jonathan Demme close-ups. He sees that he’s surrounded, he’s in total shock, he doesn’t fully understand it. Our stunt coordinator’s playing the guy who yells “Berkman!” He gets his attention and we push in on Barry. Now he understands this is real. And when they clear, Cousineau’s looking at him and that’s the only shot all season we shot on a 50-millimeter lens.

Usually we shoot with very wide lenses, so we shot on a longer lens to give it a different feeling. I told Henry, “You just have to look at him like, ‘I got you.’” That’s the feeling. “Honestly, you don’t have to do much. Just stare at me.” And he did it. And then I did my look and then we went to lunch. [Laughs.]

The big theme of the season is forgiveness. We have NoHo Hank say, “Forgiveness has to be earned.” All the characters have an opportunity to do that, but Gene is the one who arguably does the most. Can you talk about getting to this point at the end where he feels justified?
When Cousineau is taken captive by Barry, Barry threatens to kill his son and grandson, so he sticks up for himself but then immediately is like, “Gee, I gotta get out of Dodge.” But then with Hollywood and his ego, his Achilles’ heel, everybody’s now loving him and kissing his ass and the adulation he always wanted is coming back. He feels like he’s given this second chance, so he apologizes to people, and that feels good, and then Laura San Giacomo’s character is like “Fuck you, you got to earn it.” And he does earn it, but he’s still doing it for himself.

He doesn’t really care about her career. It’s like he’s writing a check to charity to make himself feel good, but he’s not going down there and meeting the people and hearing their stories. And Jim Moss essentially brings him back to what’s important: “Why are you protecting Barry Berkman? Do you love Janice? And do you love Barry Berkman? Because you can’t have both.” And he makes the decision to risk his life and really do the best performance of his life.

In episode two we have Barry saying, “You’re a bad actor Mr. Cousineau,” and then it’s paid off later. He actually is going to fool you. He does it flawlessly. So that look and that moment is Cousineau getting final forgiveness in an episode that is incredibly dire and very rough. It was important to end it on a moment of someone having a real emotional, spiritual win. And that’s Cousineau.

It builds to the last shot, which is visually similar to a lot of things you do throughout the season. There’s five windows, you have Jim in the second window, there’s a tree in the third window — which feels like an allusion to the tree where Barry’s burying people throughout the season — and then two empty windows. Also in frame is the photo of his daughter. You stay on this shot and then the season ends. What does it communicate?
Initially the last scene was the cops taking Barry out and beating him up and throwing him in the cop car. And there’s onlookers and neighbors on the street. Then we went on a location scout and looked at that house and I saw that window and thought, “It would be really interesting to see Jim Moss and Cousineau out that window,” alluding to Sally killing the guy and the door closes and you don’t hear it. It was a feeling.

And then I thought, “They catch him and all the cop cars leave. And then there’s Jim Moss, but he still has to go inside that house.” And that house is empty because of Barry. I was like, this feels right.

As a show, people go, “Oh, it’s a comedy.” It’s a comedy because it’s 30 minutes. Everybody’s trying to put it in this thing. I just view it as a story. The show, and this season very much, was about trauma and victims of trauma. In a lot of these stories, Janice Moss would’ve been killed and then you’re on to something else. It’s like, “No, the woman who died at the end of season one, that permeates and destroys. It hurts this guy. It affects a lot of people.” And it doesn’t just go away. That was always an interesting notion I had with the show. What Alec Berg and I talk about a lot is that everything has consequences, and if you’ve had somebody you love die, it doesn’t just go away.

And that’s funny, you said the tree — that house just happened to have a tree there.

Sally’s descent has a Lady Macbeth quality to it. Her relationship with Barry and her show and all the things that happen to her end with her killing someone. What were those conversations like? And the decision to shoot her so violently choked right before: How did it all come together? 
That was always there from the beginning. We always said, “What if…?” You go, “Okay, Sally wants him to go after Natalie, what is that scene?” And then you go, “God, what if that Taylor guy shows up? What if he knocks out Barry? And now it’s Sally and the Taylor guy.” You think of her past and everything she’s been through and what that guy wants, which is to just get rid of her. She’s a fly to him. He just wants to torture Barry. And for her to have to recall her past — we try to allude to that in the first episode, where she’s watching stunt people work on a scene and it’s basically the scene you see in this episode.

Ali Greer, the editor, and I talked about when she’s getting choked. I said, “I think it needs to go for a while, because I don’t want this to feel like an action scene. I want you to feel how fucking awful this is, and the lack of respect for human life. And how she can give up and she doesn’t.

He goes, “Why’d you do that to me? Why did you just put that thing in my eye? What is wrong with you?” [Laughs.] We have all these vengeance army people and they’re all conflicted, but it was important for me to have someone who’s just a psychopath, because those people exist. He feels like, “We were playing a game and you hurt me.” That would inflame her. She’s been triggered, and it’s a callback to Barry when Albert was shot. He sees red and goes off and does a thing out of love.

I asked Sarah Goldberg about it. I go, “What do you think?” And she’s like, “Oh, I’m killing that guy. There’s no way I’m not killing that guy.” The door closing and the silence is a feeling. She’s being cut off. A part of her has been silenced by murdering somebody.

Then there’s the intense closeup on her as Barry’s trying to explain, “You didn’t do this. I did it. Say, ‘Barry did it.’” It’s an intense moment. Throughout the episode, you’re using closeup in a way that you first introduced in episode two, but for the most part, it has not been used much in the show. Why bring it into this episode?
That closeup of Sarah was figured out on set, because I was trying to get a shot where I take her out of the booth and we push in and drop down into them. As I was watching what she was doing, I was like, “We need to go in for a closeup.” And as I’m saying, “Say it again, say it again, say it again,” I’m feeling what she’s doing and going, “Oh, my God, she’s really doing something amazing here.”

Part of my job is going, “This is a moment.” I went, “That’s the best acting I think I’ve ever been around,” because we cut and she’s like, “Okay! What’s the next one?” Then Carl Herse, the DP, comes in and goes, “Ah, we got buzz on the lens on that one. Focus dropped out for a second.” And I was really frustrated and Sarah was frustrated and he was frustrated. We tried to do two more and it just wasn’t happening. I went over to the monitors to watch the original take and I can’t see it. I just don’t have the eye for it. I go, “Where’s the drop in the light?” And other people go, “Right there.” And I’m like, “I don’t see it.” I was like, “Fuck it. That’s what’s going in.”

It’s a transcendent moment. And it fits to Barry saying, “No, no, no, let me take it, I started all this, let me own it.” And you just can’t do that.

And then you dissolve there, and several more times in the episode.
When you cut from each of these — the garage, Sally killing the guy, Hank in the basement, all that to Albert at the tree — it was a marathon. It’s just getting punched in the face, one after another. In editing, I said, “Why don’t we own it? Want to try putting some dissolves in to make it feel like one piece?” Ali was able to time those perfectly.

You mentioned what people do out of love. That comes up quite a bit this season, in different ways. Obviously there’s NoHo Hank and Cristobal’s relationship. Sally is trying to protect the thing she loves, her career. Gene is wrestling over what he thinks he loves. What were you hoping to show about love? 
You see some awful shit happen because of love. Love of your country, love of your religion, love of a lot of things turn into wars. Love can be a scary emotion. When your kids are born, you hold them and go, “Oh, I might be able to kill somebody now. This sucks.” And people feel that about a lot of other things. Then you go, “Geez, that’s scary.”

You try to write it scene by scene, and then these little patterns start showing up and you notice the pattern. Everybody’s going through the same thing; now, let’s try this. All these things come to the surface the more you write it and hone it, but it takes a lot of time. If you saw the first drafts, the story is all over the place. It’s really messy.

Once you decided NoHo Hank and Cristobal were in a Romeo and Juliet-type relationship, how did you get to this ending?
Hank was always going to get captured and have to resort to violence, the same way Sally is and I think Cousineau is. It’s everybody having Barry’s problem. How we got there, I didn’t really know until we started writing it.

The last two scripts were written in August 2020, so we were deep in the pandemic. We had started writing season four as a Zoom room. Then I was going back into season three and changing things. Liz Sarnoff was the one who said Elena should be doing conversion therapy on Cristobal. And it’s out of love. She’s just trying to fix her husband. Krizia, that actress, was amazing. I was like, “In your mind, you’re not torturing him. It’s the same as when you train a dog and people spray them with water guns. You don’t see how horrible and disgusting it is.”

And then shooting that — for something so intense, it’s actually a lot of laughing and running around, because it’s so uncomfortable. Everybody’s just having fun. And I got to give Anthony Carrigan a lot of credit because in that scene with the panther, he’s just reacting to me telling him what’s happening. He’s not reacting to screaming or anything. It was really great.

You often talk about how you try not to judge these characters. However, you said “the chickens come home to roost” in this episode, and there is a Judgement Day quality to it, as well Judeo-Christian allusions to heaven- and hell-type stuff. What does it mean to you to punish these people without judgment? How do you think about these characters now facing consequences?
You’re not judging them along the way. They’re just being human. But their actions have reactions and consequences. So Sally, for instance, we thought it was really interesting to go, “What if Sally gets everything she wants and she is really good at it? And not because of her fault but just the way the industry is, her show goes away and then someone she thought was her friend steals her show?” She makes a choice to go to Barry’s house and say, “Hey, can you scare Natalie?” It was very important to us that Barry doesn’t invite her over. She has to go there and she has to be the one pushing that. And she ends up killing a guy because she resorted to the vengeance everybody else is going through. These things intersect. In this world with these people, it’s interesting to see the chain reaction. It’s a world where there’s a fork in the road and it’s so clear which way you should go, and we tend to go the other way.

Maybe it is a Catholic thing. I mean, all those people on the beach, everybody was like, [sighs] “Bill.” [Laughs.] And I was like, “Well, you got to be punished, right? Don’t you guys have guilt about anything?” My friend Duffy Boudreau writes on the show. He’s like, “You’re the most Catholic non-Catholic.” My dad was raised incredibly Catholic so I think it all came down to me by osmosis.

In interviews around episode seven, you’ve given warnings about the finale. On a show that’s perceived as a comedy, how did you feel about creating a half-hour where viewers might not laugh?
I just view it as a story. The whole season’s been building to this. It doesn’t feel unearned.

The very first shot of the entire series is not funny. It’s a dead body and that was very much on purpose. You’re just trying to do what’s honest for the characters and the story. When we got to those last two episodes, it felt like we were forcing things to be funny. It undercut what you wanted the characters to go through. When you’re doing a show about a murderer and dealing with domestic violence and trauma and PTSD and conversion therapy of a gay man, you can’t really be that funny at times. If you’re going to portray it honestly, the comedy comes from other moments, like in life. Flannery O’Connor is a perfect example. Her work can be incredibly funny and incredibly grotesque. It feels like the human experience.

There’s only one funny part in episode eight in my mind, and that’s Gary Kraus in the background saying, “I haven’t seen Albert since he cocked his gun in front of us and angrily laughed.” That was the only joke in the whole episode.

Do you not want the audience to find relief? Laughter can create a distance. Are you viewing it as, if this is going to happen to these characters, the audience should experience it with them?
A friend at SNL said to me after watching this season, “I feel like you’re trying to make the whole world feel as anxious as you are.” And he might be right. Maybe it’s just an instinct because I am a very anxious person. But it felt right. It’s a tough watch. I was warning people because we had a screening for the writers: Nicky Hirschhorn had a little panic attack; Emma Barrie looked at me and went, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I was like, “We’re all fucked, right? Right, guys?” [Laughs.]

I always appreciate things that I would watch and feel, “Oh, that feels honest.” I did another interview and someone said, “Wow. This is really bleak.” I said, “Is it bleaker than anything you see on the news right now?” Living in the pandemic and where the world’s at and mass shootings and all these things — it’s all in there emotionally.

You have written season four. How are you approaching it, knowing that you’re directing every part of it?
I always view it as making a four-hour movie. With me directing all of them, one, I really love directing, and two, getting other people involved is like a big game of telephone because I have it so clear in my head how I want to do things. Production manager Aida Rogers was like, “Let’s just read the tea leaves. I think you need to direct them all.” Because it is me in tone meetings with directors going, “It’s this shot.” Man, back off. Let them have their thing!

So much of my way of directing is prep, so then the actual days, hopefully, aren’t brutal. The hardest thing we had to deal with in season three was hot weather when we were shooting Fuchs on that farm because it was so small and you could see in all directions. Every time you turn the camera around, we would have to get rid of equipment and it would take hours and the sun was going down. That was the hardest day of shooting, not the freeway. All that stuff on the beach, someone would go, “Oh, how’d you do that?” I was like, “That was all done before lunch. We all went home after that.” You just plan it and things tend to go smoother.

Writing-wise, some of that stuff is going, “Yeah, the scene is good, but it’s just two people talking, it’d be great if we could put it someplace.” Sometimes that doesn’t come at the script phase. Sometimes you’re at a location, like where the ending is shot, going, “Ooh, no, it’s like this.” One of the nice things when you’re directing all of them is you don’t have to go, “If I do this, does that fuck the other director over because they’re trying to do this?” It’s all you, so you’re just fucking yourself over.

But you’re Barry, so it’s fine.
Everybody goes, “How do you write and direct yourself?” I’m like, “He doesn’t speak.” [Laughs.] I don’t think the whole of seven I say a word. You don’t want to hear Barry talk for that long. He’s a dummy.

Bill Hader Wanted Barry’s Finale to Feel Like a Panic Attack