What is a man to do after he kills off his friend and former fellow Marine, most of the leaders of a Chechen crime ring and (probably) the cop who was dating his acting teacher? These are just some of the questions that the titular protagonist faces in the early episodes of season two of “Barry.” They’re also some of the many questions Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live”) faced in his development of the second season, as writer, director and star of the show.
Hader and Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley”) created “Barry” as a dark comedy about a Midwestern hitman who travels to Los Angeles, where he finds himself joining an acting class and beginning to question the nature of his profession. By the end of season one, Barry (played by Hader) knows he wants to leave his violent past behind him, but can’t seem to escape his entanglements with criminals like his handler, Fuches (Stephen Root, “On the Basis of Sex”), and Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan, “Gotham”). In the second season, these conflicts are only going to ramp up, as well as the internal moralistic conflict that Barry now has to address head-on.
“In the first season, he would have these daydreams about what he wanted, and what he thinks his life could be,” Hader said to The Daily in a group interview. “And we were thinking, in season two, instead of daydreams about what his future could be — in order to have those things, you have to kind of reconcile your past.”
For Barry, this means looking back to his time spent as a Marine in Afghanistan: the place where he learned how to kill. Barry’s approach to remembering the war seems to carry traces of post-traumatic stress disorder, but Hader says the writer’s room was more focused on Barry having to confront his current relationship to killing.
“It was more about Barry’s current position as a contract killer, and him realizing, ‘Oh, I actually, the first time I killed someone, at war, was the first time I ever felt any sense of community in my life,’” Hader said. “It was less about PTSD, and more about this question of, ‘What happens when I get angry, and am I evil?’”
Barry isn’t the only one forced to reflect on his past in season two. In fact, it seems poised to become one of the season’s central trends.
The violence of Barry’s past and the tension of his present collide in his acting class, taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, “Arrested Development”). At the end of season two, Gene has to deal with the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend, Detective Moss (Paula Newsome, “Chicago Med”). According to Hader, we can expect Gene to “look inward” in the episodes to come and consider whether he is really “just a narcissistic idiot.” Meanwhile, the nature of Moss’s disappearance — other than that Barry had a hand in it — is still unresolved.
“We had no idea what happened to her,” Hader said. “That was the very first day of writing season two. I said, ‘What do you guys think happened to Moss?’ and everyone started laughing.”
Whatever direction the show takes with Moss, we can expect it to be deeply significant for Gene’s development as a character — as well as for Barry, who we know is responsible for whatever happened to her.
After his military friend Chris (Chris Marquette, “All Wrong”), Moss marks the second major character that Barry has unwillingly attacked out of his own self-interest, despite knowing her and liking her. The fatal actions he’s taken to hold onto his new life leave Barry “trying to forgive himself,” but also “in massive, massive denial.”
“We’ve come to this place where the main character is the one that’s right,” Hader said. “The main character is us, that’s the audience surrogate. And I like movies and books and stuff where the main character’s really flawed, but he thinks he’s right … He’s lying to himself on this big thing, but hopefully it’s a thing that can be really relatable to people.”
The goal is that these complicated levels of reflection will extend to the audience, as the show offers new and deeper ways of understanding each character. Another compelling character is Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg (“The Report”), whose relationship with Barry hinges on, as Hader put it, the two of them “giving each other what the other one wants” when it comes to emotional support. This relationship is likely to become rockier following her season one finale revelation about her abusive and violent ex-husband.
“You meet Sally, and she seems like this sweet actress that cares about him, and then you see her turn. You try to play both sides of it, and say, ‘I totally get why she doesn’t like Barry, but I also think she’s a little narcissistic,’” Hader said. “So then, this season, it was kind of like: I’ve gotten to know you. I’ve hung out with you for a year. And now these are the kind of things that you would find out about people. People opening up about an abusive ex-husband or the time they were in Afghanistan, or these sorts of things. And then also, when you’re in an acting class, that stuff comes up a lot.”
The irony of Hader playing a bad actor in an acting class has been one of the show’s strengths from the beginning, creating plenty of opportunities for comedy and allowing Hader to stretch and expand his own acting talent. He received an Emmy last year for his portrayal of Barry, who struggles in his acting class with awkward and sometimes emotionless delivery. Hader himself has taken improv classes, but never the type of acting classes portrayed in the show.
“Improv acting classes is like, you just have to go up and trust your instincts, and kind of play off the other person, and you’re creating a scene up on stage,” Hader said. “Alec and I sat in on an acting class, on a couple of acting classes, before we wrote the pilot. And that’s the only real acting classes I’ve seen. A lot of it is actually asking the actors on the show. Like, ‘Is this what they would do?’”
In season one, the acting class became the perfect arena for central characters working through their personal issues. In a season likely to turn its attention toward the repercussions of the past, it will be intriguing to see how characters like Barry, Gene and Sally further evolve, reveal themselves and come into conflict within the walls of Gene’s acting studio.
And then there’s NoHo Hank. The audience favorite played by Anthony Carrigan has become the stand-in representative for the other side of Barry’s life, the one Barry is trying so desperately to escape. Yet it’s hard to watch the show and not want to see even more of Hank — which the show’s creators luckily realized early on, scrapping their decision to kill Hank off at the end of the pilot.
“Initially, that character was supposed to die in the pilot. That’s why he gets shot in the car,” Hader said. “And then when the show got picked up, Alec and I both were like, we can’t let that guy die. He was so funny. And then every writer we hired when we were staffing the show went, ‘You’re not getting rid of that guy, right? ’Cause that guy was amazing.’”
The mobster character was originally inspired by a Genius Bar employee who helped Hader at an Apple store. Since the initial conception of a “nice” and “polite” henchman for season one villain Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler), NoHo Hank has grown into a compelling onscreen presence and a crucial part of the show.
“Anthony owns that character,” Hader said. “We try to find funny positions for him to be in, and his apparent kind of love for Cristobal, and this kind of love triangle that he has going on. But then Anthony takes it and runs with it.”
Even Hank, who often bears the role of comic relief, may be grappling further with the contradictions of his own identity in season two.
“Everyone’s kind of fighting their nature, and I think he wants to be a villain,” Hader said of NoHo Hank. “He wants to be a badass kind of tough guy. But his nature, I think, is that he’s very sweet and polite, and only sees the good in people, which is ironic for what he does for a living.”
The show so far has done a spellbinding job of weaving together comedy and drama using dark irony, sometimes on a broader scale — some of the heaviest moments come from the acting class, while genuine (albeit morbid) humor is gleaned from Barry’s endeavors as a hitman — and sometimes on the level of individual lines. The further Barry tries to distance himself from his violent past, the darker the show seems to get, all while keeping its comedic integrity intact.
“That’s always the hard thing about the show, is going too far one way or the other. But what we end up doing so we don’t overthink it is, you just try to follow the truth of the character. You try to be as honest as you can with all of the characters, and just say, well, what would they do right here? And sometimes that can lend itself to being funny, and sometimes it can be really sad,” Hader said. “It kind of works, because we’ll write it straight for so long, and Alec and I are comedy people, so then we start to get bored and we’ll start making fun of our own writing, and then that’s where a lot of the comedy will come in.”
It’s hard to describe Barry as anything other than a tightly-produced show: The writing is sharp on both the comedic and the dramatic ends, each scene is packed with conflict, and the characters are expertly conceived and rendered. Season one developed at an mastered pace, aided on its way by captivating acting and an almost total absence of filler, and season two is set to continue along the same masterful trajectory, featuring even darker ventures into these characters’ psyches.
“A lot of shows or stories … you want to do 20 seasons of these things, you know? And so you try to let that happen slowly. But I think that’s why television, sometimes, for me, I get really exasperated,” Hader said. “For us, it was like, no, let’s just let that happen now. What are we waiting on?”