Just prior to the pandemic, Bill Hader seemed primed to make a bid for movie stardom. He had gotten fit for It Chapter 2, which was the most anticipated movie of the season. His show Barry had garnered him an Emmy for directing, and he seemed about to break free from primarily being known for his SNL character Stefon. Then we all got hit by a deadly virus.
As a longtime Hader appreciater, no one was sadder than I was that Hader couldn’t get the big box office he deserved, even if It Chapter 2 was terrible. Having seen Barry, I knew that he had dramatic acting chops. What’s become clear over time is that his ability as a comedian to bounce from extreme to extreme has made him an incredibly versatile actor. What made Stefon such an appealing character on Saturday Night Live was that he was clearly part of a nightlife scene that sounded nightmarish in that uniquely New York way (“New York’s hottest club is Uhhhh? Located in the middle of the West Side Highway, this bi-curious beach party is the creation of Italian club owner Baloney Danza.”), but also deeply longed for love. In moments, Stefon could go from being a force of sheer terror—I simply do not want to go to any of those clubs!—to the person you were rooting for to kiss Seth Myers.
The most obvious analogue for the kind of turn that Hader’s career could take is Bob Odenkirk. When I watched Mr. Show With Bob and David as a teenager at art camp in an improv class, I could not have predicted that Odenkirk would go on not only to star in an award-winning prime time drama, but that he would also have the lead role in an action movie simultaneously. Although I know that it’s much harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry, watching Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul underscores how true that is. Hader is an actor in that mold, one who might find comedy a natural space to be in, but can use the skills of joke telling—creating tension, escalation, or ironic juxtaposition—to make people weep.
In Barry, especially the most recent season, Hader plays a man who really wants to believe he is a good person. Unfortunately, he is also a hitman, and even worse, he wants to be an actor. A lesser show would play this for laughs, or avoid the seriousness of his situation, but Barry dives right into the fact that the titular character is a murderer who would ultimately do anything to sustain his new actor lifestyle. He wants to stop killing, and he wants to believe that he can somehow move on from his violent past without making amends for it. Unfortunately for him, neither is true.
The COVID-19 pandemic also forced Barry, on which Hader is the lead actor, showrunner, and executive producer, to take a longer break than normal between seasons. For a little while, it was easy to forget his potential as an actor, but the latest season pushes Hader’s character to extremes. He no longer operates in two modes—hitman in one space, actor in another—but both simultaneously. The violence and anger that he was trying to contain in the previous seasons bleeds out into his personal life, and specifically onto his girlfriend Sally, played by the fantastic Sarah Goldberg, and his acting teacher Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler.
When Hader is in scenes with these two characters, especially when he becomes explosively angry or when murder related trauma causes him to dissassociate, it starts to feel nuts that Hader isn’t a more renowned actor. He has to temper his violence with love, and to differing degrees, both characters know how important it is to keep Barry happy. Sally was once in an abusive marriage and swore to never be with a violent man ever again—something that once kept Barry on the straight and narrow until the contradictions of his lifestyle collapsed onto themselves. Cousineau has a much more intimate understanding of just how dangerous Barry can be, but also has served as a father figure to him, something that Barry is unwilling to let go of. When he asks Gene to tell Barry that he loves him, his eyes well with tears, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s because he’s so miserable or so furious.
A show that’s worse than Barry would have made the answer to that question obvious, or would have asked the audience to love or forgive the character more. Instead, Bill Hader makes Barry more and more terrifying each season, almost as if he’s daring you to root for this cold blooded killer. Sometimes, despite myself, I do root for him, if only because the deep well of pain inside him is so artfully expressed.
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