SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Starting Now,” the Season 3 finale of “Barry.”
Season 3 of “Barry” was the dark comedy’s darkest yet, which was achieved in no small part thanks to cinematographer Carl Herse.
“One of our big references is the Coen brothers’ balance between tragedy and comedy and how they find that line, allowing something to be meaningful but also comical and absurd at the same time,” Herse says about working with Bill Hader, who co-created the show, stars in the title role and directs many episodes, most recently including Season 3 finale “Starting Now.”
“Bill is very specific as a director. A lot of times on TV shows, you have showrunners who have a writing background but are not necessarily as visual, and episodic directors who are trying to get many coverage options for the showrunners to decide what direction they want to go with,” Herse adds. “On our show, ‘coverage’ is a dirty word. Bill is extremely intentional with the camera. A lot of times, the director and I will not want to move an actor if they want to stand or enter or exit a scene in a specific way. But because Bill is an actor, he can speak to the actors from their perspective, which allows us to design shots ahead of time.”
Seasons 1 and 2 followed Barry as he tried desperately to escape his work as a hit man and question whether he was worthy of redemption, while the newest installment of the series sees him fall further and further past the point of no return. For the first time, he meets material consequences for his actions — namely, Barry’s acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) finds out that Barry killed his girlfriend, detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), and helps bring in a SWAT team to take him down.
While “Barry” certainly makes room for climactic motorcycle chases and bloody shootouts, Herse points out that a central conceit of his work was the necessity to be “really visually expressive using spaces that are relatively unremarkable,” like the homes and offices where a majority of the show takes place. This was often achieved with contrasts in lighting — most notably in Episode 7, “Candy Asses,” when Sally (Sarah Goldberg) screams at her agent (Jessy Hodges) while slowly backing into a dark room until she’s set in a completely black background.
“We wanted the actors to step out of darkness and there’s lots of different ways that you can interpret that. But with Bill and I, we could just talk about movies,” Herse tells Variety. “At one point he said, ‘You know that shot in [Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film] “Throne of Blood” where the woman disappears into darkness?’ I immediately understood what he was going for.”
Season finale “Starting Now” opens with a shot of Barry on a beach first seen in his hallucinations in “Candy Asses.” Staring out at the almost-gray water, he’s surrounded by all the people he’s killed over the years — as well as Sally and Cousineau.
“This dream is about all these people who he’s ruined, and looking back at Sally and Cousineau and realizing that they will potentially be next because he’s poisoned everyone around him,” Herse says. “The sequence is meant to convey a fever dream, where everything is told in bizarre compositions with people set in different depths in space. We tried to create a desaturated tone; a lot of the color was taken out and we used a higher contrast, silvery texture, which was amplified by the cloudy dreariness of that environment.”
“Then, we tried to mirror that when Barry and Albert [James Hiroyuki Liao] meet each other at the tree that we’ve seen earlier in the season,” Herse adds, referring to when Barry is confronted by his former friend from the Marines who is now an FBI agent. Barry sobs and screams as Albert demands to know what their mutual friend Chris (Chris Marquette) did to deserve being murdered.
Barry and Albert’s conversation dips into absurdity. It’s unclear how Albert could have found Barry, who is in the desert burying the motorcycle gang member (Anthony Molinari) killed by a manic Sally in a preceding scene. What’s more important than how (or even whether) their meeting happens is where it happens.
The desert tree first appeared in Season 3 Episode 1, “Forgiving Jeff,” where Barry doesn’t think twice about killing two people. That scene was shot at dawn, with the idea that the light coming up over the hill could convey that he still had a chance at accountability. By Episode 8, no such chance is possible.
“We shifted the staging so that we could express the environment in a way that felt devoid of life. Instead of our wide shots favoring the rolling hills and deep landscapes of the desert [like in ‘Forgiving Jeff’], we turned everything so that we saw this stark line that was just dirt and a single, scrubby tree, and shot away from anything that felt aspirational or like life. It was really important to pull the sense of beauty away, because Barry has stripped any hope away by continually making mistakes that pull him away from his goals.”
The finale also explores a loss of hope for NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), who was the show’s one serial optimist until this point. Hank, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in the previous episode after traveling to Bolivia in hopes of rescuing his boyfriend Cristobal (Michael Irby), is forced to listen as his fellow Chechens are torn to shreds by a panther in the next room that will presumably come for him next. However, the panther is never seen on screen. Instead, the camera whips back and forth between Hank and the wall of his cell, styled as though he’s having a conversation despite that no one is there.
Herse remembers: “The VFX department wanted to know what the panther was going to look like. In our first production meeting, Bill said, ‘No, no, no. You’re just seeing a wall.’ But we had a stunt person performing as the panther. They went through all of the actions so that there was some sense of timing and sound and so Anthony had something to perform with.”
Herse says “Jaws” was the primary reference here: “You’re learning so much without seeing the threat. That makes the threat almost scarier, because your imagination takes over.”
Hank manages to break free and gun down his captors before finding Cristobal, whose wife Elena (Krizia Bajos) is torturing him with shock therapy after finding out that he is gay. A male dancer dressed only in underwear performs for Cristobal, who receives shocks to the head intended to reverse his sexual orientation.
“In every sequence in this episode, the camera is revealing information one shot at a time. You’re not just cutting to a wide shot and then someone’s close up and another person’s close up,” Herse explains. “You’re always gathering information pretty subjectively with the character that the scene is following. We see [Hank] entering from the basement into this hallway, but we’re staying on him with these dancing figures out of focus in the background, because he doesn’t understand what’s going on. We have this long tension beat where we’re tracking with Hank, seeing the picture of Cristobal and his family on the wall, and we as an audience are putting together the information the same way that Hank is, until you reach the room with Elena, this strange, stripping man and Cristobal, who’s now basically a zombie version of himself.”
The perspective then shifts, with Hank out of focus in the background as he approaches the room. Now, the camera focuses on Cristobal as Elena turns off the music and approaches him, attempting to arouse him as she directs him to look at and touch her — before a gun rings out and she falls to the ground. Undetected, Hank has shot her. He moves in to embrace a barely responsive Cristobal with a smile that only lasts for a brief moment.
“All of the information you’re gathering is from Cristobal’s standpoint. You don’t see Hank approaching. Even when Elena is shot, you’re not seeing that action. She flies out of frame. Now Hank is reentering and the two have been reunited, but they’ve both been through such a traumatic experience. The camera is meant to convey how lost these two characters are. Hank has finally been broken. Even though he’s a scary person, because he’s a mobster, he’s this strange optimist. But at the end of the sequence, Hank has changed.”
As the episode begins to close, Cousineau calls Barry from the outside of the house of Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom), Janice’s father who has figured out that Barry killed his daughter and that Cousineau knows about it. Barry shows up and rips a gun out of Cousineau’s hands, resolving to go into the house and confront Jim himself. The conversation is hushed and frenetic as both men are overcome with fear, knowing how few options they have left.
“The scene with Barry and Cousineau is the first time in the entire season that we shot with handheld cameras,” Herse says. “The show is extremely studio and formal and the camera is this imperturbable, objective, ‘blind justice’-type character. But we wanted to use a handheld camera to express the desperation of Cousineau’s situation and Barry realizing that he can’t escape.”
Herse explains the way the final sequence switches from third-person to first-person perspective as Barry lurks into Jim’s home, inspired by the scene in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables” when Jim Malone (Sean Connery) is stalked in his own apartment. Barry silently observes and prepares to shoot Jim until he hears the word “Freeze!,” shocking him into stillness. Barry is depicted in a wide-eyed close up as disembodied voices yell at him to drop his gun. Like in the previous scenes with Hank and Cristobal, information rolls in at the same rate that Barry processes it. Jim turns around slowly and Barry realizes that Jim set him up. SWAT team members emerge from the darkness, revealing Cousineau standing behind them and Barry realizes that Cousineau was in on it.
Herse emphasizes that whereas a more conventional production would have shot Barry, Cousineau, Jim and the SWAT team from various angles to compile later on, “this is an example of a scene where there is no coverage in the way that people think of television coverage. Bill likes to shoot scenes in a way that can only really be edited in one way, and he will only shoot a scene one shot at a time so that you won’t wear the actors out. They only have to reach those heights a few times.”
Though Jim only appears in the last three episodes of the season, “Starting Now” ends with him. The final shot is of Jim standing outside of his home and framed within his living room windows. The camera peers at him from inside as blue and red lights flash and sirens soften.
“Though Moss was able to take Barry down, once you see all the police cars drive away and the lights fade out and Cousineau walk away, he’s still a man who has been left alone without his daughter,” Herse says. “You see her [in a photograph] in the foreground and him as this smaller figure outside. There’s a sense of loneliness. Catching Barry is not joyful. It’s not the end of a person’s pain. You’re still left with the pain that Barry has caused this character — and that, for a half-hour comedy, is a pretty heavy image.”