The Greeks would be pleased with Barry’s fourth (and final) season, which has reaffirmed a long-held truth about this show: It is the literalization of those famous faces of Grecian drama, the laughing-and-crying masks representing the muses Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy). Once a comedy with a lot of darkness, the HBO marvel has evolved into something haunting, sorrowful even. Yet when those laughs do come—and thank goodness, they still do—they’re just as smart, surprising, and revealing as ever.
In Thalia’s corner in this, Barry’s final season, is Mr. Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). After his heel turn in Season 3, in which he sold out his former student/current hitman Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) to the Feds as revenge for killing his girlfriend Janice Moss back in the first season, Mr. Cousineau is salivating over his newfound attention.
“He wants so badly to be a good person,” Winkler tells the Daily Beast’s Obsessed, about where we first find Mr. Cousineau this season. “He makes a promise to Jim Moss [played by Robert Wisdom] not to talk to anybody. [Jim and Cousineau] are going to keep the memory of his girlfriend, of Janice, sacrosanct.”
But shutting up is tough for Cousineau. Make that a double when fame is on the line. Of course Cousineau can only keep his promise to Jim for not even two episodes before baiting a story-hungry Vanity Fair reporter into sitting through his one-man show, in order to learn Cousineau’s version of what led to Barry’s arrest. By the time this hilariously self-indulgent moment happens, near Episode 2’s end, it’s only surprising that it didn’t happen earlier.
“He can’t help himself,” Winkler says. “He is addicted to the spotlight, the way my youngest granddaughter is addicted to Cadbury eggs—he fights tooth and nail [against it], and of course… the spotlight wins.”
That spotlight is delectable for not just Cousineau, but us watching as well. With the bulk of this half-hour spent on heavier things—Sally’s (Sarah Goldberg) gutting visit to Barry in jail; the revelation that Barry has given up Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and the Chechens in exchange for a “get out of jail free” card—Cousineau’s majorly narcissistic mistake is almost a breath of fresh air. Even though both we and he know that what he’s doing will piss Jim right off, watching Cousineau seize the chance to tell a rapt audience the story of the last several months of his life is undeniably fun.
It helps that Winkler gives this monologue his award-winning all. Embodying Barry, Cousineau pitches and slows his voice down, adopting a loping gait. In his telling, that dumb hitman was begging our hero, Gene Cousineau, to notice him, and Cousineau took him in from the goodness of his heart.
As for where that impression even came from, Winkler explains it in… charmingly peculiar terms. “Bill has an upper lip, kind of,” he says “so I started there, and then out of that came the voice as I was rehearsing it.”
Thankfully, Hader was not offended, Winkler adds. In fact, he kept pushing Winkler further to nail Cousineau’s tour-de-force of a scene. “[As a director,] Bill takes me on that journey, in terms of Gen’s performance,” he says. “‘What does he want? Bring it down. I want more of it.’ Now you’re in it, and you’ve got knee pads on, because you’re just working so hard telling this story.”
Hader even made sure the crew was spraying Winkler down, the actor tells us, to achieve Cousineau’s intensely sweaty look. All of this kept both us and the reporter, alone in the audience, absolutely, hysterically enthralled. An impression, no matter how good, is the sincerest form of flattery, after all—and a helluva thing to watch.
But this may be the last ounce of sincerity we could see from Cousineau going forward. Letting a journalist share his version of the Barry Berkman story with the public isn’t going to end well. And no matter how the public receives it, Winkler says Cousineau’s desire to share the story at all was the final straw in many ways.
“I don’t think he ever cares about other people, [but] he cared about Barry,” Winkler says. “He saw him as the son that his real son even wasn’t to him. Barry filled that space.”
With Barry still behind bars—for now—and Cousineau doing the one thing Jim told him not to do, it’s safe to say that no one is filling that space for our favorite acting teacher any more.
Barry airs Sunday nights on HBO at 10 p.m. ET.
For more, listen to Henry Winkler on The Last Laugh podcast.