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Art Imitates Strife: “Barry” series review

When “Barry” premiered, the dark HBO comedy seemed like a classic two-track TV series: There was the crime story, and there was the showbiz story. Its oddball premise followed Barry Berkman (the star, co-creator and director Bill Hader), a traumatized ex-Marine turned hit man who took up acting as a respite from his deadly day job.

One path of the series tabulated Barry’s body count as he became entangled in the L.A. mob wars, made fitful attempts at redemption and blazed through a series of one last jobs. Another path circled the outskirts of Hollywood fame, as Barry joined an acting class taught by the well-cured ham Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and dated Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), a talented but struggling fellow student.

But by the final season, which ended Sunday, those two paths had merged like strands of L.A. freeway. The brutality of show business, the performativity of murder — they are all, in “Barry,” part of the same production.

Series like “The Sopranos,” whose mobsters quoted “The Godfather” like gospel, have played with the idea of criminals imitating the Hollywood conception of themselves. But most such stories tend to be more comfortable on one side of the divide than the other; Christopher Moltisanti’s attempt to break into screenwriting on “The Sopranos,” for instance, was not among the series’s finest moments.

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“Barry,” on the other hand, sees both worlds as sharing compromises and delusions. Barry breaks into acting by drawing on his experience as a killer, as when he tells a story about being a hit man that Gene takes for a dramatic improvisation. He lands a role on the TV series “Laws of Humanity,” an odd gig for a man who breaks laws and has little humanity left in him. And his criminal activity leads him to work with NoHo Hank (a scene-stealing Anthony Carrigan), a Chechen mobster who models himself as a kind of impresario.

Meanwhile, Sally — herself a victim of abusive relationships and industry sexism — reveals her own vicious streak as she gets a streaming series made and goes viral for having a screaming meltdown at her former assistant. If it takes a kind of diva egocentrism to commit murder, “Barry” suggests, it also requires a monstrous streak to fully commit to Hollywood.

Through the first three seasons, the show’s sendups of violence and pop culture were effective, but often felt separate. They came fully together in the final season, beginning with the premiere, in which Barry finally lands in prison for killing Gene’s girlfriend, a police officer who figured out his criminal identity.

He’s received in jail as a celebrity, including by the prison staff, who are bowled over by the idea that he was on TV. “I know they say you did a bad thing,” a besotted guard tells him. “But I’m sure you’re not a bad guy.”

Of course, Barry is a bad guy, whatever his sad history. In his less delusional moments, even he realizes this. But what he benefits from is the TV myth of the flawed but fascinating criminal.

Over its four seasons, “Barry” often risked becoming the sort of thing that it critiqued: A stylish antihero show that makes ultraviolence entertaining. It was good at that, almost too good.

Hader, who directed much of the series, including the full final season, is unusually talented at depicting mayhem for someone from his comedy background — although maybe his gift owes something to that background. The violence in “Barry,” like a good comedy sketch, is surprising in a way that screen carnage rarely is anymore.

Absurdly overpowered firefights blaze up out of nowhere and go spectacularly wrong. Whereas most movie and TV shootouts lead the viewer by the hand — showing you who did what to whom — “Barry” lets the confusion of battle play out in wide-screen, knowing that the point of chaos is that you don’t get all the information you want right away.

Its violence is even funny — not “Ha ha” funny so much as “I didn’t see that coming” funny. What it isn’t is noble or awesome or cool.

Nether is Barry. He is, in a way, sympathetic, broken and badly used — especially by Fuches (Stephen Root), the handler who monetized his talent for killing. But he’s missing something, which becomes clearer as he tries to make amends. He sees redemption as a mechanical process — you follow the steps, make some payments and get the results — rather than an internal struggle. (That someone so emotionally unintuitive could become a working actor underscored the show’s Hollywood critique.)

But in the final run of “Barry,” the idea of what it takes to earn redemption returns ingeniously. And the endgame is set off, naturally, by a movie.

A midseason time jump finds Barry and Sarah living incognito with a young son in a dusty Nowheresville, where they learn that a film project based on Barry’s story is in development. This lures Gene out of his own exile; first he resists having a movie studio sensationalize the case, but ultimately he’s unable to resist the limelight. It also brings Barry back to L.A., to kill off his old acting teacher; he doesn’t succeed, but he ends up getting Gene falsely implicated in the murder.

A few abductions and one more mass-casualty shootout later, Barry again seems to have escaped consequences — until Sally, finally shaken out of her resignation, tells him that he can only redeem himself by taking responsibility for his actions. But when at long last he decides to do so, his teacher gets the drop on him and shoots him dead.

Did Barry truly change for the better, and for good? We don’t know; he’s tried before, then gone shopping for rationalizations to back out. Gene has done him a perverse favor, killing him the second he offers to turn himself in — and in the process, eliminating the one person who might have cleared Gene’s name.

Instead, after one more time jump, we find Barry’s son sneaking to a friend’s house to watch the movie, which portrays Barry as a naïve victim, manipulated by Gene, a sneering criminal mastermind. Gene may have won the final showdown, but he has lost his eternal reputation.

As for Barry, if he was never redeemed in reality, he has been by fiction, in a made-for-Hollywood lie. It’s the perfect crime.