Over the course of three seasons, the HBO series Barry evolved from a comedy with a hooky premise—a morose hitman signs up for an acting class—to a series that scratches, with existential angst, at the very fabric of its world. The series, from creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader (who also stars), has developed its offbeat sensibility into something like high art—sometimes astounding, sometimes stiff with pretension. 

For the fourth and final season of the show, Hader directs every episode, staging our last glimpses of perhaps sociopathic killer Barry Berkman with a mordant chill. There is plenty of vivid style to be found in the seven episodes I’ve seen, but more remarkable is how Hader hones his nascent directorial flair. Season four’s most striking moments are quiet and still, the air filled with tension and regret as terminal winter descends on this whole sorry scene. 

Maybe Hader watched No Country for Old Men a bunch of times before starting Barry’s last lap. There’s a familiarly ominous, Western hush to these episodes, the echoes of violent happenings past (and future) an ambient fuzz. When the season does get loud, it does so in arresting fashion—comic and terrible at once, sideways and weird but, most crucially, controlled. Much of the look-at-us-go smugness that sometimes plagued the series has been shed; Barry seems less concerned with impressing its audience now that the finish line is in sight. 

When last we left Barry, he’d been arrested for murder after being turned in by his former mentor, pathetic and vainglorious acting teacher Gene (Henry Winkler, in perhaps the role of a lifetime). Prison has altered Barry’s circumstances but not really his blinkered, childish worldview. He still wants Gene to be his instructive father figure; he still hopes his one-time girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), sees the vulnerable and valuable human being he believes exists within him. Seeing Barry learn little from his mistakes brings to mind Dr. Melfi having a bleak epiphany in the final season of The Sopranos: perhaps there is no curing Barry, no redemption to be found. 

That sense of futility somehow doesn’t render Barry pointless. The plot is constructed as a mesmerizing Rube Goldberg machine, a bloody sequence of cause and effect that makes nihilism engaging. And the series tantalizingly dangles the possibility of an ultimate moral reckoning. Regardless of whether Barry is past saving, or even worth the attempt, we crave some kind of answer to his crimes—and to Gene’s squalid self-dealing, and to Sally’s struggle to define herself against her ambition. 

Maybe Barry is a show about fame, or at least about the often false purpose we find in attention. It’s a meta-critical show, then, a piece of filmed art about the form’s corruption, founded on the original sins of greed and narcissism and delusional grandeur. Showbiz didn’t reform Barry any more than the military destroyed him, because Hollywood is rapacious and predatory in its own nasty way. Still, Barry has empathy for the lost souls of the attention economy, for those of us (is it most of us?) adrift in the pursuit of recognition as we seek, in vain, to clarify and ennoble ourselves. 

There’s no sadder illustration of that blind hunt than Sally, a pitiable character who walks a razor’s edge between sensitive depiction and her male creators’ idea of desperate womanhood. Sally is beautifully sussed out by Goldberg, who has been giving one of television’s best performances since season one. In this last run of episodes—of which I am allowed to say very little, hence the vagueness of this review—Goldberg runs a breathtaking gamut. Sally briefly finds a new calling as an acting coach before the fame monster roars back and consumes her once more. She then winds up somewhere vastly different, soaked in wine and angry despair and yet still, I think, not out of salvation’s reach. Goldberg plays all sides of Sally—her mettle and her ruin, the squirming selfish thing inside her and the remnant decency—with compassionate nuance. 

A fan favorite performance on the show is Anthony Carrigan as Hank, once an underling in a Chechen gang who has, by season four, shifted allegiances and found the love of his life in a rival mobster. Carrigan has always been a hoot in the role, but the arch comedy of the Hank plotlines never quite synced with the sharper, darker stuff the show was doing elsewhere. In season four, though, Hank is more complicated, in some senses freed by what was essentially a coming out but also finding it hard to shake the criminal habits and compulsions of old. Even the most typically cartoonish aspects of Barry get a refinement this season. Looked at fatalistically, that’s the black hole of a dying star dragging everything in its orbit into the abyss. 

But it’s still a comedy, this stark and depressing show. Stephen Root gets to have some of his typical fun as Barry’s former employer, now a renegade with a sinister agenda all his own. There are plenty of amusing jokes at Hollywood’s expense, and about the quaintly (and sometimes sweetly) banal vagaries of modern life, experienced by even the most extraordinary among us. Barry can still, maybe, be approached casually, as a seriocomic thriller that boasts elegant technicals. But the show’s doomsaying whisper grows hard to ignore as the season unfolds, an insistent and persuasive murmur suggesting that none of these people—and perhaps none of us—are headed anywhere funny in the end. 

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