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HBO’s Barry Gives Us a Female Character Who’s Actually Human With Sally Reed

Sarah holds her hands up as her eyes water on HBO's Barry

When we first meet Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg)—the passionate L.A. actress who hungers for success—in the pilot episode of HBO’s new dark comedy, Barry, she’s having a meltdown. Crouched outside her acting class, she unloads her nervous energy onto Barry (Bill Hader)—the conflicted hitman who wants to escape his way of life—before storming off in that classic, “fiery” meet-cute way. Later, when she apologizes for her outburst, their interaction is bookended with a scene on the dance floor of a dimly lit bar. Sally sways under pulsing lights in slow motion, smiling invitingly at Barry. He stares back at her, awestruck. She gives him a kiss goodbye.

This sequence of events and motifs is so familiar in the romance genre that the entire story arc between Barry and Sally feels almost predetermined at this point. In any other show, Sally could have easily been the character whose only function was to be the promise of a better life for the damaged male anti-hero—an unchanging oasis of normalcy and calm in which he could find refuge, when his life of violence overwhelmed him—but with the combined expertise of Alec Berg, Bill Hader, the writers on Barry (who benefitted in many ways from an unusually good gender balance), and Sarah Goldberg’s nuanced, empathetic performance, Sally is quickly revealed to be just as flawed and troubled as every other person on the show.

In the strong, succinct 8-episode first season, the character development is both rapid and deep. Moments in Episode 2 (“Use It”)—like when Sally asks Barry to read a scene from Doubt with her, or her pep talk to him as he panics outside the bar—make Sally out to be the quintessentially nice girl-next-door with big dreams, but the season is peppered with tiny hints that point to deeper motivations.

In retrospect, Sally’s casual comment that she’s asking Barry to read with her because “everyone else had a thing” reveals that no one else in the class would work with her. Even Sally generously taking Barry under her wing and promising to help him with his craft takes on a more manipulative note when juxtaposed with their acting teacher, Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting note to Barry. After Barry’s muted performance of Alec Baldwin’s monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross the movie (one of the funniest recurring gags from the show is how the L.A. acting class only does scenes from movies, never theater), Gene spews frustration at Barry: “You’re deferential to every character in a scene except for yours.”

Sally finds in Barry this exact kind of blind adoration and acquiescence that she’s not getting from her other peers. Much like Cousineau himself, who offsets a humiliating audition with a standing ovation from his class, Sally offsets her disappointments in the real world with Barry’s unquestioning deference.

This grayness to Sally also helps steer her character away from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trap. Barry projecting himself and his fantasies onto Sally, without knowing her as a person, is completely neutralized because it’s mutual. Barry is as fictitious to Sally as she is to him. Barry adores Sally because she is emblematic of the life he could have, and Sally’s interest in Barry is just a reflection of his adoration for her.

In the last year, after blockbuster hits and commercial successes like Wonder Woman, Hollywood has suddenly seemed to realize that 50% of the population might be a worthwhile market share after all. The emphasis on “strong female characters” has risen with this zeitgeist, but along with it has come an oversimplification of what “strong” means. More often than not, physical strength and emotional detachment are paraded as the paragon of a “strong” female character, rather than examining whether a character is well written and believable. This trend has been long discussed with takes from the likes of The Rundown with Robin Thede and The Break with Michelle Wolff, and of course, there’s the well known Trinity Syndrome—the troublingly widespread trope that black leather and flying kicks can double as a legitimate personality.

Aside from being reductive in a narrative sense, putting women in a box marked “strong” limits the spectrum of emotions they’re allowed to experience. Putting someone on a pedestal and discriminating against them are two sides of the same coin—both things deny the humanity of the person in question.

That’s why one of the strongest moments for Sally is also while she’s at her most vulnerable. In episode 4 (“Commit … To You”), Sally’s storyline explores the systemic sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, as well as the patriarchal conditioning most women go through to unconsciously prioritize a man’s comfort over theirs. In a deeply disquieting scene, Sally’s agent tells her that his decision to keep her on as a client is predicated on whether he wants to work with her or sleep with her.

If this were a prototypical “strong female character,” there would’ve been an assertive takedown, retribution, and redemption, but on Barry, nothing of that sort happens. After an agonizing moment trying to navigate the situation, Sally ends up apologizing to her agent to defuse the tension and discomfort in the room.

She still ends up getting fired from her agent’s roster. The closest thing to catharsis is when Sally screams out loud, alone in her car, shaken by the realization of what her agent got away with and her sheer powerlessness. That’s it. The agent disappears from the show; there is no grand retribution or redemption because, a lot of the time in real life, there just isn’t.

However, this pain feeds perfectly into Sally’s outburst at Barry later in the episode, as she tries to put on a smiling face during Natalie’s party (and to meet live-action Pinocchio, Zach Burrows). When Barry crosses a line in his unrealistic, one-sided relationship with her and tries to control who she talks to at the party, Sally, who is already choking under the pressure foisted on her, finds her words and lashes out: “Do not fucking tell me what I am. I am so fucking sick of people telling me what I am.” At that moment, Sally solidifies into a real person. For the first time, the tables flip, and she’s the one doling out the reality check.

Even in one of Sally’s final scenes of the season, where she has an honest and open moment and confides to Barry about her abusive ex-husband, it’s clear that this is a transactional piece of information that Sally has used often to connect with people and make them open up. It’s clear in her own words, “I haven’t told anyone here this before—well, except Natalie … and Nick. I think Jermaine, and obviously Gene. But I really—I really don’t like to talk about it,” and in her disappointment when Barry doesn’t reciprocate with his own secrets: “Well, I mean I just told you about my marriage, so …” But the depth of her character now and the empathy generated by it is miles away from the pilot episode.

In an interview with Elle, Goldberg recounts an experience she had at early screening of Barry, when a man in the audience said Sally was too unlikeable and narcissistic. A writer on the show stepped in to defend Sally, saying, “Barry fucking kills people. He’s a murderer, and you don’t like Sally because she’s self-involved,” and that, somehow, is the perfect crystallization of the challenges and double standards for strong women, both onscreen and off. Moral shades of grey are afforded more empathy and understanding when displayed by a man.

Sally Reed is ruthlessly ambitious, passionate, narcissistic, vulnerable, and emotionally erratic. She’s also, with certainty, a step in the right direction for creating more realistic “strong” women on TV.

(image: HBO)

Jyotsna Hariharan is a writer and playwright from Madurai, India. She holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She’s worked for the production, field and marketing departments of TV shows like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS) and theaters like Theater for the New City, and Creative Outlet. Her 2018 Audie Award nominated radio play, Rebuttal (HarperCollins) is out now on Audible and other streaming services.

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