Gene Cousineau: “Little Sally Reed from Joplin, Missouri. What do you want?”
Sally Reed: “To be an actress ... it’s all I ever wanted in the whole world.”
This quick exchange introduces Barry’s audience to Sally (Sarah Goldberg) in the series premiere. Her passionate, teary plea rings normally at first glance; she’s a small-town girl with wide-eyed Hollywood dreams. Aw, shucks. Over four seasons, HBO’s grim comedy ingeniously peels back layers to unveil Sally’s discombobulating, deeply human personality. Her unlikable traits—selfish, gravely insecure, a knack for walking over people (including seemingly naive aspiring actor Barry Block)—remain intact as the show nears its end.
By now, though, we know these qualities stem from a marred past: a rotten home life, previous spousal abuse, and a gnawing lack of confidence she desperately wants to cover up. Barry rarely excuses her entitled behavior but slowly sheds light on how her illusory front is a coping mechanism. No wonder she makes the short-lived Joplin as an outlet to process her tragedies. What’s worse? She barely gets time to exist in the world she creates after working hard to achieve it. As it turns out, Sally is the ultimate portrait of trauma in Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s stellar series, which wraps on May 28.
Sally Reed was probably never going to have a happy ending. It’s not because she prioritizes her lofty career ambitions, pushing away anything that gets in the way. Goldberg plays Sally’s goals with such enthusiasm it usually borders on mania, even when she’s sympathetic. It’s a shame she hasn’t won an Emmy for her wrenching yet funny performance. Remember her season two monologue when Barry (Hader) auditions for Jay Roach? Or her season three “entitled fucking cunt” breakdown in the elevator that Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) shares with the world, leading to her downfall? But the professional blinders Sally’s had on for most of Barry’s run is what limits her in the end.
As if her traumatic history wasn’t enough, her entanglement with Barry Berkman worsens everything. He breezes into her life one fine day, drawn into her safe space, when he catches her rehearsing outside Gene’s (Henry Winkler) studio while on a mission. Barry finds solace in it, attracted to the idea of shedding his skin to inhabit somebody who doesn’t have PTSD or a laundry list of crimes. It’s enough to get him hoping for a fresh start. That’s also what Sally hoped for when she moved to Los Angeles after finally leaving her abusive husband, Sam (Joe Massingill).
Season four delves into why Sally deserved to leave her Joplin jail. Sam isn’t the only reason. Her mother is dismissive, flat-out refusing to believe her ex abused Sally, nor does she care that her daughter’s boyfriend is arrested for murder in L.A. “Big whoop” isn’t exactly the expected maternal reaction, and her nice-guy father doesn’t have anything valuable to add, either. It’s clear from the final season’s early episodes that Sally doesn’t have anyone—anyone except for an imprisoned Barry. Her admittance to him in this season’s “bestest place on earth,” that she feels safest with him, is a devastating reality check.
Hader and Goldberg, sitting feet away, separated by a glass barrier, deliver a potent performance in a scene that sells their toxic attachment. She can write all the one-act plays and TV shows she wants, but Barry’s grievously absorbed her identity just when you (and everyone around her) thought she was free of it. Their confrontation in jail is a turning point for the show’s final installments. Her shaky confession sets Barry’s brain aflame. He teams up with the FBI, makes an enemy out of NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), and escapes prison during a shootout. Ultimately, it launches a new life for the duo in the middle of a barren landscape where they don new identities and shed their skins. Just like the dream, huh?
Barry’s final season jumps eight years ahead with a full picture in episode five, “tricky legacies.” It glimpses into the dreary monotony of Barry and Sally, who go by Clark and Emily now. They shield their child from the real world. It doesn’t mean Sally’s not seething under Emily’s mask. Her pain follows her because she chose to give up the one thing that mattered: her acting dream. Having experienced a shitty upbringing, she passes along the intergenerational trauma to John by parenting similarly to her mom—indifferent, indignant, and inebriated. She doesn’t know where to start nurturing.
It’s not like Barry’s childhood was a prize, so neither of them is good at this, but Sally is on a whole other level. She drops alcohol in his juice to put him to sleep, serves up burnt lunches, and generally wrestles with how to love this human being she gave birth to. In Sally’s expressions, Goldberg displays a tangible aversion to motherhood, a full-bodied disdain for the life they’re responsible for creating. So yes, in a twisted way, she’s a copy of her parent now. It’s a full circle.
Everyone on Barry is haunted by their actions, especially with the time jump, so Sally isn’t an exception, of course. Barry wreaked absolute havoc. Gene lost Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), ruined his legacy, and now reappears to chase fame again. As seen in episode six, “the wizard,” Hank has grown a successful business, but had to kill the love of his life to do it. Fuches’ (Stephen Root) friendship with Barry turns sour as he morphs into the Raven. Yet, Sally’s regression is agonizing because she was a lick away from gaining everything she wanted. Instead, she ponders torturing her network boss, kills a man in self-defense, and runs back home, only for everything to crumble again. All this while witnessing Oscar winner Sian Heder work with her mentee, Kristen (Ellyn Jameson), and watching Natalie soar.
Now, she’s drunk and being tortured (note Hader’s prolific direction in “the wizard”) as a man in a ski mask figure shakes up their trailer home. She’s permanently haunted. Janice’s father has captured her partner, and all she can do is call him repeatedly, begging him to come back. With two episodes of Barry remaining, Sally is left alone in her cage to care for John. Does she head back to her hometown to complete the cycle? Or will she return to the city of dreams to find Barry and maybe accomplish the only thing she wants to be in this world? Either way, Sally might not realize it, but she’s already played the role of a lifetime now. It’s wish fulfillment in the worst and most tragic possible way.