Barry Has TV's Least Likable Woman & That's The Point

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Going into the 2018 Emmys, certain shows have all the buzz. Namely, the two most nominated series of the year, HBO juggernauts Game Of Thrones and Westworld, which both garnered over 20 total nods. But, those epics’ network sibling, Barry, is the stealthy Emmys darling of the year. The new comedy, about a hitman named, well, Barry (Bill Hader), who decides to pursue an ill-advised acting career, racked up an astounding 13 nods this year after an unforgettable slow burn of an eight-episode first season.
While Hader — who received directing, writing, and acting nominations for pulling triple duty on Barry season 1— and co-star Henry Winkler, who’s up for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy, deserve all the attention they’re getting, someone else is owed a few heaps of praise too. That person is Sarah Goldberg, who plays Sally Reed, Barry’s acting school crush.
Sally Reed is one of television’s least likable women, and it’s fantastic.
This past summer, we saw countless capital-B Bad Women. Amy Adams’ Camille Preaker guzzled vodka, took drugs with her teen sister (Eliza Scanlen), and skulked around her suffocating Missouri hometown in shrouds of black clothing on Sharp Objects. The women of Orange Is The New Black endlessly brutalized each other. Even a teen girl in a black comedy about pageants ended up murdering multiple people, including one person she bludgeoned to death.
Barry’s Sally isn’t one of those hard-living hearts of darkness who dominated our screens last season. Rather, Sally is simply annoying. She’s irritating in the way that everyday people — the kind of people you work with and commute with and stand behind in line — are irritating. So, she is infuriating in a way that gets under your skin more than a character like Camille, a haunted wound of a woman who could only truly exist in a Southern gothic tale, ever could.
Sally, an actress hovering around the age agents start telling up-and-comers they might be past their sell-by date, is needy, self-obsessed, and insecure. She is each and everyone of us striving to be seen and terrified she never will be.
We learn everything we really need to know about Sally during a single scene in Barry’s series premiere, “Make Your Mark.” Barry, a contract killer, accidentally infiltrates Sally’s acting class while following around his next victim, one of Sally’s classmates, the doomed Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore). Instead of killing Ryan, Barry ends up doing a scene with his mark and then going out for drinks with the rest of the class, Sally included. During drinks, Sally tries to remember a specific Kevin Spacey movie (it’s The Usual Suspects). While her friend Sasha (Killing Eve scene stealer Kirby Howell-Baptiste) repeatedly says “It’s The Usual Suspects,” Sally ignores her. No matter how right Sasha is, Sally doesn’t care what her pal is saying since she is not the one who personally came up with it.
“It’s K-Pax,” Sally finally announces, ending the conversation in the least correct way possible. “Usual Suspects,” Sacha mutters once again to no one.
The same galling display occurs seconds later when Sally dismissively tells Barry, “Nobody's actually from L.A.” Her other friend Natalie (The Good Place gem D'Arcy Carden) quietly interjects, “I am though, remember?” Sally ignores yet another friend, and when she’s pointing out where all her classmates are from, purposefully skips over Natalie. We can owe that omission to the fact naming Natalie’s hometown totally negates Sally’s argument. Sally is infuriating. And soon makes things worse by conflating the success of 21-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep and that of Kaley Cuoco.
The only voice that matters to Sally is her own, and she only wants to hear from others when they’re supporting her own goals or beliefs. That is why she attempts to ostracize Barry during season 1’s midpoint when he calls the class’ discussion on the morality of murder “fucking lame.” While the wannabe stars discuss the topic in black and white and judgmental terms, Barry reminds them he, as a former Marine, went to war and took lives. “What? I should just go blow my brain out, cause there’s no hope for me?” he asks.
While most of the class, Natalie and Sacha included, realize how limited their thinking is, Sally attempts to convince everyone they’re the ones who are owed an apology from Barry. “I was scared,” she claims. Sally was not scared, she was simply taken aback by hearing someone so vehemently disagree with her in a public space.
You often walk away from a Barry episode convinced Sally is the worst person on your screen, merely because she is a selfish, desperate woman. But she’s not the person violently executing people, working with the mob, or, spoiler alert, murdering one of his closest, most innocent friends. No, that’s Barry. Yet, we’re all rooting for Barry — our sweet, awkward Barry — and rolling our eyes through Sally’s Shakespearean machinations and monologues.
The Barry team’s response to the Sally hate perfectly captures how the series quietly plays with viewers' inherent biases about men and women, even when they're fictional. During an early screening of the series, a man in the audience labeled Sally “unlikable” for her narcissism, her portrayer Goldberg told Elle. “Barry fucking kills people,” a writer shot back, according to Goldberg. “He's a murderer, and you don’t like Sally because she's self-involved.”
When you realize how disturbingly true that statement is, it’s difficult to watch Barry, and Goldberg's performance, the same way. Sally isn’t a monster — she’s a human being, an irritating, pretentious, wildly ambitious human being. That’s why we should all love her a little bit more.
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