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‘Barry’ and Sally Reed: The Most Compelling Objectionable Heroine

By Lindsay Traves | TV | May 30, 2023 |

By Lindsay Traves | TV | May 30, 2023 |


Suggesting that Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) is revolutionary by being objectionable is not to say there isn’t a veritable coven of flawed women characters on TV. Season 2 of Yellowjackets, a show about bloodthirsty women recovering from their traumatic time in the wilderness, just wrapped. Shiv Roy, the internet’s favorite loser girl-boss willing to choose business over her politics, just had her series finale. But what is special about Sally Reed, Barry’s lead love interest, is that she is a regular asshole. Sally isn’t some titan of business or a woman struggling with survivor’s guilt after eating her friends, she’s just mean. A regular old shitty person placed in a somewhat regular situation (with a hitman for a boyfriend), and thus experiences everyday regular sexism. In Barry, a show that intentionally blurs lines between good and evil, Sally stands as an objectionable woman you’re forced to root against, but who still never deserves what comes to her.

Barry thrives in the gray, especially as it pertains to its lead. Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) is a soldier, struggling with trying to reintegrate into society after seeing combat, and taking a gig as a hitman. Barry unexpectedly finds tenderness and a promise of a new life in an acting class, and with the beautiful student, Sally. Barry is a murderer, but his actions live in the moral gray. He was a soldier following orders in a war. He killed bad people on behalf of clients. But as the series progresses, Barry’s true self becomes more apparent, and his status as the good-guy-soldier-hero is called into question.

But Sally isn’t a murderer (for the most part), she just kind of sucks. Sally immediately catches Barry’s eye, but mostly because she’s a pretty blonde who seems to be in distress. She is overconfident and puts down her classmates, is egoistic and bosses the crew around, and she is mean and unfair to her peers. Her version of feminism is questionable since she seems to resent Barry failing upward but mostly because of her own ambitions and she shows the same ire toward her female classmates. She is not the hero, and in a lot of ways she is played to show Barry’s romanticizing of the civilian world such that a rude and self-centered Sally is the object of his unwavering affection.

When a vulnerable Sally sleeps with Barry, the show pivots to showing how Sally’s bitchiness is often really her pushing back at the undeserved treatment she gets from men. At a party, while Sally tries to flirt with others and make industry connections, a possessive Barry gets in her way and shows her his rage and violence. The show asks us to consider if Sally, a self-centered butthead who used Barry at a vulnerable time, is being unreasonable and villainous. The cutthroat actress spends the first half of the series working to launch her career. Sally is more skilled than her classmates and feels more entitled to success. She uses Barry for rides to auditions, brags openly to her classmates, and looks down upon other contenders. Then her prospective manager makes a pass at her, dropping her when she rejects him.

The creation of a character like Sally is brilliant because she is by all accounts completely objectionable, and yet her experiences of sexism and inequality are never warranted. While Barry lives in the gray of whether he deserves prison or execution for his multiple homicides, Sally is simply a woman experiencing sexism while also being a purveyor of it. As Sally reveals more about her past, we learn she is a survivor of domestic violence. She weaves her story into a piece for acting class and her eventual series. She finds comfort in Barry who she perceives to be gentle, despite many hints otherwise. Barry’s incredible nuance allows us to look at the protagonist and wonder why he’d waste time on such a vanilla bitch when really, she is a somewhat flawed citizen paired up with a man living a lie about his violent tendencies. And that’s what makes the character so impressive.

Of course, the writing brings the complex Sally Reed to life, but there is also so much in Sarah Goldberg’s brilliant portrayal. Her shrieks and screams are chaotic and comedic but balanced by her quiet sadness. In “The Audition” (an episode co-written by Elizabeth Sarnoff), Goldberg delivers a deranged monologue that encapsulates all that Sally is as she toggles between raging green monster, smug know-it-all, and supportive girlfriend. She contemplates the upsetting task of crafting a raw piece about her experience with domestic violence and the unfair burden placed upon her to represent women, all while coming off as loathsome.

After the fallout of accidentally killing a man, Sally rejoins Barry as a fugitive living in disguise as a waitress raising her young son. When she is forced back to Los Angeles, Sally faces reality and steps up to protect her son from the gunfire of competing gangs. Here, nothing about Sally’s past matters. Until she becomes a drama teacher who still desperately seeks external validation for her work and is icy to enamored men. Sally Reed isn’t a woman we’re ever meant to root for, her story is never one of justifying her shitty behavior, and she is never meant to be the manic pixie dream girl object of Barry’s affection. She is a woman; one who kind of sucks, who, herself, has meta struggles about what it means to create women-focused content-for-women. By letting Sally suck, Barry allows us to navigate questions of sexism and what women experience without forcing us to be in love with or sympathize with Sally to do so.

All episodes of Barry are streaming on Max