It’s fitting, in the sick tragicomedy of Barry, that Sally Reed’s triumph should look so much like a meltdown. As played by Canadian actress Sarah Goldberg, Sally is sweetly narcissistic, likable for an unlikable type, so self-involved that she never notices her cheerleader boyfriend—Bill Hader’s Barry—is a sociopathic hit-man addicted to his own trigger finger. In the long-anticipated third season, Sally is finally churning her trauma as a domestic abuse survivor into a Hollywood cash cow; she’s producing, writing, and starring in a show named after her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, all about a mother who coaches her young daughter out of a violent relationship.
At Joplin’s premiere, Sally learns the show has earned a 98 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Turns out, the critics like the pretty package in which she’s boxed her tragedy. Although Barry is a comedy, there’s a reason why so many of its laughs feel more like winces. “This is where [Sally’s] trauma and her art are being married with commerce,” Goldberg says. “She’s suddenly thrown into a very business-oriented world, and she’s become completely detached from the original experience.”
By the end of episode 4, it seems Sally has finally begun to eclipse her worst qualities: She might still be forcing her friend and assistant, Natalie (D’Arcy Carden), to ride in a separate vehicle to their premiere, but at least she’s self-aware enough to break up with Barry, whose PTSD and anger have increasingly materialized as violent outbursts in their relationship. Not only does she recognize he’s dangerous, but Sally no longer needs Barry; she knows now, finally, that she’s a star. Episode 4 ends with her leaving Barry behind with his head hunched forward, like someone just socked in the stomach.
Still, episode 5, which aired last night, refuses to let the high last. After Sally and Natalie go out to a coffee shop the morning after Joplin’s premiere, Natalie’s mystified: “Why the fuck is nobody noticing you?” Sally tries to brush it off—“If anything, I should be enjoying my anonymity while it lasts”—but Natalie’s already on the homepage of BanShe, Barry’s Netflix-adjacent streaming service, where Joplin is nowhere to be found. At the BanShe headquarters, Sally and her team learn Joplin has been canceled without warning, less than 12 hours after its debut. Why? “The algorithm felt it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters.” Like so many showrunners before her, the great Sally Reed has fallen victim to the computer overlords. Another laugh. Another wince.
The rest of the episode proceeds like a train-wreck. Sally yells at the network head; she returns home, in tears, to her apartment, where Barry is waiting with (literally) open arms. She seems almost ready to welcome him back into her life and home, until he asks, “Do you know where she lives?” He then proceeds to offer to psychologically torture the network head as a means of revenge: “Like, for instance, I could send her a picture of herself sleeping, just as a way of being, like, ‘Hey. Not cool what you did to Sally, you know?’ I would just do little things, like replace her dog with a slightly different dog or, you know, change the furniture in her house so she thinks she’s shrinking.”
Soaked in tears, Sally’s face warps into something both perplexed and disgusted. It’s as if she’s seeing Barry for the first time, and she can’t comprehend why it took so long to see him this way. “Barry? I need you to get away from me,” she says. Finally chastened, he leaves.
After he’s gone, she once again begins to sob. It looks a lot like a disaster—and, in some senses it is—but it’s also a sign Sally Reed isn’t quite who she once was. This version of Sally might actually become a star, if she doesn’t lose herself in the struggle to get there. Below, Goldberg discusses the making of Sally’s season 3 arc—and why the character is on the precipice of a dangerous choice.
With this massive break the cast took between seasons 2 and 3—what it was like coming back? Was it a struggle to slip back into this character?
We were due to start right before the pandemic hit. We had a table read booked in for March 9th and March 11th. So we had our March 9th table read—and it was that apprehensive, “do we hug?” thing. There’s something like 60 people in an enclosed space. I had just come off a trans-Atlantic flight, went straight in for a hug with Henry Winkler. And actually Henry and I went for lunch after and shared French fries. We were both very worried about it later.
But anyway, we had this buoyant day and we all got back together and we were so excited to start because it had already been quite a long gap. And then, by Friday, the Canadian border was closed.
I was actually stuck in an Airbnb in Los Angeles for months, which was very existential, but HBO really looked after me, which was wonderful. And then time just kept passing. So by the time we got back, it was over three years between seasons. I think, honestly, there was a little bit of first day of school hysteria that we had that really helped elevate the season in a way. I think everybody brought new gears, and I do wonder if that came from the hibernation we were all in—and then suddenly the whole world was in high depth.
I want to specifically talk about episodes 4 and 5, because they’re transformational for Sally. For one thing, as someone who has to do junkets, I thought the junket scene in episode 4 was hysterical. I’d imagine filming that was something of a meta experience.
There’s so many aspects of the show that are meta, and I’ve always really enjoyed that. I think that the junket was really well written by one of our female writers, Emma Barrie.
I tried to think back to my first junket and how anxious I was. I was so nervous. So we wanted to put some of that in, Sally’s anxiety. And then the questions were so inane that the anxiety was quickly replaced by boredom and defeat. Alec Berg directed that episode, and he set it up just like a real junket. We were in a really claustrophobic room and had the bright lights and it didn’t really require that much acting.
All the actors that came in to play the journalists—a lot of it got cut, unfortunately—but they were so funny. A lot of them were improvising; it was hard to keep a straight face. Also those same journalists were all there at the premiere [later in the episode]. That scene was totally improvised. Alec just set the whole thing up as a real carpet. Nothing was scripted at all.
“You do not look old enough to have an abused daughter” is just… And to know that’s improvised? That is a brilliant line.
It was a good day.
There is this moment—it’s a long moment—while Sally’s giving her speech at the premiere where she literally cannot speak. At first her silence is profound, and then it becomes funny the longer it goes on. Was that all you, or were you directed to hold that pause?
Like everything with Barry, it was kind of a collaboration. There’s a real “best idea wins” atmosphere…What we realized was, everything she’s ever wanted has just happened and, meanwhile, she’s about to have the most public moment she’s ever had in her career. So the news for her of [getting a] 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the greatest thing anyone could ever whisper in her ear, is an incredibly private moment and then she’s thrown into the spotlight in the most public moment of her life. She ends up having this incredibly private moment in public.
It was kind of a combination that Bill and I came up with together. I watched a bunch of old acceptance speeches where people get incredibly emotional. And I’m so fascinated by it because it’s grown adults flubbing over a trophy, and I want to have empathy as to why that happens.
We’d done the scene a bunch of times with loads more dialogue. We had hundreds of extras as well, background artists watching the speech. They were used to seeing a very different version of the speech, and they knew when to cheer and they knew when to laugh and all of those things. And then we changed it and we didn’t say anything and I just stopped talking and played the speech the way you see it in the show. It was amazing, because having 250 people in the room, all having the natural, awkward reaction that you would have in that moment really helped me. It was amazing. They were all so present and … I think they were worried about me. I’m assuming they thought I forgot my lines.
As someone who grew up in Missouri, I find it really fascinating—and true to life—how Sally uses that history as a card she can play.
So I wanted to ask if you’d unpack that for me. Because it’s such an intimate part of her history. For her to shape it the way she has— right into the title of her show—is really interesting.
I think it’s a number of things, right? I think that when Sally gets to Los Angeles, she wants to be somebody else and she wants to be a star and she’s doing everything she can to run away from her past in order to become this version of herself that she thinks she wants to be. And she works really hard to develop a thick veneer and become somebody else.
And then, because she’s not very involved and because she can’t afford therapy and she doesn’t know that much about herself and she looks to Gene Cousineau as her therapist and is unpacking her trauma in an acting class, which I would say is not a safe setting to do, she slowly starts to use her own trauma as a currency. And there is this competitive grief and competitive suffering that goes on in acting classes that we really try to play on in season 1 and season 2. Sally, in a way, because she’s been through the most, it makes her the best actor.
It’s a complicated thing. Because the worst thing in your past that has caused you the most grief is giving you the most attention and making you the best in the present moment. And Sally, again, because she’s not very self-aware, pushes that further and further until, finally, we see her in this position where she has got her own show about the most traumatic events in her past.
In my own life, I’m very different to Sally. My approach to acting is very different to Sally. I don’t use my personal trauma or my personal life in my work. Because, in a way, you’re commodifying your grief and, in a way, every time you return to that memory, you’ve chipped a little bit away from it. So I always try to move the character really far away from me and walk toward them and build up a story around them and their life rather than draw from my own past, because eventually you wear your own memories thin.
I think that Sally is in that place where she’s completely disassociated from her own trauma, and yet she’s about to display it to the world. So it puts her in a totally precarious position, and it puts her in a position where she can’t see right in front of her that she’s in another abusive relationship and in a pattern of trauma response in that relationship,
That’s a smart way of putting it, commodifying grief. The show plays with that specifically as it pertains to women. I’m thinking of how, in episode 4, Sally’s assistant, Natalie, reads the New York Times review and it says Joplin is “a show about women for women by women.” It’s fascinating seeing those real-life Hollywood archetypes play out with Sally, who is a very funny but at times not particularly sympathetic character.
On that note of sympathetic character, I’ve always said this is a show about morally bankrupt people, and I really didn’t want Sally to be exempted from that just because she’s the only female series regular. And while she’s not one of the murderers on the show, she is someone who behaves selfishly and is often making the wrong decisions because they’re more self-serving in the immediate.
We fought very hard to keep her in that gray area and not make her the likable character, the maternal character, the best friend everybody wants, the girlfriend, the sweet girlfriend. That’s the furthest thing from what we’re trying to do with her. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s what’s interesting to play.
At the end of episode 4, Sally does break up with Barry. But I want to talk about what happens in between her speech and the break-up. She’s on stage, talking about how deeply she loves him, and then her co-star tells her, “Sally, you’re dating a violent guy,” and she breaks up with him that same night. What happened in between?
I think she’s kind of in a dream state as it’s happening and, in the trauma response that she’s having, she’s not able to be active in any way or take care of herself or extricate herself from this situation. It takes this younger woman, who is the greenest person in the room, but happens to be the only one speaking up and speaking the truth, to snap her out of it.
Katie is her protege. Sally’s enjoying a dynamic where this young person worships her, but suddenly the person that worships her is holding up a really harsh mirror for her and she’s totally confronted, she’s totally caught off guard, and she’s just had the highest moment of her life, and then she’s hit with the most brutal honesty. I think it just snaps her right out of it, and she realizes in that moment what’s going on and that she has to get out immediately.
That’s the more evolved side of Sally. The less evolved side of Sally has always been with Barry because he makes her feel like a star, and he feeds her ego and he makes her feel incredible. And when she’s been down, he’s been the one to say she’s going to make it. Well tonight, in her mind, she’s made it, and he actually wasn’t there to witness it. And I think she decides, “You know what, I don’t need you anymore. Because everybody in the world actually loves me so I don’t need your love.” I would say that’s the darker side of Sally, and I would say both those things are happening for her in tandem at the end of that episode.
Eventually, she learns Joplin is canceled. This huge thing that she thought was going to sustain her is falling apart. Where, in your opinion, does that leave her?
I think she’s unraveling. I think that she got everything she wanted really quickly, and the rug has been pulled from under her just as fast. I think she’s emotionally fragile at the best of times, and I think this has pushed her into a new gear of emotional instability. And I think she goes through a few of the grief phases in the follow-up episodes, without giving anything away.
In the beginning, there’s a kind of shock, horror, absolute desperation. She screams at the head of her network, which is something she wouldn’t have done in the past because she’s too strategic. So she’s unraveling, I would say. And yet, she’s still very ambitious and I think she feels there’s been a wild injustice. In a way, there has, and in another way, that’s just the business. It happens a lot.
I’ve had the experience of being in a television series where we were due to start season 2 and our sets were on the road from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and we’d had a whole year being picked up, and two weeks before shooting, they pulled the plug. It’s a devastating experience. You’ve got your heart set on something, and you think it’s going to be one thing and then there’s a corporate decision that ends your dreams. For Sally, for somebody who’s emotionally unwell at the best of the times, it’s a dangerous piece of news.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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