a long talk

‘How Far Can We Push This Character?’

Sarah Goldberg bids farewell to Barry and Sally Reed after four “elastic” seasons.

“We went as far as we could go. But there was no limit on it.” Photo: HBO
“We went as far as we could go. But there was no limit on it.” Photo: HBO

Spoilers follow for the Barry series finale, “wow.”

In Barry, Sally Reed often had to scream to be heard. But in the series finale, she leaves us with something new: a quiet smile. With Barry (Bill Hader) shot dead by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and a decade further into the future, Sally has made great strides to rehabilitate her life with her son, John, in a small town as a high-school theater teacher. She might not be back on the BanShe streaming service with another hit show for its algorithm — or ever acting professionally again, for the matter — but she’s still doing something she loves for a community of people who’ve welcomed her. That ending is fulfilling enough for Sarah Goldberg, who admits she was nervous Sally wouldn’t make it out of the show alive.

“The story wraps up where it needs to,” Goldberg tells me. “It’s difficult when there’s a crime story. You don’t want to get to a place where it’s ridiculous. You don’t want to get stuck in a corner. I felt like we ended in a really solid place.” That place, for Sally, is returning to her true identity and passion after years of living as a fugitive with her family, even if all of the trauma she and John experienced still lingers in the air — and in Hollywood as a big-screen biopic.

One thing I’ve been thinking all season is how much of a departure Barry has taken from its initial conceit. Has this been challenging to reckon with at times?
It’s been thrilling because so many long-running series have no choice but to repeat themselves. That was something Bill Hader and Alec Berg were adamant about not doing. I was really excited by how far they were willing to push things, and the series takes so many big swings. The tone is really elastic throughout the whole show. We started knowing we signed up for a comedy, but within the comedic tone, there was obviously some devastating drama. Even in the first season when Barry kills Chris, for example. None of that was played for laughs. It was devastating. So I knew from season one, Okay, this is a show that can hold a lot. Then they pushed that boat out further as we went on. We were all up to the challenge.

From season one, I knew I wanted to go full A Woman Under the Influence. How far can we push this character? I always saw Sally as a broken, damaged soul with huge drive, ambition, and chutzpah. But these cracks from her past were always leaking through. I was waiting for the full intersection of the person she was trying to be — avalanched by the person she was or is. That all comes to a head this season. As actors, I think we were all really grateful for Barry’s variation. It was never boring.

Was there a limit to how far you wanted to push Sally?
We went as far as we could go. But there was no limit on it. That was never discussed. We wanted to go as bleak and dark as we could. I think it’s pretty risky to do that in a show that has relied so heavily on comedy for its tone.

Did Sally do anything that made you laugh this season?
It was an accidental find on-set, which was in episode four in the Mega Girl studio, after Sally is trying to help Kristen fix her speech. In that moment she starts the speech and realizes she can feel eyes on the back of her head, and she’s like, Oh, maybe this is going quite well. When she turns around to give the audition of her career, Bill realized the way the camera was positioned, if I just took a step to the right, I completely eclipsed Kristen. Even though Ellyn Jameson, who’s brilliant in that role, is a foot taller than me. It was this perfect, final narcissistic moment of the old Sally that we lose in the second half of the season, of someone taking their big chance. Everyone was laughing so hard at the monitor and I didn’t know why.

But there’s not a lot of laughs for Sally. I didn’t really get many jokes.

Sally's disappearing act from episode four. HBO.
Sally's disappearing act from episode four. HBO.

Noho Hank astutely assesses why Sally was drawn to Barry. He tells her, “You were in a bad place and you felt like he was the only one who could help you.” I know the promise of safety has been a constant source of importance to Sally. Do you think there was anyone else who could’ve helped her besides Barry?
I don’t think Sally feels that there was, and that’s why she went to him in utter desperation at the end of episode four. And then, again, trying to seek him in the finale. They’ve been so isolated in their lives and she doesn’t have anybody real in her life because she’s been living a lie. It’s not as though she has a friend to call. All of her bridges have been burned from the past. I feel like there was an opportunity before the time jump where she could have tried to seek solace somewhere healthier. Maybe her agent Lindsay would’ve been there for her, or Gene if she tried. But no, I think she felt Barry was the only one who had witnessed her crime and witnessed her most animal self, and he chose to love her anyway. In his convoluted version of love, I suppose; it’s not real love at all. But for her, it felt like some kind of security.

She wants to feel safe, but she wants to escape. She’s always wanted to escape. Coming to Los Angeles was an escape. Being an actress was an escape. Barry is someone who can fulfill this final great escape. Then they have this horror show of a life together that’s built on lies, alcoholism, and false religion. By the end, she has nowhere to go. We know she can’t go to her parents. We know there’s no one in Joplin. It’s not as though she did a good job of forging long-lasting friendships in Los Angeles, because she used people up. There’s nobody left. We had these conversations around how much Sally knows at this point, even about Barry. Obviously she knows about Janice, but how much in their eight years on the run did she learn about his life? How much did he hide?

What did you settle on?
There’s this tiny thing. It wasn’t scripted. When Sally and her son have just been kidnapped, Hank’s walking out of the room and I shout, “Hank,” and he turns around and looks at me and I say, “What’s going to happen to us?” I wanted to throw in saying his name as this tiny thing of Sally knowing who he is. They’ve never met in the entire series. Even when I watched that scene with us, I was like, “I don’t know if this works,” but I wanted a tiny nod to Sally knowing Barry’s whole history at this point.

There was a pitch for season two that Hank and Sally were going to end up in a Pilates class together. I’m so sad we didn’t, because it would’ve been nice to have more time on set with Anthony Carrigan.

While the family was living as fugitives, Sally was still always playing a “role”: She even had a wig to separate herself from this character Emily. In the finale, she admits that she’s a bad mother. Why didn’t she want to play the role of a good one?
She never wanted to become a mother. I’ve tried for the life of me to imagine her labor, her birth, and I just can’t picture it. I feel like she just took all the drugs and all the booze and zoned out for that whole experience. Having a child would’ve been Barry’s agenda. Sally had such a complicated relationship with her own mother and her big goal was to become an actress and an artist. I don’t think parenthood was something that entered the equation for her. I think it had been slightly forced on her. Going back to the “role,” she’s in an abusive relationship again. A different type of abuse, but abuse nonetheless. She has chosen this path as a last option and it’s a miserable one. She’s totally addicted to alcohol at this point.

The fact that she chooses to play a role was really a lovely touch. The Emily character — putting on the wig, the nails, and the accent — it’s a bit unnecessary where they are. She could probably go to work with her own voice and hair and not be recognized. Or why hasn’t she dyed her hair, or shaved her hair off? It was something we all developed together because it felt like it’s the last piece of who she used to be: “If I’m going to be trapped in this life, I’m going to get on stage every day and give my best Meryl Streep.” Episode five has a feel of Paris, Texas that the rhythm of the whole show slows down. Even within Sally, she’s slowed down. She’s somebody who’s historically a fast talker and verbose character, and suddenly everything is semi-monosyllabic. She’s slowed down her internal rhythm as well. The last little piece of living she’s doing is playing Emily. It’s the last thing giving her any oxygen. She’s not getting anything out of parenthood. The rejection of the son is also a rejection of Barry and this lie they’re living.

The one thing Sally has never been is a hypocrite. She says things as she sees them and feels them. That’s gotten her in a lot of trouble in the past and made her an asshole at times. But she’s not a calculated person. She says what she means and follows through on what she intends to do. Barry is living a totally hypocritical life, pretending to be somebody good, decent, and God-fearing. She knows it’s a pile of bullshit. If they could drop the façade of this family, maybe she could work toward being a better mother, which is where we ultimately get to when she’s able to be truthful.

How can she know how to love this child? She comes from a loveless family. She’s in a loveless, fake marriage. She doesn’t love herself. Where was the language going to develop to become a good parent? John is a living manifestation of the biggest mistakes she’s ever made in her life. It’s impossible not to reject him.

I feel bad for that wonderful child actor, who had to be immersed in this psychologically intense family narrative. How did you two approach that mother-son moment of reckoning before the shoot-out?
He did so well. Sometimes on set, when you’re working with a kid, you want them to have fun and be a kid when the cameras aren’t rolling. That’s the tone on the Barry set, anyway. We tend to keep things buoyant. There was no way to go method or sustain Emily off-screen. It was a relief to have a kid around for it all, because they’re naturally so present. You suddenly feel a bit of responsibility for setting a good example when there’s a kid on set. I think we all did. We were all trying to keep things joyful for him.

For that final scene, we got to such a place of trust in Barry as an ensemble. Everybody is so relaxed. You didn’t have to prepare all that much because you could trust that something will happen between action and cut. I almost had to not think about it ahead of time to not put pressure on it. The key to this scene is: It’s the only time in four seasons of Sally that she’s 100 percent authentic, honest, and speaks the truth. It’s the only moment everything is dropped because she thinks she’s going to die. There’s no point in lying anymore. Most of what she’s saying is an in-the-moment realization. That was another reason not to prepare for it. I mean, I looked at the script and learned the lines. I’m someone who loves rehearsal, but this needed something else.

When she says she’s not a good person, she means it, and she only realizes it then. It’s sad that at the end of life, she wishes maybe she had at least tried to be a good mother. She’s looking at this kid like, “You’ve come from all this ugliness. You’ve come from a serial killer and a broken person and you’re actually all right. How the hell did that happen?” All those things are happening at once.

How do you envision Sally’s life in those in-between years before we see her again as a theater teacher? I’d estimate it’s about a decade?
I was curious: Why doesn’t she try to help Gene get out of jail because she knows the truth about Barry and the film that gets created? I talked to Bill about it. We came up with this idea that she did try. She tried to say something, but nobody would take her seriously or believe it. That was one option. Another option is she’s choosing her son. If she gets implicated and the murder she committed comes out, perhaps he’s going to be left an orphan. Those were two paths we talked about. Ultimately, I imagined life became a lot quieter for her, in a nice way. Underneath it all, there were shades of Sally that were narcissistic and ruthlessly ambitious, but there were also parts of Sally that were pure and artistic. She had integrity. She doesn’t opt for a podcast or a reality show, or when she’s asked to make compromises for a script for Joplin, she won’t. She’s a mix of all things and that’s what made her such a joy to play.

Her absolute passion for acting and theater comes out, and she’s able to do it in a context where she’s not a movie star. She’s not rich and famous, but she’s getting to do what she loves and that’s actually enough. I love that there’s this simplicity and purity of passion, I thought that was so lovely. We still sprinkle in a piece of the old Sally, which is when she’s saying good-bye to her son, and she’s like, “Was it good?” She still needs the validation. It’s like her child is now playing Barry’s role of buoying her up and saying, “Come on, you know it was good. It always is.” She needs that external validation, even in this small-town high-school production of Our Town. I thought it was a poetic end for our gal Sal. I was wondering, “Am I going to get a dramatic death? Am I going to kill Barry? ” And it was such a simple end. I was moved by it. We did her right.

Sally’s final scene is in her car, driving alone, and admiring her bouquet of flowers. She struck me as being content. What was the direction you were given there? And how would you characterize where Sally is in her future life?
I think “content” was the exact word. Bill used the word “content” to me. When the history teacher asks her on a date, I love that as a penultimate scene because it validates how she’s really done with men. We’ve seen her on such a bumpy ride with these terrible relationships and she’s happy, in a sweet way, to just say no to a date. I thought, “Good for you, Sally.” Then in the car, we actually pared it down even further. There was another beat where a love song comes on the radio, and she rejects the song and switches the radio off and then looks at the flowers. We went even simpler with it. It’s not an Oscar in the chair next to her. It’s a bouquet of drugstore flowers at best. Maybe supermarket flowers if the students splurged. It’s such a simple thing, but she is fulfilled.

That wasn’t the last thing I shot. The last thing I shot was that penultimate scene in the snow. But this was one of my last days, and we knew it would be my final Barry scene. For all of our final shots, there was a kind of quiet that took over. It was just a soft, calm, and quiet day on set. The direction was really just contentment and enjoying this quiet ride alone home. I can’t believe she almost has a happy ending.

The act of redemption was something that followed Barry throughout the season, with Sally even telling him the only way he can be redeemed is by taking responsibility for his actions. Did Sally have anything she needed to redeem for herself, and was she successful in doing it?
She needed to redeem herself for being such a terrible, absent, and abusive mother. I mean, she’s giving her kid vodka. She needed to rise to the occasion. That boy didn’t choose to exist and now he’s left without a dad. I think she steps into the role of a good enough mother. We’ve got that final scene and he says, “I love you.” And her response is, “Was my show good?” Instead of, “I love you, too.” I don’t think she’s winning any awards for the mother she’s become, but she’s done the best she possibly could have under the circumstances.

In terms of her having murdered someone, it’s complex because that’s a scenario she never would’ve gotten in if it weren’t for Barry. A true “wrong place, wrong time” situation. She killed him in self-defense. Yes, then she takes it too far and gets the bat out, which suggests another side to her that’s more vicious. But in that moment, she’s lost all sense of reality and she’s in a pure animal state. All the rage in her life is coming out at once and she’s in fear. I would leave that one up to the audience to decide if she redeemed herself for that murder. And she was pretty horrible to some of her peers, particularly Natalie. I hope somewhere in the second time jump she wrote Natalie an apology card. I don’t know if she did, but we can dream for her. It’s the least she could do.

The show’s final shot is Barry’s son absorbing this revisionist film history about the life of his father being a hero. I’m curious how you interpreted it. Does he believe what he’s seeing? And do you think Sally encouraged this line of thought?
I think he knows it’s not true, but he’s relieved there’s a positive message out in the world. He’s potentially willing to choose the lie. The reason I don’t think he believes it’s real is because of the whole sequence of them escaping the bloodshed between the gangs. He’ll remember that and it plays so differently to what actually happened. His father was not this big hero on that day. You can see it in his face for just a brief second, that he’s recalling, “Oh, that’s not how I remembered that happening.” It’s a beautiful, subtle performance.

First of all, she never let her son watch the movie. That’s why he’s having to sneak away to a sleepover to see it. But secondly, I don’t think that’s something she would encourage in the household. She’s not letting Barry live on a heroic pedestal. If anything, she’s avoiding it all. I don’t think she’s evolved enough at this point to be in family therapy and get to the bottom of everything. Maybe they’ll get there, but I would imagine she would be more like, “We don’t talk about your father,” or, “Your father was a complicated man.” She did tell John before the shootout, “He was in jail because he killed a lot of people and he’s a murderer.” She told him the truth as a child. I wonder how many times he’s asked her since then and she’ll say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I don’t think there’s an open discussion between them, but there’s not a sugarcoated version, either. She really cut him out of their lives. I don’t think there’s a photo of Barry in the house.

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