Film Peaks: Who’s Afraid of Sally Reed?

Reflecting on the character of Sally Reed in ‘Barry’ and her attempts to find artistic meaning in her trauma.

Photograph by Merrick Morton/ HBO

Midway through the final episode of the third season of Barry, Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) is about to be choked to death. 

It’s not the first time Sally’s been choked. In fact, being choked is kind of Sally’s whole “thing” lately. Sally is attempting to take an extremely traumatic event from her past — being strangled by her ex-husband, Sam (Joe Massingill) — and construct a little corner of the artistic world out of it. Lemons made into lemonade, and all that. 

When called to write and perform a scene about a pivotal moment in her life for her beloved acting class, Sally chooses to write about being choked. Sally remembers the choking being the catalyst for her storming out of her marital home for good. She even remembers getting the final word in: “You wanna choke me, you coward? Well choke on this, I’m out of here.” 

When she first casually mentions her abusive ex-husband to her new boyfriend, Barry (Bill Hader), it’s with a shrug. That was ages ago. It was a different time, she was a different person — young and naive. (I know this move, I have used it myself. This is also code for “it was a little my fault”, and code for “if I had been less soft and trusting, maybe he wouldn’t have done all this to me in the first place”). 

Besides, Sally seems to posit, being choked ultimately is what caused her to leave her husband. Being choked ultimately was the spark for the monologue that gave Sally her first meaningful break into the industry. Being choked ultimately gave Sally the chance to be the showrunner of and star in a television show — that gets a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, no less! 

Except none of these things are totally true, or at least not as nice as they sound. And none of this really matters when, after all of these tiny wins have come and gone, an intruder looking for Barry finds Sally instead, and attempts to squeeze the life out of her. 

An oft-clung-to idea following a traumatic event is that you learned something from it, or that good things happened in the aftermath. Without this subjugation, abuse, and degradation, we suggest, I wouldn’t be the woman I am before you now — earning 98% on the Tomatometer for my show! Choke on this, you coward!

This narrative is palatable. At first, Sally even seems to enjoy writing her original version of the recollection for her class. “Honestly, this has kinda been therapeutic!” she chirps to Barry while working on the first draft. 

But almost immediately, Sally’s attempts at a sunny disposition get clouded by reality. It turns out that Sally has misremembered the event. A call to her friend shades in a much different image of her final night — there was no final grand speech. Instead, Sally came to her friend’s home with a welted neck, and the two of them rushed through her house to pack up and leave while Sally’s ex-husband was passed out drunk on the floor. 

Sally tries to push back against her friend’s recollection. (Because who wouldn’t? Because that ruins everything; from the little scene you’re trying to write for your class to the very narrative you relied on to survive the last few years). Sally tries to get her friend to agree that she told Sam to “choke on this,” but now it all sounds wrong. The line sounds like something that would come from a Marvel hero, not a panicked woman. 

But Sally shakes it off. She accepts that she’s just going to have to lie during her scene, and starts the deception by lying to her boyfriend Barry about her friend’s reality check. “I feel like if I tell this story I have to do it a hundred percent honestly, you know?” Sally nods solemnly next to Barry in bed. “And she basically remembers it exactly the same way I do.” She seems to be trying to convince herself as much as Barry. 

But this doesn’t work (denial only does for so long, most of the time), so Sally pivots, and tries to tell the truth in her scene instead. “I thought it’d be different, or I thought I’d be different,” she tries to explain to Barry about her inadvertent misremembering, her accidental rewrite of the truth. Sally explains that she stayed, and that she held Sam, and that she loved the process of the apology. 

When Sally commits to the truth in her scene, she begins to be choked once again. This time around, it’s pretend. It’s done on her cue, by Barry, her scene partner and boyfriend and a man she knows and trusts. With this new context, Sally repeats and repeats an interaction she once had no control over in an attempt to make it her own. She guides Barry’s hand to the same place, leads his fingers to the same pressure points. She practices the stage choking obsessively, again and again, even when it makes Barry uncomfortable, even when she has to scream and shove and hit to get him to do it. 

Photograph by Merrick Morton/ HBO

Sally is committed to the truth only until she’s in front of a big room of important industry people, and then she just can’t do it. She opts for the strong “fuck you” version that she never got to really say, as her agent cringes and Barry flounders at the improvisation. (I describe this scene a lot of different ways in different drafts. I write first that Sally “wimped out”, that she “threw other women who stayed under the bus.” But these descriptors reflect my own internalized misogyny. Because I don’t like telling the truth about my shit either. I have never had a “choke on this” moment, and often yearn that I did. So I understand that Sally just can’t tell the truth. It’s not evil, it just happens). 

This muddied truth, this somewhere in between, ends up getting Sally the show of her dreams. This turns out to be far from a victorious end. Instead, Sally becomes cruel to those she deems below her. Barry, the man she loved and trusted, screams at her on set, in front of everyone who works for her, and in return she cleans the house and special orders dinner for him — back to the old ways. (Sometimes, when yet another person fucks you up or fucks you over, it is hard not to think that this is a problem with your own taste and intuition, like maybe something inside you has gone all haywire along the way and you’re bringing these people upon yourself). 

Everything Sally was “given” from her first traumatic event, is in turn messed up or taken away. She leaves the husband only to find a new abusive dud of a man. She moves from Joplin, Missouri only to be broke, stressed, and often cruelly opportunistic to no avail in Los Angeles. She writes a monologue in hopes of finding catharsis in truth only to land a TV series by leaning into a lie. And then, to top it all off, her show gets canceled shortly after its premiere. Even Sally’s palatable, tidied up version of being choked isn’t connected with the studio’s coldhearted, algorithmic “taste clusters.” 

So the skipping town to find her dreams, the narrative lie turned narrative truth turned narrative lie again, the television show— none of that really matters. The series is dead on arrival, the next boyfriend dumped because he’s an asshole like the last, and Sally is here, being choked to death in a shitty DIY audition room in some unemployed actor’s apartment — left only with the act of violence that started it all.

Her response to this choking starts the same in a lot of ways. Sally fights the man off with one of the most grotesque moves of the entire series, plunging a knife into his neck with such force that he bleeds from his eyes. Disgusting, maybe, but not special in terms of Sally’s response. This is the moment of self-defense, the moment of skittering out as quickly as possible — where most of Sally’s abusive events begin and end. This is the same Sally that packed her clothes in a rush, the same Sally sitting politely at dinner with her abuser when he comes to visit in LA, the same Sally awkwardly brushing off Barry’s screaming meltdown on set. This is where Sally usually stops. 

Not this time, though. As the man staggers back, moaning about the pain in his eye, too shocked to process the knife deep in his neck, Sally follows him into the soundproofed voiceover booth behind them. She trails a metal baseball bat behind her, a harkening back to her conversation with her friend, who recalls bringing a bat to protect them when she helped Sally escape from Sam (“Like that was gonna do any good,” her friend muses about their weapon of choice, a haunting foreshadowing). 

Here, Sally takes the path not yet traveled for her. She does not cower, or wait for the apology, or run out of the room, or order the dinner. Instead, she literally beats the life out of that fucker. And, even more thrillingly, we do not get to see or hear it. Aside from the first heavy swing and the guttural scream of “you motherfucking piece of shit” that begins as the door shuts, we hear and see none of the damage Sally inflicts — only her small body and her makeshift weapon wailing downward. 

There is no peppy soundbite. No girlboss, superhero power stance. None of the cultural images and practices that Sally clung to so desperately for so long. All of those failed her over and over, anyways. There is only rage and pain and adrenaline in Sally’s latest performance as a choked victim. 

Sally takes down her final perpetrator not through optimism or art or structured healing or therapeutic closure, but through brutality and vengeance. In a twisted way, it’s finally her own moment. And there will be no narrativization, there will be no introspective television spec script or acting class monologue about this moment. Instead, Sally gets to do what so many don’t want to admit they fantasize about, what so many claim they are above longing for — she gets to viciously retaliate, she gets to kill, she gets to do the impossible and win against the person who fucked with her. 

It is not necessarily cathartic to watch Sally kill her assailant. If anything, it’s a settling of the score, a sigh of It’s about time. 

Though all this is not the total truth, either. Because as she begins to slow down her attack, Barry drags Sally from the room, holding her face between his hands and forcing her to repeat again and again that he did this. He did this, not her. She was never even there. 

It’s an attempt on Barry’s part at a helpful gesture. He’ll take the blame. It’s protective, it’s reasonable, it’s maybe even sacrificial. But once again, a man’s actions leave Sally untethered, with no say in what has happened, and a memory already turning mushy — just like the first time around. 

But this is not what matters about this scene, not to me at least. What matters is that in taking three of being choked, in Sally’s ultimate, grand performance, she finally gets the final word in, and does so in righteous, violent, lizard-brain fashion. 

And while Barry may muddy the waters when he works to change the memory, all that matters is that Sally’s already gotten her final say in. There’s no need for some crappy acting exercise or shitty showcase or bland television show or epiphany about how much she’s grown and learned. 

Because there’s no lemonade to be made, and there never has been. These awful moments are not meant to be turned positive — in fact, that would imply they should have happened in the first place. Kicking the shit out of someone who hurt you without care may not be the prettiest coping mechanism, but when I watch Sally do it with a certain unhinged desperation, it feels like it’s probably the most reasonable response she’s had so far. 

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