As a character, Sally Reed has always been defined by the tricky line she walks between genuine talent and a total lack of self-awareness. She wants to be successful and share her own story, especially if it will help other partners in abusive relationships — but she’s never had the perspective to step outside herself and understand how she comes across. (Case in point: When her co-star Katie is awestruck by her writing chops, Sally responds, “Writing? Oh, it’s easy!”)
Sally’s obliviousness has been played for comedy until now, even as season two considerably deepened her character. But it becomes a source of drama in “Limonada” when we learn that her relationship with Barry is not the same as the romance we once watched unfold.
It becomes clear when Barry visits Sally at work. He’s at the height of mania, delusionally exhilarated by all that giving Gene’s career a shot in the arm could represent. When his girlfriend shuts down the possibility, she’s justified, even if she is a bit callous about it, a bit too focused on herself. But Barry … does not react well to being told no. Watch the slow zoom out as he realizes he’s not going to get what he wants (a reminder of how indispensable Hader has become as a director). At first, he’s just sullen, but his frustration quickly escalates into a tantrum when Sally tells him they both want Gene to be happy, that they’re saying the same thing.
“WE ARE NOT SAYING THE SAME THING!” Barry bellows, the loudness intensified by the wrongness of its setting. “IF I DON’T DO THIS, I DON’T LIVE. I HAVE TO DO THIS TO FUCKING LIVE.” Sally can’t do anything but giggle in response, prompting Barry to get right in her face, practically pinning her against the wall as he commands her to do what he says. Sally doesn’t cave, but you get the sense that she lost the battle anyway.
It’s hard to know when it happened — these things are usually gradual — but at some point, Barry’s rage became normalized. While thrown and clearly triggered on a subconscious level, Sally’s reaction to Barry is surprisingly casual. This might not have ever happened at her workplace, but it feels like it has happened before. You don’t spend that long in a relationship without seeing the red flags, even if you refuse to look at them closely.
While the obvious writing choice would be for Barry’s fury to set off alarm bells, Alec Berg and Hader’s script goes the richer, more complicated route. Sometimes when you’ve been through a particular experience, you automatically think you understand that experience inside and out — and Sally is so well-acquainted with being screamed at by a man that it barely fazes her in the moment. On some level, she knows this is different from just getting in an argument with your boyfriend. But no prior trauma can prepare you for it to happen again.
It’s one of the most disturbing scenes of the whole show, full stop, and it features no physical violence. And that’s only the second scene. This is an episode that never lets up, relentlessly pushing forward with the brutal aftermath of Barry and Gene’s confrontation in the premiere. Essentially, Barry has the idea that if Gene starts acting again, it’ll give him a purpose the same way it gave Barry a purpose. And if he can just bring Gene a modicum of peace and joy, it’ll be enough to earn that forgiveness he’s always dreamed of. (Narrator: It will not be enough.) Not just from Gene, but from the other people he’s hurt and from himself. “Everybody deserves a second chance,” he insists later in the episode. “That’s not how it works,” a casting director replies.
As Barry goes around advocating for Gene, he meets person after person who can’t help him — or won’t. The Gene of the ’80s was a true asshole, and stories about his various offenses haunt his career to this day. It’s fascinating to observe the differences in the way men and women react to hearing Gene’s name. Casting director Allison Jones immediately shuts down the possibility of giving him a role, still justifiably angry about his very public and very misogynistic comments about her. The male casting directors mostly just laugh about it, and it doesn’t take much to sway them into finally giving both Gene and Barry parts on Laws of Humanity (though Gene’s doesn’t have any lines).
Barry finally convinces them by delivering a monologue about what Gene meant to him: Barry was a lost soul before he met Gene, who made him a better actor and a better man. There’s a lot of truth in it, but it’s also a cynical move, the words directly taken from Gene’s plea to let him live earlier that day. That’s what this relationship is like now: There’s still some residual love and gratitude there, especially on Barry’s side, but they coexist with the ironic truth that one of these men destroyed the other’s life.
That’s clearer than ever in the fascinating final scene, which features another chilling threat from Barry, this time in a much lower, calmer register. After a messy but successful escape attempt, Gene has arrived home to find that Barry’s already there. The moment Gene’s son Leo leaves the room, Barry delivers his news about the part — then he secures Gene’s temporary silence by explicitly threatening his family’s lives. It’s the second rock bottom in an episode of rock bottoms for Barry. But it keeps going: Barry repeats his earlier assertion that he loves Gene, then asks if Gene loves him too. The slow, careful nod Henry Winkler gives, in arresting close-up, communicates so much. And again, there’s that duality: Barry is being genuine about how he feels, but it’s absurd to ask Gene to return that affection considering the circumstances.
Standing in stark contrast to these twisted manifestations of “love” are NoHo Hank and Cristobal, whose scenes together depict a love that’s full of warmth and comfort, something sorely missing from the other relationships on Barry. (Somehow, the text conversation of the two discussing making sangria, which I paused to read, almost made me tear up.) Their scenes are such a necessary balm, even when there’s conflict — and “Limonada” certainly introduces some new obstacles for California’s cutest mob boss couple.
First off: Cristobal has a wife and kids back in Bolivia! His father-in-law, Fernando, flies in this week to take care of business. He wants to decimate the Chechens so that Cristobal can return home — but Bolivia isn’t home anymore for Cristobal. Hank is home. Luckily, he manages to warn Hank about the incoming ambush before Fernando’s battalion shows up. But this problem isn’t going away, even if Cristobal thinks staying away from Hank will protect him. I love the idea of telling a Romeo & Juliet story with these guys, though hopefully with a different resolution.
Still, for me, this episode all comes back to Sally, who may very well be in an abusive relationship without realizing it — while she’s living her dream telling stories about abuse on TV. Watching her make Barry a nice meal and apologize to him on the phone as if she did something wrong is as sickening in its own way as the other two big Barry moments in this episode. And watching Barry share his news about Laws of Humanity like nothing happened is excruciating.
“I will never, ever be with a violent man again,” Sally said once last season. It was a cruelly ironic statement even then, considering what we knew about Barry, but at that point, she hadn’t yet been on the receiving end. The line plays as even more devastating in retrospect, now that we know Barry’s anger has become a regular (if unacknowledged) element in their relationship. The question now is how long it’ll take for Sally to see it.
• No Fuches this week, but I don’t really mind. His story feels like a slow burn at this point in the season.
• Sally learns that there’s another show with similar themes to Joplin, entitled Pam! As a result, Sally’s premiere is getting moved up, so I anticipate seeing that in the next week or two.
• Katie tries to talk to a couple of coworkers about what happened in the office, but there are very few options. Reporting Barry to HR or the police wouldn’t accomplish anything since he didn’t hit or threaten Sally. “They’re adults, and I like my job,” one writer puts it bluntly. It’s such an incisive scene — both as a critique of Hollywood’s culture of silence and as a way of showing the different ways people talk about physical and emotional abuse.
• Sally: “People just don’t talk like that, in perfectly worded arguments.” One of her writers: “I would disagree with that assumption. Her naivete is a direct result of the history of subjugation of women by a draconian patriarchy.” Sally: “Right. Maybe we throw a few ‘um’s in there?”
• A hilariously timed gag: Fernando’s first appearance is preceded by him arguing with the soldier yanking on the car door while he’s trying to unlock it.