[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for Barry Season 4, Episode 5, “tricky legacies.”]
There’s a vicious, monkey’s paw irony in “tricky legacies,” the fifth episode of Barry’s fourth season. Since the series premiere, both Barry (Bill Hader) and Sally (Sarah Goldberg) have been trying to reimagine their identities. He wants to cast himself as an uncomplicated hero instead of a brutal serial killer, and she wants to slip into the skin of a confident, self-sufficient woman who’s never been abused by her ex or emotionally abandoned by her parents. They’ve both assumed acting was the gateway to a new life, believing they’d be free if they could just master the art of being someone else. And now, as the series jumps eight years into the future, they are living a pitch-dark version of that dream.
Barry and Sally have fled from Los Angeles and bought a house on a flat, featureless prairie that resembles the childhood home where Barry lived when he first met Fuches (Stephen Root). They’ve changed their names to Clark and Emily, and they’ve got a son named John (Zachary Golinger) who loves his dad more than anything. They’re so removed from their past lives that when she goes to work as a diner waitress, Sally wears a brown wig and uses a molasses-thick southern accent, while Barry hangs around the house in Clark Kent spectacles that suggest he pulled his pseudonym from a comic book.
In other words, they’re both giving full-time performances. For Barry, this is working out pretty well. After all, he’s more than just a lead character in this charade: He’s also the playwright. He gets to control every aspect of his identity, and he gets to raise a son who will only see the father that Barry wants him to see. In the first scene of this episode, Barry walks John across their field to atone for punching a neighbor boy. He uses a calm voice and a gentle demeanor, like something out of Norman Rockwell, and when he prompts the kid to apologize, John doesn’t say “sorry dude” or whatever else a third grade boy might say. He says, “I hope we can be together next time in harmony.” It’s a line his father has written for him.
This is part of Barry’s pageantry of goodness, in which people live respectable, anti-hitman lives by never getting mad or doing anything violent. He commits to this narrative more intensely as the episode goes on. For instance, when John gets interested in playing baseball, Barry shows him YouTube videos of little kids breaking their necks while they chase fly balls. It’s a way to make his son avoid anything that smacks of aggression. (It’s also a chance for some deliciously sick jokes. The “suggested videos” on the side rail of these YouTube clips have flawless titles.)
Barry also tries to teach John lessons about true heroism, mostly by showing him Abe Lincoln explainers on YouTube. But when he stumbles across a video that says Lincoln was problematic, he shuts the entire project down. Instead, he hauls out his old military medals and paints a picture of himself as the ideal hero his son should admire. They’re talking about this in front of their house, and mid-speech Barry makes them move from the steps to the porch swing for maximum wholesome impact. Like any good playwright, he’s willing to revise.
How fitting that Barry’s lessons circle back to his personal mythology. He may still hide guns in the walls and stand vigil all night in the yard if he hears something rustling outside, but he feels he’s finally bent the theater to his will. No wonder he’s got a paunch that hangs over his belt: He’s feasting on his own perfect story.
If Sally felt the same way, then there’d be nothing left to see. Barry and she could star in the Clark and Emily Chronicles for as long as they wanted. However, Sally’s disintegrating inside her wig. In what may be the best single performance of her career-making run on this series, Sarah Goldberg shows us the cost of living inside Barry’s fantasy world, where her remarkable gifts as an actress are threatening to tear her apart.
And Sally’s acting really is something. In her scenes at the diner, Sally-as-Emily nails the “hey hon, what’ll it be?” energy of a veteran server at a greasy spoon. And when she slips off to smoke cigarettes and pop a Xanax with a coworker, she’s got the slouched, weary affect of a hard-working woman who’s ready to gossip with a friend. But it isn’t the truth. Not the accent. Not the posture. Not the phony details about Clark’s sick mother staying at the house. It speaks volumes about Sally’s hunger for validation that she’s figured out how to make her phony self so popular at work.
We also see what she’s doing when nobody’s watching: She’s stealing money from the register and pounding a bottle of cheap vodka in a gas station parking lot while Barry drones through her cell phone about Honest Abe. While Barry has slipped completely inside Clark’s skin, Sally keeps pushing out of Emily’s, desperate and depressed. When she isn’t numbing her pain, she’s punishing herself by watching videos of her frenemy Natalie (D’Arcy Carden), who’s now the star of a cupcake-themed sitcom that the president references in the State of the Union address. She’s obviously on the verge of an explosion, and her unhappiness is the biggest threat to her family’s domestic drama.
In a chilling scene, Sally finally drops the act altogether. Or really, she drops multiple acts at once. After weeks of getting hit on by Bevel (Spenser Granese), a shady cook at the diner, she drags him into the bathroom for a hook-up under fluorescent lights. But while they’re making out, something in her snaps. She wraps her hands around the guy’s neck and squeezes so hard he gets terrified. He claws at her head until he pulls off her wig, exposing her blond hair. Then he runs out of the bathroom and leaves Sally to avoid looking at herself in the mirror.
In that bathroom, Sally not only quits acting like Emily, but also quits acting like Sally, the competent but insecure woman who can actually exist in the world. Instead, she reveals the feral version of herself that last appeared at the end of Season 3, when she killed an attacker. But this time, no one was trying to hurt her. This time, her self-control just slipped off her body like that wig, and she let her dark side take over. She became the abuser instead of the abused. She became a fountain of rage.
This is what social performances are supposed to hide. On some level, all of us have to be actors, suppressing our basest instincts. But by stripping Sally of her civilized costume, Barry suggests acting is a futile coping mechanism. No matter how many wigs we wear or how many stories we tell the kids about our past, we cannot stop being who we are.
“tricky legacies” ends with the announcement that Gene (Henry Winkler) is helping a movie studio adapt Barry’s life for the screen. Suddenly, the past comes crashing into Barry and Sally’s play, reminding them that they can’t control their stories after all. Sally calls Barry by his real name. Barry says he has to kill Gene. Just like that, the eight-year production closes and the characters go back to reality.
Barry airs Sundays at 10:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Barry, HBO, Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg