One of Mrs. America’s main challenges is we know how the story ends: we know Phyllis Schlafly effectively prevents the ERA from passing, and we know Ronald Reagan wins the 1980 election. We know how the tides turn politically—we’re living with the results. Not to mention the comparisons between Reagan’s campaign and win and Trump’s were far from subtle.
But Mrs. America has flouted the expectation of an obvious ending—I’ve found nearly every episode to be full of suspense and delightful surprises. Partly because of the years long gaps between episodes and the way episodes can span years, each episode recreates its narrative universe. New rules, shifts in power, and fashions appear every episode, but this one really takes the cake. The fact that it’s the one episode named after a man signals exactly that.
The way this episode starts is one such example. Phyllis has disguised herself to take the bar exam with a bunch of her smoking classmates, but is still accosted by an angry young feminist. It also helps that this episode does find subtlety in bringing back a lot of the familiar stories of the previous episodes, especially the pilot. Small wonder, considering that the directors of the pilot, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, return to finish what they started.
One is how Phyllis enters the room for her gala to celebrate the fact that the ERA is effectively dead. A fie on the unconstitutional three year extension of the deadline! Her entrance is a fascinating parallel to the walk she took in the premiere. In “Phyllis,” we saw her smile fall when she left the stage; now, there’s no such distinction between her inner and outer life. Phyllis has become all text and no sub—she is saying what she really thinks and feels. Or at least, she seems to believe the crock she’s spreading. And the women she preaches to come from far and wide to see her. John Sears (Brendan Halloran), who’s managing Reagan’s—or “Ron,” as everyone calls him—nomination, notes that a woman told him she’d scrimped and saved to come to see Phyllis talk.
Alice is unimpressed. Alice’s character doesn’t change too drastically from her 1977 self—although she, like the rest of the female characters, also has a fancy new ’do. She is, after all, still going to work with Phyllis and Rosemary on their anti-ERA campaign. But she’s also gone through some significant changes: She gets a job, is adamant about trying to defend Pamela (who indeed get pregnant again), and, in the biggest change of all, she confronts Phyllis at the gala. The eventual total breakdown of their friendship isn’t surprising. The awkwardness of Alice and Phyllis’ final interaction, when Alice drops off Phyllis’ youngest daughter, made me think of this tweet. When Alice tells Phyllis about her new job feeling “empowering,” Phyllis says, “You used to feel empowered by me.” “I used to feel scared,” replies Alice. The camera leaves Phyllis’ bluster and drives off with Alice, demonstrating that Phyllis is no longer the sympathetic party in her own story.
Right before Alice appears, Phyllis was actively trying to get out of what Fred clearly considered her motherly duty of picking up her daughter from school because she so obviously preferred to go to an event to meet Reagan. In the pilot, when Phyllis talks about wanting to run again, Fred is dismissive and Phyllis acquiesces. Now, instead of, say, asking Fred to go pick up their daughter himself, Phyllis turns to the other women in her life she uses. With Eleanor gone (presumably with the handsome stranger she meets at Phyllis’ gala), and it being too late to send her mother, Phyllis turns to yet another, less privileged woman—her cook Willie, whom she pressures her to forgo taking care of her own daughter for Phyllis’.
The loss of whatever sympathy Phyllis elicited in the first episode is straightforward: Phyllis now has power, and she enjoys using it, especially with the men in her life. She dismisses her husband’s suggestion that they endorse Phil Crane by saying yes to Reagan’s people, and dismisses Phil himself when he asks if she can put in a good word for him as a potential running mate with Reagan. She enjoys being surrounded by men who clearly think highly of her opinion and influence, and endorsing Reagan and showing her loyalty helps her maintain and even increase her standing.
In contrast, Bella and the women of the National Advisory Committee for Women are struggling to keep Carter’s attention. At Gloria’s suggestion, Bella makes a gamble to cancel their 15-minute meeting. “It’s what the men would do,” Gloria says. They’re rewarded with a two-hour meeting that goes swimmingly, a triumph—until Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (Daniel Beirne) unceremoniously fires Bella as head of the committee. “We can’t have the president jerked around by a bunch of women,” says one staffer. “Makes him look weak.” The scene is shockingly cruel, with Jordan barely hiding his smirk over Bella’s disappointment.
It doesn’t help that the next scene is of Phyllis sending a crowing telegram to Carter about his wonderful decision to fire Bella. Phyllis had always seethed over Bella’s successes, both jealous and fearful of Bella’s power. It’s not a surprise that she wrote a hateful little ditty for Bella in her gala. Phyllis’ hypocrisy is at full force, her lack of solidarity almost as cruel as Bella’s firing. Not to mention her incredible self-importance, that she would find her opinion so important that Carter would need to hear it.
Meanwhile, Jordan tries to install Carmen Delgado Votaw (Andrea Navedo, Xo from Jane The Virgin!) as the new head of the committee. As he tries to tell her about the press conference they’ll hold, she resigns, and one by one, so does a long line of women in the Committee. “We’re holding a press conference,” says Gloria. Carter’s going to have to fight for their votes this time.
He doesn’t fight hard enough—Reagan wins in a landslide. Of course, there’s a lot of other reasons he won and a lot of reasons why Carter lost. But the show mainly focuses on the fallout for our characters. There’s a clear parallel between Bella, Gloria, Betty, and Shirley’s reactions to the news and our own to Trump winning. (To be fair, anytime I watch an election night in a show or movie or what-have-you—even if it came out before 2016, I’ll remember that November night four years ago.) Bella knows Reagan’s going to turn back progress in this country. She tells Shirley—who maintains her position in the House of Representatives— “Hold the door for the next bunch.”
Betty and Gloria have a less congenial discussion about the election. They meet in a salon, where Betty is talking about her celebrity run (or “walk,” as Gloria clarifies for her) in the Hamptons. Gloria should’ve debated her, says Betty. “Now it’s going to be Phyllis Schlafly in the cabinet,” she adds. “She’s going to have the last word!”
“She is NOT going to have the last word,” says Gloria.
“The tide is turning against us in Washington,” warns Betty.
“Our movement didn’t stop in Washington. It’s not going to be stopped by it,” insists Gloria.
Gloria is preoccupied with this conversation when she leaves to give a talk. It reminds me of what happened after the 2016 election, when feminist writers like Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave talks that felt more like communal mourning sessions than lectures.
“Changing this will take a very long time,” says Gloria. (Sigh.) Finally, we have the last few minutes with our characters. Phyllis gets a call at home from Reagan. Fred is even more excited than Phyllis, seeming to have leaned into his role as Phyllis’s helpmate after Phyllis’ mother insisted she was anointed by God to do her work.
“Your coalition carried me across the finish line,” says Ron. But according to the actual numbers, he didn’t do that well with the ladies. “Seems I have a woman problem,” he says. When it comes to a position in his administration, he says, “It isn’t that you don’t deserve it. It’s that I can’t afford to upset the pro-ERA groups. You fought an important battle, but sometimes the battle follows us home.” As Phyllis’ face falls, Ron says he just wanted to say thank you before hanging up. “You were robbed,” says Fred. “You deserved a cabinet post.”
For the first time in a while, Phyllis is speechless. She looks out the window, and we see the pain on her face. She has a secret connection with the audience again, but now she has no one to complain to, no feminists to blame, no power to stir things up. I didn’t necessarily feel sympathy for her in that moment, though; the moment is so carefully calibrated that it feels inevitable. As if to say, Phyllis, what did you expect? You fought for an unjust world, why did you expect you’d be able to remain the exception? Because for all her bluster and meanness, she’s eroded away at exactly the feminist principles that would’ve gotten her what she wanted.
Fred asks her what time dinner is. Did you, like me, whisper the lines before she did? “It’s at 6. It’s always at 6.” As “Little Weaver Bird,” by Molly Drake plays, Phyllis gets to peeling apples, alone in the kitchen. The epilogue suggests that the women’s movement would never again have the influence that it did in the 1970s, which makes me want to stare at the wall forever. Though the fact that the Republicans are now just shrugging off the fact that enough states have ratified the ERA feels just as bad! I loved this show but it broke my heart too.
- It’s a passing reference on the show, but I only found out that Nancy Reagan not only loved astrology, but secretly installed Joan Quigley as the White House astrologer from reading my friend Claire Comstock-Gay’s book.
- Two female troops walk past and Crane thanks them for their service as Fred watches Phyllis leave with Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. Women in the service is exactly what Phyllis would crow about when fighting the ERA. What a moment...
- Not to mention, my back went UP when I heard the names Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. They even found two guys who look a lot like them! The casting director of this show is a genius at finding white guys who look like the young versions of today’s creepy politicians and consultants. I wonder if she also found the person who voiced the Gipper at the end?
- Lottie taking those flowers after the bomb threat, presumably for more overdramatic anti-choice rhetoric.
- Willie’s coworker tells Willie she should publish all her recipes in a cookbook, to which Willie wryly replies, “I could do a whole chapter on ERA breads and pies.”
- The real Phyllis Schlafly had a lot of ideas of the different posts she could take in the Reagan administration—including being the first woman on the Supreme Court! Wow, this show really did just scratch the surface of this woman’s ego.
- Oh, that floppy disk! What a random scene. It certainly made me feel old, though....
- That apple peeling scene is a deep cut reference to the movie shown at the women’s conference, which a commenter mentioned in the last recap.