If last week’s episode 4 of Mrs America saw Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) come out victorious in a debate against Betty Friedan, mother of the feminist movement, episode 5 takes her back down a notch.
"Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc,” directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and written by Micah Schraft & April Shih, gets its name from Paul Mazursky’s 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon, the movie centered around two L.A. couples who, over the course of an evening, explore their latent sexual desires all while airing their emotional dirty laundry. In a much less sexy twist, this episode finds Phyllis and Fred (John Slattery) sharing airtime with liberal lawyers Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor) and her husband, Marc (Adam Brody, admittedly very hot in his aviator glasses).
We meet the latter two in the opening scene, when they attend a hilariously bad performance art demonstration with Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and her boyfriend (Jay Ellis). Brenda and Marc are the poster children for enlightened straight couples. Both graduates of Harvard law school, they both adopted hyphenated last names to match (hers was Feigen, his Fasteau), and seem supportive of each other’s career and ambitions. While Marc is writing a book about masculine gender tropes, Brenda is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Taskforce, working alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who even makes a quick cameo.
But nothing in this show is as perfect as it first appears to be. With five more states needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Brenda and Gloria go to Washington to appeal to Nixon’s Justice Department to apply more pressure. They meet with an official (Jake Lacey) who’s more interested in getting in Gloria’s pants then he is helping the movement. Still, he does suggest that someone from the movement challenge Phyllis to a public debate in order to neutralize her once and for all. Brenda agrees, and makes a statement to the press calling out Phyllis’ outrageous claims.
If episode 4 hinted at the internal strife over LGBTQ+ issues in the women’s movement, episode 5 dives right in. With Gloria off to get dinner with the cute Republican suit, Brenda meets up with freelance photographer Jules (Roberta Colindrez), for a night on the town that ends with a hot makeout session in the pool of the Watergate complex. She confesses the affair to Marc, who dismisses it as a one-time thing, and yet another notch in their favor on the liberal couple of the year contest. “If it were a man that’d be one thing,” he says, oblivious to what she’s really trying to tell him. “But a woman? That’s practically a right of passage for a radical feminist.”
Except it’s not a one time thing. Brenda is clearly exploring her sexuality, and continues to see Jules, unsure of what that means about her life, her marriage, and her place in a movement that so wants to distance itself from the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Meanwhile, Phyllis’ own relationship is under strain. Ironically, her crusade to keep women in the home is started to encroach on her own family life. When a newspaper article that was supposed to highlight Fred’s law career ends up referring to him as “Phyllis Schlafly’s lawyer husband,” she suggests he join her in the debate against Brenda, to give her arguments legal backing. But their conversation also exposes Phyllis’ own insecurities: She wishes she had a law degree, and the credentials to hold her own against the women she’s fighting. In pure Phyllis fashion, her solution is to A) ask her husband for help, B) take the LSATs in her son’s place, just to prove she can.
Fred’s ego isn’t the only family drama Phyllis is dealing with. Her suspicions about her son John’s sexuality, piqued during last week’s wedding scene, are confirmed when a man shows up at the door with his wallet, demanding money in exchange for his silence. Confronted with the knowledge that her child is very likely gay, Phyllis is in turmoil. She loves her son, but her conservative Catholic teachings tell her that he is a sinner. Still, she keeps his secret, handing him his wallet with a veiled warning that he must be more careful.
In the name of fairness, The Tomorrow Show invites Marc along with Brenda, setting up a riveting hour of couples facing off on national television. Gloria objects, claiming accepting this version of the challenge would set the movement back. “Now we’re trying to prove we’re as white straight and married as Mr. and Mrs Schlafly?” Her suggestion that they send a lesbian couple is laughed off, putting Brenda in a particularly difficult spot. Not only is she under pressure to hide her sexual identity from her colleagues, she now bears the burden of proving that one can be a feminist and a happily married straight woman in front of all of America.
To make things even more complicated, Brenda realizes she’s pregnant on the eve of the debate. Wracked with indecision and guilt, she finally comes clean to Marc about seeing Jules regularly. And though you get the sense that the issue isn’t quite resolved, the two do work things out in time for the big event.
So, let’s talk about the reason we’re all here: The couples debate, moderated by Tom Snyder (Bobby Cannavale, Byrne’s partner in real life). If Phyllis really thought Fred’s presence would deflect attacks, she’s sorely mistaken. When she adopts her usual stump speech, claiming that the ERA would actually take rights away from women (like alimony, or custody), Brenda rams into her, demanding she cite the specific case she’s referencing. Of course, Phyllis can’t do that. She made it up, and no one’s ever bothered to check before. To make things worse, Fred refuses to back her up, partly because doing so would put his own reputation at stake, but also because a part of him wants to see her fail.
Graynor is fearsome to watch here, with a gruff delivery that’s assertive and confident. After Betty’s poor showing in the last episode, she knows she needs to shake Phyllis’ sense of control, and boy does she ever. Watching them spar brings back memories of Elizabeth Warren using Mike Bloomberg as a human mop during the Democratic primary debates earlier this year.
Phyllis ends up looking ill-prepared and ill-informed. Unlike in her own circles, where she’s usually the smartest person in the room, she’s being called to account for her views by a woman with whom she’s on equal intellectual footing. And that’s terrifying.
While Marc and Brenda leave the stage feeling more secure in their partnership, Phyllis realizes she and Fred are on shaky ground. When she confronts him about his lack of support, he reminds her that anything she thinks she’s been able to accomplish has been through his marital benevolence. “I have let you run around this country with your cause,” he snaps.
Still, it’s her suggestion that she’s thinking of applying to law school that eventually drives him over the edge. She’s threatening to take the one thing he can still lord over her: a degree. “I am the lawyer in the family!” he bellows.
“You can’t blame me if you didn’t do more with your law degree to save our country,” she snaps back, before he storms out of the room.
Towards the end of the episode, we realize why Fred is so touchy on the subject. When Phyllis stops by his office to apologize, he’s not there. He’s been moved to a smaller space down the hall to make space for a younger man. And yet, much like the feminists she so despises, Phyllis doesn’t let that deter her in her pursuit of her goal. She tells Fred she’s still planning on applying to Washington University as a law student, with the caveat that she’ll be home every night for dinner.
Still, this episode forces Phyllis to confront what the other side has known for a long time: The road to liberation is a lonely one, full of contradictions and setbacks.