Something I’ve struggled with in the past few episodes, through no fault of Mrs. America’s creative team, is how larger than life some of these people were. So much is known about them, their opinions, and their personal affairs that it’s hard not to put all the characters’ emotional cards on the table. Even Phyllis, who pushes down so much and hides so much, brims with personality and presentation and ego and ambition.
But that means that when the show pulls away from the major character per episode format, it feels refreshing and energetic. It’s not trying to be a mini-biography, but a true vignette about this heady time. Because of this, “Phyllis & Frank & Brenda & Marc” reminded me a lot of particularly nervy episode of Mad Men. It helps that it was a very, very funny episode, straight from the very first scene—a performance art piece on “what a marriage is.” A woman wears a hanging stuffed vagina while another woman joins her, wearing a giant floppy stuffed penis, yelling “Where is my drink! CAN YOU SEE MY COCK?”
My belief is that all performance art pieces on TV and in movies are, unlike performance art pieces in real life, parodies of themselves, and this is no exception. (The only exception is Detroit’s piece in the ironically satirical Sorry To Bother You.) This one ends with Gloria, Frank and Brenda Feigen Fasteau (Ari Graynor) and her husband, Marc Feigen Fasteau (Adam Brody with a giant halo of hair) leaving with sheepish smiles. “This is why they hate us,” Gloria mutters. The double date ends with Gloria waving away any potential for a 40th birthday party. “Send me five more states,” she says, referencing the fact that, in 1974, they’re still waiting on five more states to ratify the ERA.
She also makes a joke (?) that marriage is a prison, which highlights one of the other brilliant and Mad Men-esque elements of this episode: the focus on marriages specifically, the mirror images of the Schlaflys and the Feigen Fasteaus. It also sets up Gloria’s role in this episode—her unmarried stance is almost a metaphor, of how she’s beholden to no one—and on some level, this means people don’t entirely trust her.
But first, let’s talk about co-founder of Ms. Magazine, Brenda Feigen Fasteau. Oh, Brenda! What a delightful surprise of a character. Brenda has shown up in past episodes with a line or two, not dropping bon mots like Bella, Jill, Gloria, or Betty. That’s not where she shines—instead, she cares about the facts and pushing the agenda forward, and she’s not interested in small talk. Ari Graynor’s acting and role here reminds me of Phyllis’ in the first episode—expressions pass over her face when no one sees, highlighting her interiority and keeping us focused on her throughout the episode. And while she states the facts, she—and the people around her, if they pay attention—can guess what she’s really feeling. Jules, a photographer who asks her to get a drink, points out Brenda mentions her husband several times but still came out with her. Her husband, in turn, notes that Brenda says she’d never sleep with another man. Finally, Bella points out Brenda’s lack of enthusiasm when Phyllis returns Brenda’s debating challenge with one of her own. “Why aren’t you more excited?” she asks, as Brenda squirms under the other women’s gazes.
In contrast, Gloria asks her if she’s okay and says she doesn’t need to debate the Schlaflys. Brenda smiles coldly, knowing that Gloria is just being nice.
After Betty lost her temper with Phyllis, it feels imperative that the National Women’s Caucus does well in this debate. After some thought, I agree with a comment that while it was important for the National Women’s Caucus to focus on housewives and the suburbs, it was a mistake to focus on Phyllis, especially with her penchant for spreading lies and using imagined scenarios to forward her agenda.
But in the case of the show, it’s a wonderful development. I’ve been getting a little frustrated with how Fred and Phyllis’s marriage has been presented—there’s been less of the patronizing, patriarchal spirit of the first episode and more of a balance of equals, albeit a wobbly one. But then, that could be just me contending with the fact that a woman who has (as Brenda says) “internalized misogyny” will indeed reap some benefits from that stance. This episode, though, Phyllis realizes the limit of those benefits, both in terms of Fred’s patience and how much her own sense of self is tied up in Fred’s accomplishments. While she’s getting more national attention, as an article about Fred is headlined “Phyllis Schlafly’s husband,” she’s losing confidence in her ability to show up on stage. While she bemoans the fact that the National Caucus didn’t send their “girl wonder” (Gloria), she’s barely prepared for her debate with Brenda. It’s clear that she feels a boost of confidence from taking the LSAT in place of her son, Bruce, who clearly doesn’t want to realize his mother’s dream to be a lawyer. But of course it’s barely enough to meet with Brenda’s actual law experience.
Indeed, part of Brenda’s confidence comes from her myriad accomplishments. She was the National Legislative Vice President for the National Organization for Women and co-director (with RBG!) of the ACLU: Women’s Rights Project. Unlike Phyllis (or Gloria or Betty), she doesn’t have any interest in emotionally controlling a room. That also means she herself is not as emotionally controlled. She breaks down to Marc in the hotel hours before the debate over her confusion about her feelings about her pregnancy and continued infidelity with Jules, and confusion over her sexuality. Marc points out how intensely awkward this timing is, but they have to go through with the debate because everyone’s counting on them.
The debate is an amazing scene. Unlike Betty’s debate with Phyllis, there’s no need or room for personal attacks. It probably doesn’t help that the host of the Tomorrow Show, Tom Snyder (played by Rose Byrne’s partner Bobby Canavale!) starts out by introducing Phyllis by her accomplishments: running for Congress twice, and losing twice. (Phyllis’ little “That’s right,” between those two facts made me snort.) Props to the direction here—I don’t want to describe it for fear that I’ll fail to capture how deliciously amazing it is. It’s funny, smart, awkward, and invigorating. Suffice to say that despite their problems, Brenda can count on Marc to uphold their shared values, while Phyllis looks foolish as Fred “leaves her out to dry,” as she complains when the debate ends.
There’s a stark contrast between the aftermath for both marriages after the debate. Phyllis and Fred have a huge fight about his lack of support and her interest in going to law school, which ends, disturbingly, with Phyllis slapping herself. Meanwhile, Brenda opens up to Marc, saying she’s not even sure if she likes Jules despite how much she likes sleeping with her. Marc reminds her bisexuality exists. When she gets upset at how this seems, he says, “What if there’s another way? We can make our own rules.” Yes, he says, even with a baby. I love Laure de Clermont Tonnere’s direction of this scene, especially the way that Adam Brody plays Marc. Yes, he’s a side character compared to Brenda—he doesn’t get moments alone like she does—but his support and care for Brenda, as well as his fear of losing her, feel believable without being overly sentimental.
I love Brenda’s arc, especially because it features a queer person actually getting to be queer, in contrast with Margaret, who on the show is a lesbian in name only. At least they’re both at the lesbian bar where Margaret talks about moving to Oakland for “the palm trees and the Panthers and the Pacific.” Brenda’s conflicted throughout the episode, not sure how to act or not act on Jules’ attraction, how to define herself, or even who she can confide in. It’s not an easy arc but it’s refreshing.
In contrast, Phyllis’ son John’s queer arc is pretty weak. A commenter last week noted that the way Phyllis came to the realization that John was gay wasn’t exactly earned in past episodes, and I agree. So much of John’s arc feels like it’s using our cultural understanding of a “staying in the closet” queer story rather than actually earning the moments. Phyllis does pay off one of John’s hookups and tell John to stay in the closet, but personally I wondered if she wasn’t almost too euphemistic and gentle with him.
Then there’s Gloria’s role in Brenda’s storyline. Throughout the episode, Gloria doesn’t pay attention to how her privilege colors her perceptions, and, as I said before, that makes it hard for people to trust her. Margaret tells her she’s moving to Oakland for the schools, a lie which Frank sees right through. Frank tells Gloria he couldn’t brook cheating, but she sleeps with Nixon staffer Stanley Pottinger (Jake Lacy, playing against type), partly because she can and partly to use him. While Marc confides in Frank about Brenda, Brenda doesn’t say anything to Gloria about her experience with Jules. Gloria is dismayed—after all, she suggested a lesbian couple debate the Schlaflys—but Brenda points out that Gloria doesn’t really understand what she’s asking. “Are you going to hold a press conference?” she says, bitterly. “Where’s Kate Millett now?” she adds, referencing a feminist writer and activist who came out as bisexual in 1970.
The episode ends on a bittersweet note, with the couples settling in to watch the TV special Gloria took part in: Free to Be…You and Me.
- “Not all Nixon appointees are chauvinistic,” says Stanley, not realizing he’s actually not talking about himself. The way he ignores everyone for Gloria is so creepy! Brenda knows it, but Gloria doesn’t.
- Gloria’s apartment is so divine.
- I snorted when Marc said Brenda “Let me know everything [she] wanted,” after they sleep together after she sleeps with Jules.
- What a missed opportunity to place the characters in a known ’70s lesbian New York bar.
- Brenda’s tiny two-finger clap after she agrees to Phyllis’ challenge!
- The outfits in this episode are great, maybe because we spend a lot more time with the National Women’s Caucus and Ms. Magazine and queer people. That red pantsuit! Gloria’s JEANS. Both Brenda and Marc’s outfits!
- Everyone in the Los Angeles b-roll looks so sunburned.
- “It’s never the right time,” says Marc, about Brenda’s pregnancy. “That’s what Ruth and Marty always say.” It took me a second, but yes, they are referencing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Marty! In fact, Brenda was interviewed for the RBG documentary about the Supreme Court Justice.
- “That’s right, Marc,” says Fred during the debate. “I’m Marc,” says Marc. “Right, Tom,” Fred corrects. I don’t know how this little exchange was so funny, but I literally laughed out loud.
- Has anyone read Marc’s book The Male Machine? I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.