I’ve now watched four episodes of Mrs. America, the nine-episode FX/Hulu miniseries about the ’70s battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, and particularly the conflict between second-wave feminists (Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckleshaus) who fought for passage and the primly conservative Middle American coalition (led by Phyllis Schlafly) who opposed and, sad to say, ultimately won.
All I can say is that I’m hooked, and that I wouldn’t dare miss an episode from here on. It’s a vital watch. There’s a right and a wrong way to make a miniseries out of a blend of recent history and an issue that was once hot-button but has since been bypassed by time and circumstance, and Mrs. America knows exactly how to deal the cards. It’s a model of tight narrative focus, convincing period realism and absolute grade-A performances from the leads — Cate Blanchett (Schlafly), Rose Byrne (Steinem), Tracey Ullman (Friedan), Uzo Aduba (Chisholm), etc. Hell, from the whole cast.
Blanchett will be Emmy-nominated, I’m presuming, but so will Ullman in a supporting category.
A creation of screenwriter Dahvi Walker (Desperate Housewives, Madmen, Eli Stone), Mrs. America just tells the story on a chapter-by-chapter basis — no tricks or curve balls, straight and plain — a story of how the ERA didn’t quite get there, I mean, and how the personalities of all of these high-powered women clashed and grooved and accommodated or didn’t, etc.
Everything really looks and feels like the ’70s in this series. Not pretend-faux ’70s, but the actual genuine decade as it talked, walked, smelled and tasted. The opening credits sequence nails the zetgeist cold.
Plus I feel as if I’ve learned a few things. I didn’t know Betty Friedan was that much of a drinker. I didn’t know Schlafly’s son was gay. I didn’t know about Steinem’s black boyfriend, Franklin Thomas.
The trailers and copy led everyone to believe that Blanchett is the centerpiece of Mrs. America, but Phyllis Schlafly isn’t that much of a dominating force. She’s the steely villain of the piece, the troublemaker, the Midwestern monster. But Blanchett mainly serves a strong ensemble. Byrne and Ullman make just as strong of an impression.
Walker’s primary strategy is to use each episode (nine in all, ending on 5.27) to explore the views and vantage points of the leads — Schlafly, Steinem, Chisholm, Friedan, Abzug, et. al.
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleckk have directed four episodes. Amma Asante and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre have directed two each. A singe episode (#8) was directed by Janicza Bravo.
I loved the big debate scene between Schlafly and Friedan at Illinois State University in Bloomington, which happened in ’73. Schlafly repeats a much-quoted remark aout por-ERA feminists being “a bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems.” Friedan responds by calling out Schlafly for “hypocrisy” and telling her “I’d like to burn you at the stake” and “I consider you a traitor to your sex…I consider you an Aunt Tom.”
At no time during the first four episodes was I even slightly bored or distracted or checking my watch. It holds, engages, feels right.