Mrs. America Episode 5, “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc”, makes for another round of “Debate Me, You Cowards.”
This recap of Mrs. America Episode 5, “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
“This is why they hate us,” Gloria Steinem says after watching feminist theater production involving comically large genitals. It’s a line we heard in a previous episode, only this time we see what she’s referring to, and this time the focus is not on Gloria, but on the couple that saw the play with her and Franklin.
Brenda and Marc end the episode watching tv with Gloria and Franklin — in a shot reminiscent of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” the film this week’s episode of Mrs. America. Of course, Gloria and Franklin are replaced by Phyllis and Fred, and this time the woman’s name comes first.
Or if you’re Fred Schlafly, your name might not appear at all. Interviewed for a newspaper article, the headline refers to him as Phyllis’s “lawyer husband.” After the last episode’s televised debate, his wife is now a celebrity. So when the next opportunity arises, Fred doesn’t miss this opportunity to get in on the action. Seeing as the debate is about the institution of marriage, he tells Phyllis, why not challenge her to a couple’s debate.
The “her” is Brenda Feigan, Harvard Law graduate and leader of the ACLU’s women’s rights movement (along with another lawyer by the name of Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Her husband, Marc, is working on a book about masculinity.
Brenda, unlike many others Women’s Action Alliance, is married– a fact the episode uses to mirror her with Phyllis. Phyllis’s stifled ambitions are professional; she wants to be a lawyer, a dream that Fred ridicules her for, even when she takes the LSAT in place of her son — and does well.
For Brenda, marriage (in theory) prevents her from exploring her sexuality. When she sleeps with photographer Jules (Roberta Colindrez), Marc dismisses it as a “rite of passage for a radical feminist.” The other feminists take aim at the fact that she has been chosen for the debate as she and Marc seem to be the ideal of a heterosexual couple. One woman tries to relate, saying that she’s married and “lives in Chappaqua with three children.” “I live in New York,” Brenda retorts, rejecting the connection between marriage and suburban domesticity.
But Marc is more accepting than most; when Gloria tells franklin of Brenda’s actions, he makes it clear he would not be so tolerant. Gloria, as in the last episode, refuses to see her flaws. Margaret has decided to move to Oakland. “Palm trees and Panthers,” she exclaims. To Gloria, she says the move is about schools, and when she lets slip that she would be more comfortable on the West Coast, Gloria is baffled; “Are you uncomfortable here?”
At the hotel before the debate, Brenda reveals that she’s pregnant… and that she’s continued to see Jules. Marc is upset by the latter, and when Brenda raises her concerns about keeping up appearances during the debate, he snaps, “you can fake it, it’s apparently what you’ve been doing anyway.”
In the dressing room, Fred bonds with Brenda and Marc over a Harvard Law connection. Phyllis’s removal from that world is palpable.
The debate is moderated by an always welcome Bobby Cannavale (I know the character is a real person and has a name but he’s played by Bobby Cannavale so I will address him as such).
Defending Stop-ERA, Phyllis brings up a divorce court case. Brenda calls her bluff. She presses her to name the case, and when Phyllis eventually brings up some random names, Brenda calls her a liar.
Trying to break the tension, Bobby suggests they “Bring the fellas in,” and asks them to describe their marriage. Both respond in a way that makes their respective wives uncomfortable; Brenda does not believe their marriage is truly equal, and Phyllis is taken aback when Fred calls her “submissive” but is forced to pretend to be so.
Having two debates back to back is a little reparative for the show, but it works to give more insight into the show’s married couples and gives a little into the concept of marriage itself.
But the show struggles to bring the incredible writing and concepts from the women featured have brought into the show itself, and often reduces itself to just showing the tropes themselves.
Such occurs in the pair scenes following the debate. Fred is worried that Phyllis’s law school dreams threaten his breadwinner status, saying “I am the lawyer in the family.” Meanwhile, Brenda and Marc discuss their relationship. Brenda admits that she loves being with Jules, but ultimately her love lies with Marc.
Afterward, Phyllis begins to notice a pattern. Her son missed the LSAT, then a handsome young man stops by claiming to have “found” his wallet. Fearing the worst, Phyllis relates a story of her quitting smoking as a tale of “willpower.” She pleads with him to control his urges. All she can think of is the damage it would do her reputation.
She stops by Fred’s office, but seeing him through the doorway changes something: she goes against his wishes. She applies to law school.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia