Bella Abzug finds herself losing her edge as Mrs. America heads towards a climax
This recap of Mrs. America season 1, episode 7, “Bella”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
We don’t deserve Margo Martindale. She’s an extraordinary actor (character actor!, as fans of Bojack Horseman might object) and has quietly played some of the best roles in film and television over many years. Not to be confused by Ann Dowd (another excellent character actor, who is more suited to menacing roles, in my view). Looking at her filmography, I was surprised to see she appeared in left than half of The Americans’ 75 episodes; the impression she left was so strong that I assumed she had been in most of the series.
I bring this up because in my own experience, despite her numerous roles, this is the first time I can remember her being the protagonist. Granted, it is only one episode, and she shares that role with Cate Blanchett. (I assume that she does have at least one top-billed role, but the closest I could find is a TV show called The Millers where she’s only topped by Will Arnett).
And thank god, “Bella”, Mrs. America’s seventh, episode allows Martindale to shine. She plays Abzug, sorry, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, as a woman who’s had a storied career, but struggles to balance political effectiveness with appeasing the issues relevant to the younger women she surrounds herself with.
Abzug is appointed head of the National Women’s Commission, a bipartisan event. It’s an exciting opportunity, one that requires a lot of organizing in a short amount of time. Bella’s way of getting things done rubs up against Gloria, who leads a quasi-spiritual practice to convince the committee to not waste money on fancy tablecloths. Abzug rolls her eyes, but sees the practicality in her argument; the more money spent to bus women in, the better.
On the other side of the fight, Phyllis has become only more vitriolic since the election, as her daughter remarks. At an event, she slams Carter and promotes her latest book (always the salesperson), and is rewarded with a custard pie in the face.
Hearing about the conference, STOP-ERA double up their efforts. A face-bandaged Phyllis leads them in creating fake organizations that mimic NOW, in order to mislead the public. An exciting montage filled with fluid camerawork shows their efforts as they burglarize a NOW office in their quest to kill the ERA. They strike gold when they start busing Mormons to the sites of votes.
But Phyllis’s mode is shattered when she realizes that her daughter, Phyl, has started going by Liza — something it seems she was the last to know about. Liza tells of her repeated embarrassment on Princeton’s campus by being associated with her mother. Phyllis is distraught, first regaling Liza with tales of her own mother’s hardworking selflessness. But giving your child your own name isn’t selflessness — rather, the opposite.
Phyllis seems not the least concerned about how her public presence might affect her children’s social life. Instead, she wallows in misery, choosing to skip an event and listen to her daughter’s music instead, in an attempt to understand her (“Hey Ho, Let’s Go,” by the Ramones).
Staying at home means that Alice and the others encounter Abzug on their own. Bella is pleased they spelled her name right on their signs (“Abzug Go Home”), and, realizing that their leader is not present, begins to challenge their perception of Phyllis.
She’s the “most liberated woman,” Bella tells the members of STOP-ERA, who remain faithful to their leader. Phyllis has “taught them much,” they say. Bella responds, asking them “has she taught you to deal with the press?… has she taught you how to balance budgets?” Each time they nod. “Congratulations, you’re working girls,” Bella announces, before sauntering off, pleased with her work.
Meanwhile, NOW struggles with internal conflict over how to handle a bipartisan event. For many, this means sidelining LGBT issues. Midge, Bella’s former assistant, is disappointed by the committee’s lack of concern for lesbian rights. “I can’t even hold her hand as I walk down the street without fear that I will get the **** kicked out of me,” she tells them, trying to tell them the seriousness of the organization.
Likewise, Gloria has been fighting for sex workers’ rights, and slams Bella for catering to the right-wing; “This was supposed to be our Eden, and you let the snakes in.” Everywhere, Bella tries to fight for women but finds herself being objected to by those who have been in this fight for less time than she has.
Feeling aged and out of touch, Bella goes to visit the only activist older (and potentially less radical) than her: Betty. Freidan agrees that having too many issues blunts their message. “It’s not our fight,” she argues, comparing the scattered agenda of NOW with the single-minded focus of STOP-ERA.
Gloria, Bella argues, “has a vision of Houston as being some magical feminist Woodstock.” Abzug is not sure what to make of the conference or her role in the movement. “Does it bother you that no-one calls you radical anymore?” she asks Betty, who responds by affirming that “we’re going mainstream… that’s a good thing.” For Betty, the only issue is women’s equality, and it helps to have as many people on their side as possible.
Hearing Betty’s argument energizes Bella, and she arrives at Gloria’s apartment with a flashlight in hand: “It’s a torch, don’t you have any imagination!” She opens up to Steinhem about her past, discussing the McGee case. While eight months pregnant, she “slept disguised about a brothel because vigilantes stalked the hotels.” The stress caused her to miscarry, and to drop the case. Martindale laces Bella’s dialogue with tongues of regret.
“Fear never moved mountains,” Gloria says. “What’s right is right.” Hearing her mentor’s experience, she knows that Bella has good interests at heart. They agree to put lesbian rights in, but, Gloria says, “we have to keep the antis out.”
Abzug comes up with a different idea. “What if we let everyone in?” she proposes. “What’s really revolutionary about a group of people in a room agreeing with each other.” The two share a moment of recognition and agree to make the event open, with the hope that they rise out of the chaos.
As the episode draws to a close, a montage shows various characters receiving the Commission’s schedule, which includes “sexual preference” on the agenda. Midge is delighted and kisses her partner in joy. It seems that NOW have their target set on Houston.
Unfortunately, Bella and Gloria are not the only ones counting on the event as their chance to win the fight. Phyllis rings up Lottie, the catholic woman she courted in the last episode. Phyllis warns her that anything that ties STOP-ERA with the KKK will bring them negative attention. The solution (because evidently the anti-rights moment cannot exist without racism) is to hold a “pro-family rally” but naming the group responsible so that nothing can be tied to their movement.
As they look to the future, Phyllis states, “Houston will be the death knell of the women’s liberation movement. Let’s blow it up.”
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia