Mrs. America season 1 episode 2 review: Revolution is messy

MRS. AMERICA -- Pictured: Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX
MRS. AMERICA -- Pictured: Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX /

The second episode of Mrs. America expands its world into the women’s liberation movement and introduces Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem.

“Gloria” picks up nearly a year after the first episode of Mrs. America, with the ERA having been ratified in eight states–a quarter of the way to the votes needed for a constitutional convention. At this point, the libbers still have the momentum, but Phyllis is learning and refining her strategies.

But the real focus of the episode is the look inside the women’s liberation movement, centered around Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem. We meet her greeting the press outside of Ms. Magazine‘s swinging launch party.

Whereas Phyllis is restrained, cold, and desperate to be at the centerpiece of her own movement, Gloria is portrayed as disinterested in power plays and driven purely by her goals and principles. This isn’t to say Gloria’s not politically savvy, of course.

The central conflict of “Gloria” revolves around two political conflicts:  the libbers’ efforts to push abortion access into George McGovern‘s platform; and the libbers’ internal disagreements on how to move forward and unite.

This is further complicated by Steinem’s relationship with older compatriot, Betty Friedan (a brilliant Tracey Ullman in some of the best hair and makeup I’ve ever seen).

Mrs. America treads lightly here, portraying their messy relationship in the press in an effective dramatization that feels empathetic to both Friedan and Steinem. It’s not an issue of who’s right and who’s wrong, but rather tactics in the revolution.

Where Betty is militant and aggressive, Gloria is personalized and strategic. In a meeting with McGovern, Betty comes out hard, attacking him for his weakness on abortion, leading Shirley MacLaine (yes, that Shirley MacLaine) to cut the meeting short.

But Gloria follows him out, addressing him as George and invoking a friendship. She suggests they replace abortion with “reproductive rights” in the platform, inclusive of more than just the fight for abortion (a notion that survives to this day).

Margo Martindale shines in this episode as Bella Abzug, the engine working behind the scenes of the movement, as she plots to make Gloria the official spokesperson of the organization that would become NOW in order to throw Betty under the bus whenever she doesn’t fall in line.

One of the things that works so well about Mrs. America–what makes it so compelling and yet so very frustrating–is the social context the show is placed in. Mrs. America chronicles the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment–but we know it never passed.

In episode two, we also see Gloria Steinem’s dedication to abortion access as a human right. While Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, it has been weakened and attacked ever since. Safe and accessible abortion remains under threat to this day.

In short, Mrs. America is a reminder that while we have come so far, many things remain the same. It’s painful and disheartening. (This sentiment also serves as an undercurrent for the production of the series itself.)

And yet, watching such an incredible, televised history of the women’s liberation movement is inspiring and moving. Progress isn’t won all at once. It’s made incrementally and without safeguards can be lost just as easily.

This is evidenced by the last-minute loss of Illinois when Phyllis, with the help of a state senator, manages to bring enough sympathetic homemakers with her to swing the vote against the ERA.

One of the best sequences of the episode shows the hordes of housewives going up one staircase while the feminists go up another as Gloria says in voiceover, “These housewives are the last gasp of the patriarchy, brainwashed to believe that if they don’t play the game, they’ll lose the love and protection of men.”

Phyllis is all too happy to claim victory, leading Ginny Chapman to scornfully undermine her after it all goes down:  “Do you even have a law degree?” Despite what Phyllis might say, her lack of independence (gained through education and a career) clearly bothers her.

This plays out later when she asks her husband (the great John Slattery) to help her brush up on argumentation and legal writing, and he kindly points out her claim that she was invited to attend Harvard Law is objectively false as the school wasn’t coed then.

It’s a great bit of business from Cate Blanchett as she turns her head away and says, “They would’ve made an exception for me.” Blanchett plays Schlafly as a woman so steeped in her own privilege she can’t see how she’s marginalized.

But she also doesn’t see how she is working to deprive other women from the same freedoms that she herself has also lost out on. Mrs. America conveys this heartbreaking reality so beautifully in the final moments of its second episode through a flashback to a younger Gloria Steinem’s own abortion.

Young Gloria is clearly terrified, at a crossroads moment in her life. It’s lonely and sterile, but the doctor tells her he’ll help her on two conditions:  “You will never tell anyone my name. And you will do what you want to do with your life.”

As it flashes back to Gloria dancing in her apartment, a brief respite from the battle, it’s a reminder that freedom is hard-won.

Next. Mrs. America series premiere review: Meet Phyllis Schlafly. dark

Mrs. America is now streaming on Hulu.