‘Mrs. America’ Review by James Poniewozik for NYT: The Voice of an E.R.A. Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly in “Mrs. America,”
Images by Pari Dukovic
Packed with stunning performances, the limited series tells a sweeping story of women’s rights revolutionaries — and a formidable counterrevolutionary.
“Mad Men” ended its timeline in late 1970, with the advertising patriarch Don Draper peaced out at a yoga retreat, om-ing his way to the inspiration for the classic 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” ad. Since then, fans have dreamed about a follow-up, one focused not on the Don Drapers of the world, but on the women whose limitations and liberations were the through-line of the series.
FX on Hulu’s breathtaking “Mrs. America,” from the “Mad Men” writer Dahvi Waller, picks up in 1971, raising a throaty howl just as Don is teaching the world to sing. The story of the fight for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, it’s not a sequel, either literally or in format: It’s a nine-part series following real historical figures.
But it is a kind of spiritual successor, a meticulously created and observed mural that finds the germ of contemporary America in the striving of righteously mad women.
Like “Mad Men,” “Mrs. America” finds a fresh angle on a much-observed age of revolution by focusing, first, on a counterrevolutionary: Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the cold warrior who, in Waller’s telling, seized on the culture war over women’s rights to raise her political profile and advance a broader conservative agenda.
The insight of “Mrs. America,” in the punchy words of Representative Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), is that Schlafly “is a goddamn feminist. She may be the most liberated woman in America.” She just chooses not to see herself that way.
The wife of an Illinois lawyer, Fred Schlafly (John Slattery, putting a Midwest spin on his Roger Sterling suavity), she’s run for congress, an ambition Fred has been glad to entertain as long as she didn’t win.
Men admire her beauty and indulge her intelligence. When she appears on a TV politics show with the Republican representative Phil Crane (James Marsden), he reminds her to “Smile. With teeth.” Schlafly sees managing men as simply a woman’s lot.
At a meeting with male Republican lawmakers, she says, “Some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.” They ask her to take notes, assuming she has the nicest penmanship. Still, her interests lie more in nuclear policy than in propagandizing the nuclear family, until her friend Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson) mentions the proposed amendment, which Alice worries will marginalize housewives and subject women to the draft.
Schlafly soon retools her political brand from anti-Communism to anti-feminism. Her way to climb the ladder is to pull it up behind her. “Mrs. America” hardly sees Schlafly as its heroine, but it respects her cunning and force of will. Blanchett gives her a Katharine Hepburn clipped-syllables charm — like Blanchett’s Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings,” she is regal and terrifying (to her allies above all). Her final scene, wordless and devastating, might as well end with Blanchett being handed an Emmy onscreen.
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