Alice Macray did not exist in real life. The BFF of Phyllis Schlafly, played in Mrs. America by Sarah Paulson, is a fictional character, reportedly inspired by various Schlafly supporters from the STOP ERA time period. Because Alice’s actions are not tied to any actual woman’s lived history, showrunner Dahvi Waller, who also owns the writing credit on this week’s episode, “Houston,” has the leeway to put Alice in situations that are more… creative.
Which is another way of saying that Alice can definitely go to the National Women’s Conference in Houston, get high off a combination of Pink Ladies and “the Christian pill” given to her by a new, extremely temporary friend, and become suddenly open to finding common ground with all those horrible women’s libbers. Yes, this is definitely the most far-fetched episode of Mrs. America — its Alice in Wonderland, if you will — one that contains a (no surprise) fantastic performance from Paulson, the refreshing idea that a conservative, Christian woman has the capacity to be open-minded, and a few moments that are overly contrived.
Alice and Pamela (Kayli Carter) are the pseudo-Thelma and Louise in this episode, two ladies heading on a road trip — they drive together to Houston to that historic conference in November 1977 — and attempting to escape abusive relationships. Pamela, whose controlling husband has no idea that she’s gone to Texas, is well aware that she’s trying to get away from an oppressive situation. Alice doesn’t realize she’s in a similar situation until after they arrive. Her abusive partner is Phyllis, who has been manipulating Alice for years, convincing her that her self-worth is completely tied to doing whatever Phyllis thinks is best.
In the wonderful scene that takes place at the hotel bar, where Alice has a cocktail alone after bombing a TV interview, she tells a woman that she meets how much Phyllis has done for her. “I think I’m just smarter by being around her,” she says, forgetting what she reminded her fellow anti-ERA cohorts earlier in the episode: that she was the one who warned Phyllis about the (alleged) problems with the ERA in the first place. Alice feels like she wouldn’t be in Houston without Phyllis, but the truth is that Phyllis and all the rest of them wouldn’t be there without Alice.
The woman at the bar, played with lovely Southern warmth by Julie White, immediately picks up on the power imbalance in the relationship when Alice so reverently notes how Phyllis always finds time to check her correspondence. “You don’t seem to have any trouble expressing yourself,” the woman says, a polite way of pointing out that perhaps Phyllis is overbearing and making Alice feel inferior for no reason. That’s not what makes Alice snap, though. Alice snaps as soon as she realizes that her new Pink Lady friend is a feminist and a member of the National Organization for Women, at which point she yells at this lady as though she’s just revealed she’s a Russian spy, then leaves the bar.
The first time I watched this scene, I thought it was an extreme response for Alice. I could believe she wouldn’t want to talk to the woman anymore, but I wasn’t sure she would be so outright rude, since Alice tends to be averse to conflict. On second viewing, it’s clear that she unloads on this woman not simply because she’s affiliated with NOW, but because the sense of betrayal she feels is really directed at Phyllis and her fellow conservatives.
The woman at the bar could easily pass for Phyllis’s sister, or at least someone who goes to the same hairdresser. She prays with Alice, and like Alice, also married young and was a homemaker. Alice implicitly trusts her for all those reasons, and doesn’t consider that she might hold different beliefs. It turns out this woman is “from the other side,” and yet she’s far more supportive than any of the supposed sisters who have come to Houston to stand alongside Alice, then left her all alone in this cavernous hotel. Alice isn’t necessarily enraged that she’s been duped by this woman, who she’s only known for maybe a half-hour. She subconsciously feels like she’s been duped by the women who are supposed to be her allies, and the fact that this feminist has so much in common with Alice only heightens the sense that she’s been misled. When she yells at Pamela later in the episode for being so incapable of taking care of herself, there’s a similar dynamic at work. Alice isn’t yelling at Pamela. She’s yelling at herself.
Phyllis, ever the coward, won’t even set foot in the hotel where the conference is. And Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey), who was desperately begging to have a bigger role in the STOP ERA efforts not long ago, is drunk with power and downright nasty. When Alice and Pamela arrive to find out the hotel is overbooked, Rosemary won’t even let them borrow her room for a few minutes to change clothes. After Alice gets tripped up during the TV interview, instead of reassuring her, Rosemary agrees that Alice shouldn’t make the speech on the convention floor because they don’t want to “look like fools.” Rosemary is absolutely the kind of woman who wouldn’t give you a Band-Aid if you were bleeding because she might need to use it later. If she were living in 2020, she would 100 percent be complaining that her civil rights are being violated because she has to wear a mask in public. Her name may be Rosemary, but she’s a straight-up Karen.
Alice’s interaction with the woman at the bar starts to open her eyes to all this. But she only starts to accept that eye-opening when the pill that the woman gave her — presumably a Valium — mixes with the alcohol in her bloodstream. Motivated by a major case of the munchies, Alice starts to wander from room to room in search of food and discovers women having meaningful conversations and, in a beautifully shot, hallucinatory sequence, a woman leading a religious service. “You’re a woman,” Alice says to the nun, who raises her arms in a mirror image of Christ on the cross behind her. “You can’t consecrate the eucharist.” “I’ve always said women can do whatever they want, Alice,” the nun responds, then advises Alice that if she wants food, they’re still serving “in the gay lounge.” This nun rules.
Paulson is believably incredulous, curious and downright silly throughout this whole sequence. I fully expect the inspired way she lies down in the gay lounge with a plate on her chest — “I’ve invented a new way to eat,” she announces to Niecy Nash’s Flo Kennedy — to become a frequently circulated GIF. At the same time, all of this feels a little too pat and easy. Yes, Alice has always been the more progressive one in her conservative group. But would one pill suddenly enable her to drop a lifetime of believing that liberals and lesbians are the enemy? Even the Alice who went through the looking glass held onto some of her core beliefs. But before the night is done, not only does she apologize for the horrible anti-lesbian flyers that Rosemary hung up around the hotel, she also comes face-to-face with Gloria Steinem — whom she has been instructed to scream at by Phyllis — and finds that she likes her and her leadership style, which emphasizes compromise.
She’s so moved by that approach that she asks Rosemary and the other women the next day if there is some way to build consensus with the libbers since parts of the platform being voted on at the convention involve issues with which they agree. She is, of course, completely ignored. The final straw is the anti-ERA rally, complete with the occasional Confederate flag flapping in the breeze, where she finally comes face-to-face with Phyllis, fully expecting to be reamed for screwing up the TV interview. But Phyllis didn’t see it and doesn’t care. All she cares about is herself and her rally. “You should fix your face,” she tells Alice with a maternal kiss on the cheek. Alice, once again, is being treated like a little girl, a girl beginning to understand that Mommy has been lying to her.
That idea is foreshadowed earlier in the episode when Alice, high in the gay lounge, bursts into a solo during “This Land is Your Land.” She loves the song because she sang it with her kids. Then Flo informs her that Woody Guthrie, who wrote it, was a socialist. “No, no, no,” Alice insists. “It’s patriotic.” “Exactly,” says Flo.
Alice has been singing a lot of songs without thinking about what they actually mean. This trip may have started to change her heart and mind, but it’s important to remember that when the time comes, at the convention, she still sits with the anti-ERA block. And when there’s a rally to protest the progress that all the women she’s met are fighting for, she’s there at that rally, walking and standing on the wrong side of history.
Favorite “Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: The passage of the sexual preference plank in the conference platform happens with huge support, even from Betty Friedan, and leads to a huge celebration, followed by the crowd of women singing “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a joyful moment, but one that is painful, too, because we know that the “someday” in that chorus still hasn’t happened, more than 40 years later.