The 'Mrs. America' Finale Was Always Going to Be a Tragedy

Creator Dahvi Waller discusses her FX on Hulu series' polarizing response, why aligning with the patriarchy was never going to work out for Phyllis Schlafly, and why Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 was similar to Donald Trump's in 2016.
FX

[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Mrs. America.]

The ending of FX on Hulu's star-studded miniseries Mrs. America shouldn't be a surprise for anyone who lived through the 1970s, nor to anyone who's read about the history of the Equal Rights Amendment. The movement to add language to the U.S. Constitution ensuring gender equality ended three states short of its goal, although in the past three years Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia have passed resolutions despite the fact that the deadline for ratification elapsed in 1982.

While Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and their colleagues fought to pass the ERA, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) started a movement of conservative women to fight against it. And although she was victorious in stopping the passage of the ERA and demonstrating the power of her grassroots organizing, it didn't lead to a position in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet.

It's not a truly happy ending for anyone involved, but that's what happens when you're telling a true story, says creator Dahvi Waller.

"I knew from the beginning that this was a tragedy," she says. "This was a modern tragedy, and the women's movement lost in the end. And I didn't want to shy away from that just because maybe we want a different ending that would make us feel better. I think there are really important takeaways for where we are today, and the seeds of what we're dealing with 40, 50 years later were absolutely planted during this time. We wanted to connect some of those dots for audiences."

Below, Waller discusses the series' polarizing response on both sides of the aisle, its parallels to current politics, and why Mrs. America will not be getting a second season.

The finale is definitely sad, but are you hoping some people will also find it inspiring or galvanizing?

That word, galvanizing, is definitely something that I hope audiences will take away. You have to know what happened and you have to know how messy it was, but ultimately, that depression hopefully transforms into anger and that transforms into action. My biggest takeaway from working on this series is that you can never be complacent even when you think, "Wow, we've achieved that. We've come a long way." There's always more to do and our rights are so tenuous and our position is so tenuous, so I think galvanizing is just the right word.

It's not uplifting for Phyllis either, though I definitely could've watched that scene of Cate Blanchett peeling apples in the kitchen for 45 minutes.

I did watch her for 45 minutes on set! I remember it was like 3 in the morning. We were shooting this really late in the wee hours of the morning and multiple takes. Cate asked that we play that song that plays during that scene, and I did and could watch her for an hour. She's absolutely mesmerizing in that scene and to be that mesmerizing and compelling in a wordless scene is something only Cate Blanchett could pull off.

What were you hoping to say about Phyllis and what she ultimately got from this movement that she created?

The pilot and finale really are bookends. We started the pilot with Phyllis wanting very much to have influence and to be a member of Congress or to have influence in the Pentagon on issues of defense strategy. If that ultimately was her main goal, to, quote, save the country from the Russians and nuclear war, then certainly getting appointment by Reagan in his Cabinet would have been her ultimate victory. So it's very purposeful that we chose to end the series not in 1982 when the deadline for ratification was up, but in 1981, when Phyllis learned that she's actually not going to be appointed to any position in the Reagan administration. What we're trying to say with the series is that when you are complicit in the oppression of women, it doesn't ultimately help you when you align yourself with the patriarchy. [If you're] protecting white male patriarchy and you're a woman, ultimately you also lose.

If Phyllis Schlafly were a man, and this series was about a male right-wing grassroots organizer who helped get Reagan to sweep into the White House, I believe he would have been rewarded. Not only was Phyllis not given an appointment in the White House, but the reason for why she was not given an appointment in his administration is because she was considered too polarizing. And I think there's a great irony to that ending.

There are a lot of parallels to people who might have voted for Donald Trump in 2016 who now have come to realize that he will not do the things they thought he would.

Definitely the finale is drawing parallels between 1980 and 2016. I remember, when I first looked into 1980, being so surprised that for many people living through that election, it did feel so similar to 2016. Because now we tend to romanticize the Reagan era, but at the time it was considered similarly a very sharp turn right for the country.

There's also a sharp turn for Phillis, who started as an outsider and now is on the inside of the boys club, but then she realizes that door isn't actually open for her after all.

We start with her in a bikini supporting Phil Crane as he runs for Congress and by the finale she's the belle of the ball. This whole gala is really like her coming out party into the Washington, D.C., establishment. Reagan's people are there, Phil Crane is now the one backstage begging for her support of her grassroots army for his own presidential aspirations. She's finally gotten a seat at the table, but ultimately she's left in the kitchen.

On the other side of the aisle, the election of Reagan and the failure of the ERA seems like a nail in the coffin for the feminist movement. But in Bella Abzug's call to Shirley Chisholm she says, "Hold the door for the next bunch." Do you think there's a "next bunch" right now? Is there anyone you can point to that can reignite this movement, or is the movement just different right now?

The movement is definitely different and in better ways because it's more inclusive and it's more diverse as a movement and its leaders are more diverse. I definitely think there are young Bella Abzugs still in Congress. I look at AOC, I think she's incredibly inspiring. I really admire her and I have high hopes for her. We had one of the largest freshman classes of women in Congress in 2018 that we've had in a long time. So there are incredible women who will take up the mantle and who also believe in lighting the torch of the next generation. And ultimately, that is how you keep a movement strong — when the elders who were once the radicals light the torch of those who come after them, and keep it going.

What has the reaction to the show been like on both sides of the aisle? Is it what you expected? Did it feel different than it might have felt if people weren't stuck inside their homes in a very scary time?

I definitely was not expecting to be experiencing the show coming out from my living room only. I definitely thought there'd be some kind of celebration with everyone together. I do feel bad that the hundreds of people who worked so tirelessly on the show [did] not have an opportunity to have a premiere party and everyone get together and celebrate. It definitely was disappointing for me just wanting to celebrate all the people who made the show possible. But in terms of the reaction, any time you take on a very polarizing subject matter, you're going to have a very polarized response and feedback. So I definitely expected that. What really has been gratifying for me are all the people I've heard from who felt moved to share their experiences of living through the time period with me, or who have been inspired to talk to their mothers about their experiences in this time period and told me they feel this closeness and learned so much about their mothers, that they would have never thought to ask these questions had they not watched the series.

Every castmember has mentioned how close they were with everyone on set, and how they're still close thanks to group chats and Zoom watch parties. What has it been like to experience the show collectively with your cast?

It's so funny because when I was up in Toronto when we were filming, I was so busy working that I sort of missed all the fun social gatherings that were happening. So it's just fun to learn that there was so much bonding happening up there. I was listening to a podcast with Niecy Nash and she said, "Any time one of us flew in to town there would be a welcome wagon down in the hotel lobby," and that just warms my heart. It's wonderful to get texts and emails and phone calls from the cast just having watched it and hearing their responses seeing it all put together. Hearing Margo say that she was moved to become more of an activist having gone through this experience and played Bella really was so touching for me. I couldn't ask for a better cast, talentwise. Having now gone through the whole process of making the show with them, I can say I couldn't ask for a better cast on an all-around human level. Just fantastic people all around.

Tracey Ullman mentioned she had to fight hard for her role. What can you say about her experience?

I love when I see someone who's a comedic actor taking on a more dramatic role, and it's something that [casting director] Carmen Cuba and I talked about a lot. And actually, if you look at our cast, there are many comedic actors playing dramatic roles — Ari Graynor, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale does a ton of comedy, Liz Banks. So it's just something that really excites me when it comes to casting. I wouldn't have even thought that Tracey would be interested in doing the show because most of her work she writes and does herself and creates all her own characters. I was so happy that she was so passionate about it, that Betty Friedan meant so much to her. I remember when we met and she talked about that, I knew she should play her and she was absolute perfection. Getting to see Tracey, who I've been a fan of forever, getting to see her play the pathos of Betty and the tragedy of Betty and in those heartbreaking scenes when she drops off her daughter at the stepmother's was so revelatory to me and I'm so happy she was a part of the show.

You and several castmembers have mentioned Shirley Chisholm in particular as a person who could have a miniseries of her own. But the show also elevated the profiles of plenty of women from this movement who aren't necessarily wider cultural touchstones like Gloria Steinem. What was that like?

When we were writing the series, a biopic of Shirley Chisholm with Viola Davis was announced. So we had high hopes that there would be an actual movie dedicated to just Shirley's story. With this series, it's epic. It spans eight years. It's a huge ensemble. We were never looking to do a biopic of one individual woman but rather to dip in and show a specific moment in time and in their political advocacy. One of my great hopes now that we've come to the end of this series and we've introduced audiences to Shirley and Flo Kennedy and Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug and Brenda Feigen, these lesser-known women's movement leaders, my hope is that all of them will get developed into their own series or film. To me, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of telling the stories of heretofore untold women's stories. There are so, so many untold stories that have never come to light. And I hope this was really the beginning. It speaks to the scarcity of television shows centered on women, particularly in politics, that we want one show to be all things. But really we should have many shows being many things and having many diverse voices out there, not just one. I hope there are many to follow.

What direction do you want to go next? After immersing yourself in this period, do you want to do something completely opposite?

After I finished the finale and that script came out, I definitely said to many people that my next project has to be a contemporary romantic comedy. I cannot do anything about opening a book or doing research ever again — which is how you feel any time you've taken something like this on. But the truth is I do love this kind of writing. It's very hard. It's very rigorous. The research is pretty intense and labor-intensive. But if there were another moment in time that I felt really compelled to bring to light, I wouldn't be able to say no.

Is telling a story featuring so many women and centering so many women something you'd also want to continue?

Absolutely. I know that I love seeing all the series that have come out in the last few years with really complicated women at the center, and I would love to continue just telling female-driven stories with complex female characters. And particularly I'm really interested in female friendship and the dynamics between them. I find that really fascinating and I love watching television series that really get into that and the messiness of that.

Have you been feeling creative recently? Have you been working?

I'm with Susan Orlean. I'm actually reading her book, The Library Book, which I absolutely love. But I think she said on Twitter, "I can't get anything done," and I was like, "Oh, thank God." If she can't get anything done, I can put my pen down. It's very hard to concentrate. I definitely thought going into this, "Oh, I get to have all this time at home, this is perfect for a writer," but psychically it's pretty hard to get a lot of creative work done. That said, I do think coming out of this time there will be a lot of creativity and I'm really curious to see how we as writers take on creating shows that are set today. What does that look like? What does the world look like? I'm interested in the spurt of creativity that'll come out of this time. But I think right in this moment, when you're trying to make it through such a terrifying time, it's hard to get the creative juices flowing. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

What do you think about the idea of people using Mrs. America as an educational tool?

I come from a long line of educators. First and foremost, I write television to entertain, so I want them to be entertained. If they learn something? You know, this was never intended to be a polemic. If people want to read a history book about this time, I could point them to many history books. I read them all. But if they learn something that they didn't know, to me that's wonderful. But I see my role first and foremost as creating something that's entertaining. And I do think that often when we are entertained, especially if we're laughing or enjoying something, our minds are opened up in a way that sometimes when we're being lectured at they don't. So I do think that storytelling in this way can be educational. I've heard a couple of professors or teachers saying, "I want to incorporate this in my curriculum," and that's wonderful. I remember when I worked on Mad Men that a lot of teachers used Mad Men episodes to teach history of the '60s. Obviously this is a fictional series and it's wildly entertaining, but that doesn't mean you can't pull from it. And I think that'd be wonderful. It certainly would make my dad proud. He's a professor.

What do you want people to take from the series?

It's funny because I never want to be prescriptive about what people should take away from the show, mostly because I'm always surprised by what people's reactions are to the show. So I never want them to go into it thinking, "I'm supposed to take this one thing out of it." I'm curious what do they take out of it? Because we all bring our own experiences to viewing it. My hope is that maybe they see where we are today in a different light, or with a greater understanding. I hope people are inspired to become activists. This is ultimately a show about really amazing female activists who believe they could change the world. And if that inspires viewers, that'd be a great takeaway for me.

Mrs. America is a miniseries that definitely feels like a closed-ended miniseries with an actual ending.

Yeah, we do not Trojan horse in an open-ended series. This is absolutely designed to be a limited and I enjoyed that. It's great to know that you are headed to a direction and you can actually write the ending rather than scrambling when you hear your show is canceled to figure it out. That was a gift for me. Knowing what you're writing toward and telling a very complete story is for me what's so great about doing a limited series.

Would you want to do another limited series? What do you want to do next?

I'm starting to develop a few different projects and really looking at the subject matter and what story I want to tell and let that dictate whether it's a limited or an open. You just kind of know. Sometimes you're like, "Oh, this is a fun idea that really has four or five seasons in it with characters that can be ever-evolving." And "Oh, this story really has a finite end," or even "This story really is more like a movie." So I let the subject decide. But I love an open-ended series where you feel like characters are your family. Those are my favorite shows. So I'm really open to either.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.