Eve Fletcher does not have dragons. And unlike a key individual on Watchmen, the lead character of Mrs. Fletcher does not own a gigantic blue sex toy. (Yet.) But thank goodness for Eve, who, in her own low-key yet entrancing way, became part of an ongoing campaign to redefine what female sexuality looks like not just on HBO, but on TV in general.
Over the course of Mrs. Fletcher's seven episodes, Eve, a divorced single mom, began to explore and satisfy her own needs, sexual and otherwise. But as star Kathryn Hahn noted in a recent interview, her character's external and internal transformation was more a process of elimination than anything else.
"It was a lot of tiny changes," Hahn said of Eve's quiet yet decisive evolution. "It's kind of like peeling an onion. She would wear panty hose at the beginning. [The show] was about finding out who she was underneath, and eventually not needing all those trappings of presentation — to see who she was underneath it all."
At first, Eve "wanted to present herself as a lot of women do — she wanted to look 'nice,' along with all the things that word implies," Hahn said. Eve was, as so many women have to be in their busy lives, "practical," Hahn added. "She didn't want to make waves and she didn't want to stand out."
And yet, over the course of the season, in large part thanks to Hahn's sensitive, nuanced performance, Eve did stand out. As did her hair.
Am I seriously proposing that #HairGoals is the takeaway from this compassionate, bittersweet limited series? Well, of course that's not the only thought that stayed with me after watching Mrs. Fletcher, which was adapted by executive producer and showrunner Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers) from his novel of the same name.
But it was illuminating — and frankly, a relief — to watch a show that took it as a given that women are judged on their appearance every day and that it can be difficult for any woman to discover what she truly wants after she decides to stop letting other people's needs and opinions define her. The way the show's hair, makeup, and wardrobe teams approached the depiction of Eve's evolution was subtle but exceptional, as was Hahn's performance, which embraced the comedic, tragic, and hopeful aspects of her character's life with impressive spontaneity, empathy, and deftness.
Experimenting with and taking ownership of her appearance — including that undeniable hair — was a big part of Eve's evolution. These alterations, subtle as they were, went hand in hand with her progression from an easily dismissed, timid suburban mom to a sexually adventurous woman who was willing to take chances, regardless of what others might think.
And as Hahn pointed out, Mrs. Fletcher depicts relatively rapid internal and external alterations. In the few short months between dropping her son off at college and him turning up on her doorstep unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving, Eve went through "seismic" changes, Hahn noted.
Yet one of the show's core accomplishments was using hair, makeup, and wardrobe to illustrate and illuminate those changes without falling into the usual clichés TV employs when a woman undergoes a "transformation." Everyone interviewed for this story said they knew that showing a department-store spree or a "big hair/bigger eyeliner" makeover montage would have felt wrong for Mrs. Fletcher.
Eve did change, of course, but it was a "self-induced metamorphosis," in Perrotta's words. By the end of the season, Perrotta said, "she has emerged in this undeniable way — everyone around her is magnetized by something. It's just her, in the fullness of who she is."
One of the interesting things about Sunday's finale is that it in no way represents the end of the line for Eve or her son, Brendan (Jackson White). The are no current plans for a second season, Perrotta said, but in some ways, the final scene of Mrs. Fletcher feels like a starting point for both characters, who became even more disconnected from each other over the course of the season.
Whether or not they're able to repair their bond in a meaningful way, by the time a destabilized Brendan arrives home, there's no doubt that he's no longer the focus of Eve's existence. She is.
That's certainly not where Eve's head and heart were at when Mrs. Fletcher debuted. In the show's pilot, Eve was consumed by the process of packing up and taking her entitled only child to college. For years, her expectations about her life — and her desires — had been modest, if not stifled. Now what?
That tentativeness came through in how she was depicted at first, in old sweats and a slapdash ponytail, or in sensible work clothes that she'd clearly had for a while. Whatever makeup she wore was meant to allow her to be semi-invisible while running errands or at her job at a retirement home.
"Eve Fletcher knows that society is telling her, 'You're getting too old to be visible anymore,'" said Brenna McGuire, the head of the show's makeup department. "The message is, 'We don't want to see your flaws — hide behind makeup. You shouldn't look at porn, you should dress a certain way.' Women feel pressured not to be natural and not to do what they want — not to let their own face be shown to the world."
"This is a woman who had thought she couldn't draw outside the lines," Hahn noted.
That certainly changed over the course of the story, as Eve tried out moves she saw in porn, took a creative writing class, dealt with setbacks at work, and enjoyed flirtations at bars. There was even an attempt at casual sex with a guy she met at a party in Brooklyn. Over time, Eve haltingly learned that it was not just acceptable but potentially exciting to show her real self to the world — complete with all the mistakes, pathos, and comedy that process implies.
Until recently, Prestige TV outlets — and TV in general — has had a spotty (if not demoralizing) record when it came to the depictions of women over the age of 40. They have typically been supporting characters (if they were part of an ensemble at all), and even if these women were at or near the center of a narrative, they tended to be depicted as sexually intimidating, nagging, blandly competent, or otherwise one-dimensional and forgettable.
Though that has been changing to some degree, it's certainly easy to imagine a cringe-inducing version of this story, especially when it comes to the relationship between Eve and Julian (Owen Teague), a sensitive young man who attended high school with Brendan. But Mrs. Fletcher was ultimately respectful of its characters' flirtations and limitations, whether they arrived in humorous, jarring, or sad moments. Most characters made mistakes, but all of them were trying to find meaningful connections, and the show did not tend to sit in judgment of their desires.
Still, Perrotta said he knew he'd be asking his lead actress to go to a difficult array of places on screen, not just physically but emotionally. So his goal, he said, was to make sure Hahn felt as comfortable and protected as possible on set.
"Once we cast her, I really let her guide a lot of other decisions," Perrotta said. "I was a first-time [showrunner], but here were Nicole [Holofcener, who directed the pilot] and Kathryn, both of whom have decades of experience in filmmaking. It seemed like a good policy to listen to them. And with Kathryn, from the very first conversations, she was very clear on what she wanted the show to not be. She was very concerned with not being the object of the male gaze. [Eve] was the subject" of the story.
Hahn had worked in the past with McGuire and with Esther Ahn, head of the hair department. Dana Covarrubias led the wardrobe department, all the the show's directors were female, and the production team and writers' room had a lot of women as well.
"It definitely felt like a very strong female set. I think sometimes Tom got out-voted — there were so many feminine voices," Ahn said with a laugh. "But he was really gracious about it."
"Tom is a man who knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he knows what he does not know about my world. He would give us an idea of what he liked and then we would translate that. He didn't have an ego about" taking input from everyone around him, McGuire noted.
In a process that was "very collaborative," according to McGuire, Hahn and the show's creative team arrived at a number of key decisions about how Eve would look: She would not have a short-ish "mom haircut" — an idea that had been percolating early on but was quickly dropped. Eve would not buy a whole new wardrobe, but would try out various sartorial experiments using clothes from her own closet. And finally, Hahn and the creative team decided that Eve's makeup would never be "aggressively overdone," according to McGuire.
"Sometimes you have to fight a network or producers who want the character to be 'sexier' or be more about fashion," said Covarrubias. And of course, tight, flashy, or expensive clothes may well be perfect for some female characters on TV (a nighttime soap without sequins or glitter eyeshadow is just sad). But an overtly fashion-forward or expensive look would not have worked for the watchful, pragmatic Eve Fletcher.
Over the course of their conversations, Covarrubias and Hahn decided that Eve had a garment bag in the back of her closet, one that contained four "good" dresses, a couple of which were "aspirational," Covarrubias said.
And a key part of Eve's look, all season long, was her comfy cardigan. No, really.
In the pilot, Holofcener was "instrumental" in creating a charged moment in which Eve begins to come out of her shell — or rather, out of the dark sweater she often wears, Hahn said. Before Eve's first writing class began, she shrugged off her dark cardigan to reveal that she was wearing a sleeveless top. Her show of skin caught the attention of Julian — as it was meant to.
"That was certainly done consciously," Hahn said. "Walking into that class with that energy and even taking the class — that was the first step" on Eve's journey to her new life.
That scene was "almost like an overture for the whole show," Perrotta said.
An even more charged moment arrived in the Dec. 8 finale, when Eve and Julian, who had battled their attraction to each other all season, had a conversation in Eve's kitchen. Eve wore one of the dresses from her closet — a dark, simple yet eye-catching dress with spaghetti straps. Her hair rested on her shoulder in gentle waves.* Earlier in the episode, she'd worn her favorite cardigan over the dress. But as the night wore on, and Eve gained confidence from both her new-found independence and the presence of her eclectic group of friends, she shed the sweater. When she's talking to Julian, it's nowhere in sight.
"In this moment, she's comfortable. There are questions in the back of her head, but she's showing herself to him," McGuire said. "Her hair is flowing, maybe her lipstick has worn off, she's had a few drinks and her mouth is red. She's reached that point where she's like, 'I'm doing this and I'm seeing what this is about — and this is who I am.'"
During the party, it doesn't matter that Eve has a brace on an injured foot and that she's not wearing what TV usually telegraphs as "sexy" clothes and hair. Feeling attractive for Eve, Covarrubias noted, "can mean wearing a cozy cardigan. That's what she feels good in — and she's owning it."
In the last few years, the costume designer said, she's worked with a much larger number of female directors and department heads, and "that used to not be a thing at all."
"It's nice to have those conversations where it's not all about the tight, low-cut dress or shirt. That can be sexy, but there can be different versions of sexy," she said. "A confident woman in a great suit can be sexy. For Eve going to that party in Brooklyn, she was in a beautiful, fitted green dress with a high neck and long sleeves. Kathryn felt good in it. And it was not really something that was showing skin."
Speaking of evolutions, one factor that bolstered Mrs. Fletcher's effort to explore sexuality in a complicated, non-exploitative way was the use of an intimacy coordinator. They are now employed by all scripted HBO programs that feature nudity or have scenes of simulated sex, and other networks have begun using them as well.
Mrs. Fletcher's intimacy coordinator, Claire Warden, spoke to each performer days before they were due to shoot sexually charged scenes, Perrotta said, and she would help the show's creative team formulate a filming plan that would account for both the needs of the story and the actors' input.
"It wasn't just a matter of having the actors articulate their boundaries — Claire also was a great choreographer of sex scenes," Perrotta said. The attention to detail and the focus on safety that Warden, the directors, and cast brought to those scenes "allowed me to step back almost the same way I did with hair and wardrobe and makeup, and trust that Kathryn and all the actors were happy and things weren't going to take an unpleasant turn on set."
Mrs. Fletcher was not the most shocking or flashy show on HBO this year. But it remained remarkably committed to telling a very specific and thoughtful story about the pitfalls and possibilities of change. It was observant, but compassionate, and yes, it did contain #HairGoals, and maybe even #CardiganGoals.
By the end of the season, Eve still had her sensible wardrobe, but she had also embraced a lot of new aspects of herself. She had gone back to calling herself Eve Mackey, the name she had before she got married.
But gaining all those things wasn't the whole story. As Hahn put it, Eve also "really let go of something."
Mrs. Fletcher is available to stream on HBO.
*Here's Esther Ahn's instructions on how to get Eve's hair: "I used a prep spray (No. 4 Prep and Protect) and a volumizing mousse (Living Proof) at the roots on damp hair. Then I dried using a diffuser to get as much of her natural wave as possible and lifting at the roots. I then used Oribe Soft Laquer heat-styling spray before using a medium and a large wand to curl throughout, alternating wands and direction for a more natural look. I used R & Co hairspray to hold and the curls would set while she was in makeup. Afterwards we would break up the curl with the Oribe Dry Texturizing Spray, and sometimes I used the Oribe Swept Up volume powder at the roots for more lift."