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The First Lady season 1 episode 3 review: marriage origin story

Life before politics for the future first ladies.

Jamie Lawson as Michelle Obama in The First Lady
(Image: © Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME)

Our Verdict

Revealing how each woman ended up with their husband is an effective way to emphasize themes and help us get to know them better.

For

  • - The dynamic between Michelle's family
  • - Each young version is excellent and the casting department knocked it out of the park
  • - Costume designer Signe Sejlund's attention to detail (particularly the wedding dress)
  • - Eleanor's school deserves a spin-off

Against

  • - The abrupt leap from Eleanor talking to Franklin to marrying him
  • - We know who they will marry so this reduces the tension in the Betty story

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for The First Lady season 1 episode 3 "Please Allow Me." Read the recap for The First Lady episode 2 here.

Having revealed the path to the White House over the first two episodes, The First Lady spins the clock back further to show how each couple got together. In doing so, "Please Allow Me" substitutes its trio of famous actresses for lesser-known names, with Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects, Little Women) as young Eleanor being the most recognizable. The romantic origin stories still bounce about the timeline to the detriment of each character, but this narrative choice is not as jarring as the previous outings.

First of all, hats off to the casting team as they have found three young women who each embody the famous figures long before their husbands won took over on the presidency. The episode opens in 1947 with Betty (Kristine Froseth) teaching dance to a group of children and a clearly smitten square-jawed man looks on. Upon leaving, we find out this is Gerald Ford (Jake Picking) before his hair started to thin. Gerry wants to take her out, which would be fine except Betty is already married, though her home life is far from blissful.

One problem with this storytelling structure is we already know each woman will end up married to the men making bold declarations — in each relationship the guy does the pursuing. However, Betty’s journey less known, revealing her troubling marital situation over a drink with Gerry, 

It seems marrying Bill (Thomas E. Sullivan) was an act of rebelling against her mother. When she musters up the courage to leave him, he falls into a diabetic coma. There isn't too much detail given about this health crisis, but it appears to be an unfortunate coincidence and not a worrying last-ditch effort to save his marriage by making himself sick. 

Kristine Froseth as Betty Ford in The First Lady

Kristine Froseth in the First Lady (Image credit: Murray Close/SHOWTIME)

Bad timing aside, it helps Gerry is a lawyer as he reassures Betty she can file for divorce based on the previous abuse she experienced. She follows his advice and gets a new apartment, but Gerry has seemingly lost interest and appears to be ignoring her calls. In an age before the drunk text, she sends him an angry tear-stained letter fueled by alcohol. 

It gets Gerry’s attention. Turns out he was distracted by work, which is a not very subtle red flag for what the next 30 years of Betty’s life are going to look like. He is absent-minded rather than purposefully neglectful and she is quick to forgive and forget. However, there will be a cost down the road as it looks like she is barrelling toward this line in her present-day scenes

The years flash forward first to 1987 when Michelle (Jayme Lawson) graduates from Harvard Law School and returns to Chicago. One highlight from the bumpy premiere is the scenes between Michelle and her mom Marian (Regina Taylor),and the scenes in the Robinson home in this episode build on this. 

Michelle’s father is sick and health care inequality cuts to the emotional core. It doesn’t matter that Michelle is making good money, as the hospital system is stacked against them. The hole left by Fraser’s (Michael Potts) absence after his death can never be filled, but it informs the universal healthcare platform we know will be a cornerstone of the Obama administration.

Young Barack (Julian De Niro, yes he’s Robert’s son) hits the dorky vibes but also sells the passion and idealism that will inspire millions. Their meet-cute occurs at work but it isn’t until an ice cream date that it tips into romance. 

All three actresses hold their own against the older portrayals of these women, but Lawson gets to tackle the widest range of emotions and digs deep beneath the walls erected after her father's death. It also helps that while Davis is playing the Michelle Obama we recognize, Lawson is giving us a peek behind the curtain before we knew the future First Lady. 

Eliza Scanlen as Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady

Eliza Scanlen in The First Lady (Image credit: Boris Martin/SHOWTIME)

Eleanor’s narrative takes a different course as Franklin (Charlie Plummer) barely features in his own love story, which is reflective of their romance. Rather, it's her time at Allenswood School for Girls in London that opens her eyes to what the world offers in 1900. Can someone please get on an entire Gossip Girl style series featuring Scanlen as Eleanor in her school years? 

Sadly, Eleanor’s education is cut short so she can return to the US to become a debutante, much to her chagrin. This brief snapshot also reveals a deep wound caused by comments Eleanor’s mother made about her daughter before she died. She was disappointed to have a "plain child," which is hard to shake even when President Teddy Roosevelt (Jeremy Bobb) tells her otherwise as he encourages her to put on a dress and attend the parties she desperately wants to avoid. The bond with her uncle underscores her roots in the White House were planted early on.

It's at one such bash that she meets Franklin, or rather, reintroduces herself to her cousin. He is quick to point out they are fifth cousins, therefore his flirtatious overtures are not creepy. The only issue with this wooing is it goes from Eleanor turning down his offer to dance to their wedding ceremony. Perhaps it was as abrupt as this in real life, but it is jarring nevertheless. 

The final sequence somewhat confusingly does away with dates and instead shows each woman on their wedding day as a continuous sequence. Costume designer Signe Sejlund continues to be The First Lady’s best asset from Betty’s 1940s attire to the bridal recreations that reflect what the real brides wore. Eleanor’s dress is the most audacious (opens in new tab) to reflect her status and the white satin "princess robe" even has a floral sash detail on the bodice. Sejlund captures Michelle’s timeless classic silhouette and the final shot of the giddy Obamas is a delightful end to a satisfactory episode.

New episodes of The First Lady air on Sundays at 9 pm ET/PT on Showtime.

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.