A few months ago, I was reporting on a porn set and watched a woman performer repeatedly deliver the following pivotal line until she reached the perfect inflection and degree of intensity: “What would you do if nothing were holding you back?” “What would you do if nothing were holding you back?” “What would you do if nothing were holding you back?” That is precisely what played out in the climactic sex scene in the final episode of HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher on Sunday—and it’s what porn, a topic at the heart of the series, is so often about: the fantasy of abandon. In the case of the show, the question is: What does it look like for a woman to no longer be held back—by family, by societal expectation?
For Eve Fletcher, the titular character, a divorced middle-aged mom who drives a mini-van, it’s—Spoiler alert—a spur-of-the-moment threesome in her suburban bedroom with a 19-year-old boy-man and a charming woman who teaches aqua-aerobics at an old folks’ home. This crowning scene is not, on any front, a cliche or idealized sexual scenario. Instead, the moment pulls its erotic charge from the broader narrative context of a middle-aged woman’s sexual coming of age. It is, quite possibly, the best sex scene I’ve ever seen on television.
To those in need of a catch up: The show, based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name, follows Eve Fletcher (played by Kathryn Hahn), a charming if understated woman who works at an old folks’ home. When her bro-y, Muscle Milk-drinking teenage son, Brendan, leaves for college, Eve suddenly has all this time on her hands—and those hands inevitably end up down her pants. She’s spent the past two decades in a self-sacrificing marathon of devotion to her cheating, negligent ex-husband and entitled jock of a son, and now here she is: alone in the nest that she built. There is only one person left for her to take care of: herself.
In that taking care, she ends up on the fictional tube site Milfateria.com (fun fact: if you type in the url, you’ll be redirected to Tom Perrotta’s website), a buffet of piping-hot MILF content. (Another fun fact: The first video she clicks on stars Angela White, the same performer who I watched deliver that “nothing holding you back” line.) Soon after, she attends a community college creative writing class and meets fellow student Julian, a long-haired 19-year-old played by the curiously attractive Owen Teague. He gives her a coy look, she seductively takes off her sweater—it’s like she’s walked right into one of the MILF porn clips she’s been watching. Only, she isn’t following a porn script so much as she is suddenly tuned in to her own desire.
Eve doesn’t treat the porn that she increasingly and frenziedly watches as a guidebook to pleasing men—because, been there, done that, and what the fuck did it do for her? It’s a tasting menu for her own sexual delight. Inspired by the videos she’s watched online, she tries spanking herself. She masturbates while splayed out on the kitchen floor in the midst of baking cookies for a care package for her son. She daydreams in the grocery store about being sensually caressed by a woman offering samples of organic popsicles. Of course, plenty of obligatory viewer-lols are had in the process—buttoned-up suburban mom discovers spanking, ends up humping the kitchen floor! Yet, ultimately, the process is dead-serious. This is her delayed, middle-aged pubescence: It is funny and bumbling, until the immensely satisfying season finale.
Of course, porn is often critiqued as a bad social influence, a medium that miseducates young and old alike about sex (less frequently critiqued is the lack of adequate education around sex and media that precipitates this miseducation). In Mrs. Fletcher, though, porn is what opens up Eve to the world of erotic possibility. It’s a gateway to discovery. Porn isn’t her endpoint, but rather a launching point into the world of self-driven desire.
That isn’t to say that the show is one-note on the subject of porn: Eve’s son—much less attuned to the nuances of fantasy and reality, performance and pleasure—appears to believe that he can, without negotiation, act out the rough sex and verbal humiliation that he has, many viewers will assume, seen portrayed in porn. In a disturbing scene, he gets rightfully punched in the balls after grabbing a partner’s head mid-blowjob and exclaiming, “Fucking dirty slut,” while she strains against his force. Earlier in the season, Eve had overheard her son using just this sort of language during sex, but—this being prior to her sexual awakening—found it too uncomfortable to have a meaningful and direct conversation with him about it. Ultimately, Mrs. Fletcher isn’t a black-and-white referendum on porn so much as it is an exploration of its many uses and applications, the potential blessings and pitfalls in how viewers watch and interpret it.
Like porn previously was for Eve, Julian is forbidden. He is 19 years old and a former classmate to her son and the object of his bullying. Yet, she is drawn to him because of (maybe I’m projecting but) his tender eyes, awkward gait, and trembling half-smile. For years, Eve has been responsible and well-behaved, while the men in her life have done whatever the hell they want. Now, she is divided between what she wants and how she is expected to behave, a totally prosaic experience for girls and women with any category of sexual feeling, whether it involves attraction to a weird-hot 19-year-old or not. We are not supposed to want.
It is for this reason that women’s sexual coming of age can be stunted. It is for this reason that Eve and Julian, separated in age by decades, are both only just beginning to step into their sexual selves. Their match is highly inappropriate and utterly perfect.
Over the course of the seven-episode season, Mrs. Fletcher has been slowly edging toward a moment of ecstatic release. A stolen look between Eve and Julian here, a stilted conversation there. In an earlier episode, there’s a moment where it seems they will get together, but Eve demurs. “You are so beautiful,” she says, before continuing. “I can’t. We can’t.” In this final episode, though, something finally cracks. She runs into her ex-husband who reveals that he has unintentionally gotten his new wife pregnant, for the second time. He refers to himself as a soon-to-be father of two, seeming to momentarily forget about the son that he has with Eve. Next time we see her, Eve is legally changing her last name—after all these years, she’s reclaiming her maiden name. No more Mrs. Fletcher, now she is Ms. Mackey. She is done with being erased.
Eve decides to throw a party to celebrate the name change—but before it kicks off, she twists her ankle amid the shock of a sudden hallucination. She thinks she sees a beloved elderly man from the old folks’ home who has recently passed away. He’s an apparition signaling the creep of mortality, the shortness of life, the need to carpe that diem, the go-ahead to bone that 19-year-old, already. The party, held in her living room, dwindles until it is just her, Julian, and Amanda, the aqua-aerobics instructor from the old folks’ home, and a bevy of lingering loaded glances. Amanda, a confident woman farther down the path of sexual acceptance and exploration, recognizes the spark between the other two and acts as Eve’s guide. Putting on the soulful “Is It Any Wonder?” by Durand Jones & The Indications, she asks Eve, “May I have this dance? I’ll be gentle.” It is a fitting time-warp right back to the butterflies of a middle school dance.
Amanda runs her hands through Eve’s hair as they slow dance before calling over Julian to do what Eve cannot yet: She kisses him. Then Amanda leads Eve to Julian, showing her the way to her desire—and Eve literally holds onto her for safety before making the leap and kissing him herself. Before long, the three are making out. Then they are in bed, clothes are taken off—it’s kissing, touching, grabbing, hand-holding. CUNNILINGUS! Then it’s over: Just a bed full of naked limbs and intimate chatter and laughter. The sexiest bits come before the clothes even come off, when the barriers start to crumble. It’s a vision of what can happen when the rules for appropriate and acceptable behavior disintegrate. When the undercurrents of attraction and flirtation come burbling loudly to the surface. When a woman, and another woman and a young man, get just what they want—and when what they want is a mutual exploration of bodies and sensation and pleasure.
Of course, sexual freedom is never this simple, especially not for women. It happens that while Eve was finally admitting and allowing her desires, Brendan was unexpectedly heading back from college. He pushes open his mom’s bedroom door to discover this naked tangle of limbs, then Brendan bolts out the front door in disgust. He is, for the first time in his life, really seeing his mom—she’s naked in more ways than one. At first, Eve startles at the sight of him, electrified by maternal concern, but when she eventually wraps herself in a robe and goes to talk to her son, it isn’t with a look of shame but rather the careful deliberation of a parent about to deliver some shocking news to their child. She isn’t Mrs. Fletcher anymore.