When we last saw Midge, she’d declared herself done with professional comedy, despite working the room at a party with her jokes. Fast-forward a couple of weeks later, and she’s now a semi-professionalized partygoer, visiting a different soiree every night to regale the attendees with anecdotes about her wife-murdering high-school crush and wry observations about Hanukkah’s inability to match up to Christmas. It’s classic Midge: too timid about the unfamiliar world of Greenwich Village to face its crowds, but with so much moxie in her uptown life that she’s managed to get everyone on the Upper West Side to suddenly integrate her stand-up into their lives.
But while Midge has become an in-demand party guest, she’s not a well-compensated one. So when she happens to get into a bit of improvised sketch work with a fellow partygoer, struggling comedian Randall (Nate Corddry), he suggests the possibility of setting up shop as a double act. For Midge, who’s never even heard of Nichols and May, the possibility is new and intriguing — especially the money that commercials and industrial work could possibly bring in for a male-female duo. But Susie rightly sees not only a threat to her role as Midge’s manager, but to Midge’s development as a comedian. She could easily fall into the trap of being the “dizzy broad” shilling Buicks, instead of the original voice she deserves to be.
Susie is right, of course. But as much as I love her character, having her assume this “guardian angel of comedy” role can be a damper on a lot of enjoyable, interesting, character-developing paths that Midge could have walked down. Any real career in comedy is based in the regular and frequent practice of failure, both onstage and off, but we’ll never get to see Midge find out that a double act isn’t really for her, or chafe at the strictures of commercial work, or bomb in a way that goes beyond simple unpreparedness because Susie is always there to keep her on track. Though she could certainly use a cut of that Buick cash to escape her dumpy apartment, Susie remains endlessly willing to self-sacrifice for Midge’s art. She’s basically a saint, albeit a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, shoplifting, lobster-snarfing one.
The time that could be spent on watching Midge make career mistakes is instead allocated to her family, as Abe gets offered the job of his dreams consulting with the Über-brainiacs at Bell Labs. I’m pleased to see the Weissmans finally get a plotline that doesn’t involve stewing about Midge and Joel or conspiring to reunite them, and also lets Tony Shalhoub stretch his wings a little. (His playacting at being too busy to consider the Bell Labs gig is great — you can see where Midge gets her savvy.)
Abe’s promotion is a big occasion, even drawing a special visit from Midge’s math-geek brother Noah (Will Brill) and his anxious wife Astrid (Justine Loupe), a converted former shiksa who tries a bit too hard to play the part of an authentic member of the tribe. Astrid is also struggling with fertility issues, and is increasingly convinced that Noah will bail on her the same way Joel bailed on Midge. (In a sweet scene on the fire escape, Midge makes her brother promise he’ll do no such thing; thankfully, he seems to genuinely love Astrid and isn’t even stressed about not having kids.)
Astrid’s admission seemed like sufficient mention of Joel for one episode, but he’s back again, this time ruining the celebratory family dinner by going on a date with Penny to the exact same restaurant. He’s apologetic enough to Midge about the coincidence (which Noah and Abe immediately calculate to be somewhere between 1 in 12,000 and 1 in 16,000), but then has the gall to be dismayed that she’s not wearing her wedding ring — even though he’s the one who cheated and shacked up with his secretary! I genuinely want to like Joel, but this show isn’t giving him much of a chance. And don’t even get me started on Penny, whose only line in this episode is wondering if General Tso is real. (He was, though his connection, if any, to the chicken dish is a matter of debate.)
The only thing I can say for Joel is that his reappearance sparks a nice scene between Midge and Susie, in which both women forge a fresh partnership around hard truths. Susie is right that Midge needs to do the work and quit denying her destiny, but Midge is also right that Susie needs to show her some kindness. “If you’re gonna be a personal manager, then sometimes you’re gonna have to deal with the personal. And you’re going to have to listen to me talk about my husband and my kids. And you’re going to have to tell me I’m good, even when I’m not,” she says. It’s the first time in all of this mess that we’ve seen Midge cry, and it’s a well-earned scene. She really has been struggling to keep a brave face, and she needs Susie in her corner for everything, not just the part that sparkles.
It’s a good thing that Midge has that support lined up, because her house of cards is about to come crashing down. I knew her fresh criminal record would come back to haunt her, and sure enough, it appears in Abe’s background check for Bell Labs. Simultaneously, those basement audio geeks have found a recording of Midge’s first, drunken set at the Gaslight. Sooner or later, everyone uptown will find out what she’s been doing downtown and they’re not going to like it.
• This is the first Mrs. Maisel episode not written by a Palladino; the writer is Sheila Lawrence, a Gilmore Girls and Bunheads alum. It’s also the best-written episode so far, nicely balancing very funny jokes with rich pathos. The Palladinos are known for being workhorses, writing whole seasons of Gilmore Girls all by themselves, but maybe they can use that boatload of Amazon cash to buy a little more help next season.
• This episode gave me the biggest belly laugh of the season when Susie, after telling off the B. Altman store detective for following her (“Do I look like I would want anything sold here?”) pilfered a lipstick on her way out the door.
• I also guffawed when Rose noted that Penny’s ankles and calves are the same width — Midge made the exact same observation in her first set at the Gaslight. Speaking of that first set, I went back and watched that part of the pilot, but I didn’t see anyone with a tape recorder. Recorders were gigantic in that era, too. How did that escape Susie’s notice, at the very least?
• The audio geeks say that they only know Joel’s name, but Midge refers to herself by her first name in the set, in the same sentence in which she mentions Joel. (“Did you hear what Midge did to Joel’s balls last night?”) The bit about Penny Pann, whom Midge mentions by first and last name, is also a clue.
• One more classic Susie line, to Randall’s agent: “What kind of contract have you got with her?” “Same kind of contract you’ve got with your nuts. There’s two of us, and we’re attached.”