The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been a lot of things in its first season — funny, ravishingly gorgeous, frustrating — but one thing that it hasn’t really been is surprising. Even when Midge has her doubts about doing comedy, it seemed certain that with the right attitude, hard work, and Susie’s well-honed tutelage, she’d be on the path to becoming a great comedian. This episode changes all of that. Not because of any twist of fate, but because Midge changes it for herself.
“Put That on Your Plate!” opens with the version of Midge that fans have been waiting to see since the pilot: She’s finally doing the work, telling jokes and paying her dues as a comedian. A nicely crafted opening montage lets us follow three of her jokes through the creative process, from inspiration to decently half-formed idea to genuinely solid laugh line. Throughout it all is Susie, watching from the sidelines, waiting for each bit to emerge in full. By the time Midge has developed a tight ten, Susie’s so happy that she can’t hold back tears.
The next step is pulling Midge away from her safe space at the Gaslight and getting her out into all five boroughs (“Though when I say all five boroughs, I don’t mean Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx. Or that much Brooklyn,” Susie admits. “Really just Manhattan.”). So Susie once again forces her way into an all-male space to call on her buddy/star comedy agent Harry, whom we last saw at the Friars Club. He agrees to potentially give Midge a doomed-to-fail set opening for one of his top clients, famed vaudevillian Sophie Lennon, played by Jane Lynch. (Kudos are owed to casting director Cindy Tolan, who’s stuffed these episodes with tons of great character actors that can really take a bite out of the period material.)
Lennon wasn’t a real person, but she’s certainly emblematic of many female comics of an earlier era. A bawdy yet family-friendly cartoon of a fat-and-sassy hausfrau from Queens, she specializes in the kind of chasing-the-husband-with-a-frying-pan jokes that Herb Smith churned out on index cards for Midge. But while she’s an earthy, blowsy relic of an earlier era, Lynch also makes certain we see her obvious talent for working a stage. Midge is impressed, and rightfully so: Sophie is a star.
But Sophie is also a liar, and a damn good one. When Midge visits her at home, she finds a completely different atmosphere: a huge mansion, populated with stiff-upper-lip servants bossed around by an elegant, well-coiffed Sophie, who’s actually a fabuously wealthy aesthete with a lifestyle as rigid as her diet of raw lemon slices. A lesser actress wouldn’t be able to fully humanize such a personality shift, but Lynch deftly draws aspects of the fake Sophie into the real one, small trickles of bawdiness and warmth edging from beneath her severe exterior. Sophie may initially come off as an ice queen, but there’s a quiet hauntedness to her. Imperious matron is just another role, but Sophie’s lost the thread of where she ends and her characters begin.
Her advice is plain: No one is interested in seeing Midge play herself, or laughing at a pretty woman. Her act may kill with the gin-soaked hipsters of the Village, but it won’t translate to dog-food-buying regular folk in Topeka. She encourages Midge to develop a broader, uglier character to portray instead, and when such career advice is delivered from a woman who hands out fur coats to guests like after-dinner mints, it’s probably worth consideration.
Instead, Midge does the opposite. While performing at the Gaslight as a showcase for Harry, she drops the act she’s meticulously written. Instead, she lays into Sophie, her hypocrisy, and society’s need to control women and make them hide who they really are. It’s a jaw-dropper of a scene, and one whose significance is not easy to parse. Is Midge aware of the damage she’s doing in driving away Harry (who’s not only offended by the attack on his client, but vows revenge on Susie for it)? Does she understand the opportunities she’s sacrificing to be true to her own inner voice, or is she as unhinged as she was in court, unable to keep herself from using the mic as therapy? And in an era where that set would certainly not play with dog-food buyers in Topeka, who’s right: Midge, for being true to herself? Sophie, for recognizing that isn’t how the world works? Or Susie, who’s hoping to trim Midge’s rough edges to find a middle path? It’s a moment that asks what society, then and now, wants out of funny women, a question to which there are no easy answers.
But as for that “frustrating” part, everything discussed above is only half the episode. There isn’t enough time to explore those issues more deeply, because we have to spend extensive time with Joel (who’s broken up with Penny, moved in with his folks, and is wallowing in self-pity), Abe (who starts a comedy of errors by bringing a divorce lawyer home to dinner), and Rose (who finally learns that Midge turned Joel away when he came back, and is utterly furious). Midge’s two lives couldn’t be further apart, and at the moment, I’d rather be downtown exploring these thorny questions about femininity, performance, and art.
Sure, Midge’s reaction to Sophie may be wishful thinking from the future to the past, especially since it comes from a woman who still adheres to plenty of patriarchal beauty standards of her own. But the fact that we don’t know her feelings and why she makes the choices she makes — in large part because Mrs. Maisel is creating room for plots about male characters — is driving me as crazy as Sophie drove Midge. This show could be on the edge of something real, fascinating, and raw, but it’s still hiding behind the safety of easy frying-pan jokes.
• Susie’s lack of character development is now a running joke, which I don’t love. She mentioned how Sophie “got us through the Depression,” but then refuses to tell a surprised Midge how old she is.
• I agree with Rose: Why call someone a “pimp” when you could call them a souteneur? Sounds so classy!
• Midge’s jokes in the opening montage are really solid. That bit about “Here, give me all your money, and at least it’ll feel like you’re married to Elizabeth Taylor” would still kill today.
• Considering all the Joel we get in this episode, it would be nice to know how and why he and Penny broke up. Setting up house with a new squeeze and then walking out ain’t cheap.
• Tony Shalhoub describing Midge’s old boyfriend Palmer as “like a pole vaulter in Triumph of the Will” really got me.