The biggest complaint I’ve heard from Mrs. Maisel viewers so far is that the show has too much uptown, not enough downtown. In one sense, I understand their pain: The pilot was such a lively fantasia that watching the extensive fallout of Midge and Joel’s split has been a real drag by comparison. The anxious parents, the drudgery of child care, and especially Midge’s time in court are no fun compared to watching her hang out with Lenny Bruce and kill onstage, but as her routine in this episode makes clear, there is no high without the pain. Watching what goes into making stand-up is rarely as enjoyable as watching the result.
This is the first Mrs. Maisel episode to be written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino’s husband/writing partner Daniel, and for me, its pacing and emotional heft clicked better than the first two. There might not have been quite as many laugh lines, but the emotional through-line is clearer. It starts with a flashback to Miriam and Joel’s college days, when he was trying to use jokes to seduce her away from blonde hunk Palmer Witherspoon. The sexual tension between the two is undeniably white-hot, but you can see shades of Joel’s self-absorption in the way he criticizes her drink choice (which should be his), the way he tells her she’s “destined for better things than this” (in other words, him).
I’m sure Joel didn’t anticipate those “better things” including stain-removal tips for murderers in a jail cell, or obscenity and indecent exposure charges. But they’re all part of the collateral damage of this breakup. I’m surprised the show jumped to Midge’s legal reckoning so soon in its run (I suppose the criminal-justice system was more efficient in the ’50s), but I’m equally surprised that someone schooled enough in the patriarchy to wear her fanciest dress to meet even a scrubby, put-upon lawyer wouldn’t know enough to keep her mouth shut while being hectored by a dismissive judge.
In the pilot, Midge was a true operator, a wolf in housewife’s clothing; as the show’s run wears on, she seems to be more of a Lorelai Gilmore–style loose cannon. That’s a wholly acceptable character choice, especially for a comedian, but it doesn’t quite jibe with her ability to politely endure Imogene’s yammering about Dr. Spock, or patiently school her mother in administering ear-infection medication. Either she can competently play Upper West Side princess when it advances her cause, saving her “true self” for the stage, or she can’t. It’d be good to see the show take a side.
In any case, running her mouth lands Midge in jail for a third time, slapped with a $200 contempt-of-court fine. (That’s about $1,700 in 2017 dollars — no small amount of money, especially considering Midge could have just stayed quiet.) Despite the last episode’s revelation that he’s broke, Joel somehow has enough ready cash in his desk to bail her out, even though she asks for it with no details and extracts a promise never to speak of it again. Joel himself remains a frustratingly blank slate in this episode, seen briefly and only through Miriam’s flashbacks and backslapping chats with his office bestie. He’s ignoring his paramour Penny, presumably because he’s heartbroken over his lost marriage, but we don’t know that’s why — until he’s already trying to get Midge back.
Joel’s ghostly presence, Rose’s heartache, the haggling between Abe and Moishe to share ownership of the apartment and re-matchmake their kids: All of this feels trivial and boring compared to the real point of the show, which is Miriam’s project of remaking herself. It’s like focusing the camera on an empty chrysalis as a gorgeous butterfly takes its first wingbeats offscreen.
But Miriam isn’t able to fly away. She has real obligations to, if no one else, the little boy who keeps strangely staring at her in bed and the tiny baby with recurrent ear infections. Even as she tries to push those thoughts away, swapping shop talk with Lenny Bruce and joints with a Village Vanguard jazz trio, they can’t help but spill out onstage. “What if I wasn’t meant to be a mother? What if I picked the wrong profession?” she asks the crowd in a surprisingly revealing, marijuana-fueled moment. That realization quickly gets defused by a craving for pretzels, but the question remains. In an era where women were told that motherhood was not optional, many found themselves with babies long before they found themselves. If that’s something this show is really going to deal with, we’re in for quite a ride.
In the meantime, Midge isn’t settling for the easy out of getting back together with Joel. She’s tasted her freedom, and whether she’s right or wrong, she knows she can’t trust him anymore. Finding a new home, finding a way to care for her kids, getting her parents onboard with her new dream: It’s all an ugly process, but it’s her process, and it will be her material, too. Because she’s destined for better things than this.
• Michael Kessler, Midge’s super-lawyer who defended the Rosenbergs and anti–Jim Crow cases, doesn’t appear to have been a real person. But I did get a laugh out of the fact that he’s played by Max Casella — who also played the owner of the Gaslight Café in Inside Llewyn Davis.
• This episode is less focused on jokes, but Susie still gets some great lines. I especially liked her sizing up the fellow courtroom defendants: “The [guy I thought was a] horse-fucker was a flasher, so I was close.”
• In general, it’s hard to find room to talk about Susie, who’s simultaneously in Midge’s life and yet not entirely of it. Her last scene was the first to give her more than sidekick depth, as she busts into the Friars’ Club to get advice on comedy management from an old hand (the great David Paymer). It’s precisely the intoxicating mix of old-school glamour and glass-ceiling-busting spunk that viewers of this show want to get high on.
• Speaking of getting high: For a “nice girl,” Midge leapt on that joint like a pro. No Peggy Olson–esque hesitation here! Though I’ll bet that the spare joint Lenny gave her is going to go off in the third act — not to mention that new criminal record she’s picked up.
• Someone really needs to tell the Sherman-Palladinos to stop naming these episodes after their key closing lines. This isn’t network TV, guys, you’re spoiling all the surprises!