Apartments can be memory palaces, as the opening of this episode makes clear via a spin through five years in Midge Maisel’s former Upper West Side pad. From the first box of newlywed Chinese takeout enjoyed on the floor to the last box hauled down to the basement, Midge lived a lot of life in her classic six: birthdays (including the births of both of her children), New Year’s parties, late-night games of charades. Although her mother might be lying to herself — and the neighbors — that it’s not really the end, Midge knows that it is. It’s time to move on.
The annoying part, of course, is that Midge can’t really move on, or even out of her building. Her only refuge is upstairs with her parents, those two children the only visible indication that things have changed since the days she collected poodle figurines and was a member of the Dionne Quintuplets fan club. As she confesses to Susie, her father has always been the hard one and her mother the soft touch, and it isn’t long before everyone’s resuming their old roles: Abe raging about the second TV that Midge wants to keep Ethan distracted (on the incredibly dumb pretext that she can’t use the one she has in the basement because it reminds her of Joel), and Rose wheedling her way into getting Midge what she wants between cups of her famous hot cocoa.
But while returning to her childhood home is unquestionably cramping Midge’s style, it’s also the perfect hothouse to nurture her growing passion for comedy. Mother or no, she’s still living like a teenager: scribbling joke ideas in her diary, developing sudden and passionate attachments to political causes, trotting downtown for her secret “trysts” with Susie, lying on her rug giggling to Redd Foxx records like an overgrown bobby-soxer. If what we’ve seen of Midge so far is her passion for self-expression, this episode is all about her passion for craft, and the seriousness with which she applies herself to learning. Many comedians talk about developing their obsession in their teenage years — Midge is just walking the same path, albeit a decade later.
It’s clear that she’s found an equally serious partner in Susie, who approaches her role as manager with the same youthful zeal, even if she’s so broke that she has to type up her business cards at the local newsstand. The difference is that while Miriam is an open book, no amount of cajoling is going to get Susie to say much about her life. Her siblings are assholes, her dad’s a deadbeat, her mom’s a drunk full of regrets, and that’s all we know. Based on her attire in that era, I think it’s safe to assume she’s gay, but when did she come out? Has she had a girlfriend, or does she have one now? What has her adult life been like, aside from managing the Gaslight? For being essentially the show’s second lead, she remains frustratingly opaque.
What she does have, though, is an encyclopedic knowledge of her field, one that’s on full display as she leads Midge, Virgil-like, through the various layers of the comedic underworld. From the hilarious underground weirdos at the bottom of the totem pole (that guy with the dead dummy would kill in the modern alt-comedy world) to Red Skelton commanding a room at the Copa, Susie knows every agent, every booker, every player, and every in and out. She’s every bit the prodigy that Midge is.
But this is still the real world, and neither of them gets let off the hook for being a woman, or for starting way behind the rest of the pack. Even when Midge is caught taking notes on a mid-level comedian’s set, he assumes she’s stealing material for a male competitor, and dismisses that she’s doing so for herself. Susie might know the game from the outside, but her first attempt at pitching Midge to a booker proves she has a long way to go as a saleswoman.
Then there’s Midge’s latest reunion with Joel, in which she discovers that he’s set up house with Penny Pann, in a near-identical spot just two blocks from their old place. The resulting tirade, right in front of Penny, is unutterably childish, but then again, so is Joel’s desire to remake his life in the same way, only filling the “wife” slot with someone too dumb to know what a disappointment he is. (Or seemingly so: Sherman-Palladino seems dead set on not letting this extremely key character speak for herself, to the point that it’s becoming irritating.)
Like a lot of viewers, I’m sick of Joel at this point, but he’s part of the work of Midge’s life — and right now, that’s relevant because Midge has to do the work. As Susie notes, she needs to get onstage and deliver rehearsed material, not just well-timed therapeutic rambles. She needs to learn to bomb. And she needs a real job, too, unless she wants to keep living under a teenage-style curfew. She’s learned all she can from the audience. Now it’s time to take the stage.
• I continue to be regularly taken aback at how expensive this show is. That opening series of flashbacks must have cost a mint, to say nothing of shooting in Washington Square Park and that big set piece at the Copa. When a show is buying the rights to Peggy Lee’s “Fever” for a 20-second scene break, you know you’re looking at big money.
• Speaking of that opening flashback sequence, did you catch Joel’s first attempt at ripping off the Newhart routine? He still had the tag on his turtleneck sweater.
• Midge’s conversion from housewife to civil rights–obsessed Jane Jacobs radical seems a little sudden, though I imagine it’ll put her in pole position as we slowly shift eras into the ’60s.
• Given the amount of time spent on it last episode, I wish we’d gotten some clarity on whether Abe and Moishe’s apartment-share deal is off. It’s clear that Abe thinks Midge and Joel are over, but is keeping the apartment over, too?
• I’ll give Amy Sherman-Palladino points for trying some era-appropriate pop-culture digs at the likes of Liberace and Jack Parr, even if some flew over my millennial head. I did enjoy this one: “Bing Crosby’s so oily-looking. Like if you got on top of him, you’d slide right off.”
• Alex Borstein is delivering the hell out of everything she gets, and all the best lines continue to come from Susie: “Who’s this guy?” “He’s from Montana.” “And what’s his blood type? … What, you told me one useless piece-of-shit detail, I thought you could throw in another.”