Midge’s bestie Imogene is a bit daffy, but she delivers the most revealing line of the Mrs. Maisel finale. Anxious to someday marry off her daughter Estelle to Midge’s son Ethan, she sees the weirdo ventriloquist that Midge hires to perform at their joint birthday party as an opportunity: “Since they’ll have suffered the same trauma, they’ll understand each other’s nightmares completely!”
That sentence perfectly describes Midge and Joel, whose lovey-dovey early days have been shown in flashback all season. The surrounding comedy is an accessory to this season’s bigger mystery: How did two people who seemingly had it all — looks, brains, wit, money — manage to have it all go so wrong?
As the aspiring Beat poets at the Gaslight might say, the blame falls on society, man. The Maisels tried to become “respectable people” of their era, a process that began the day after their wedding, when Midge opted out of staying in the Village so she could have a doorman and a Frigidaire. Now they’re all of 26 years old, and increasingly uninterested in the responsibilities they didn’t know they weren’t ready for, but to which they’re now manacled, even as their real selves are starting to emerge. Try as they might to escape the root cause — their marriage — Midge and Joel are the only ones who understand each other’s trauma.
So it’s no surprise that they hook up after Ethan’s birthday party, trying to bring back more innocent times by sneaking around in Midge’s childhood bedroom. But the dynamic has already started to change: Midge still can’t trust Joel after his dalliance with Penny, and she’s done trying to hide the seams of her own efforts to please him, starting with making up her face before sunrise and powdering away her bra lines. At the same time, they both try to deny the larger changes in their relationship. Midge re-dons her wedding ring, remeasures her ankles and calves, and cheerfully informs a highly skeptical Abe that she’s ready to give it another go. Meanwhile, Joel angles for a promotion at work and tries to get back into comedy, with the hopes of making it and giving Midge everything she wants.
But Midge has yet to confess the big secret of her life downtown, where she’s struggling to hold onto even the shittiest of shit gigs after unloading on Sophie Lennon and pissing off her powerful manager. Frustratingly, the show doesn’t dive much into why Midge made the decision that she did, or even let Susie show some justifiable anger at the situation, opting instead for resignation. (“It was really funny,” she tells Midge as they order another round of despair drinks. “And no one needs a good laugh like the truly, deeply fucked.”) Even as she pays for Midge’s mistakes by getting demoted at the Gaslight — and seeing her client get banned from her home club — Saint Susie remains a true believer, ever willing to sacrifice for Midge. When Joel rolls back into the Gaslight to grab a comedy slot, she even declines the easy chance to tell him off and blow Midge’s cover.
Instead, Joel gets tipped off by an unlikely source: that recording of Midge’s first drunken performance, which he hears while browsing for party albums at the record shop. Shocked by Midge’s willingness to air their dirty laundry in public and unable to focus on anything else, he botches the big presentation that might have led to his promotion, then quits his job right in the middle of it.
And he’s not the only one whose job is in jeopardy. Penny Pann finally finds her voice at the most inconvenient possible time, going off on Midge at the makeup counter for stealing “her” man. (“He moved out, Penny.” “But his things are there, his socks.” “Socks, or just a sock?”) Still, her loud labeling of Midge as a “tramp” is enough to get her in trouble with her stickler boss — though it’s not clear how things will turn out on that front.
It all leads to a big confrontation at the Gaslight, where Lenny Bruce agrees to let Midge open for him in the hopes of getting her un-blackballed. A dejected Joel drunkenly wanders in to catch the set, and while I can’t say that I adore his character, Michael Zegen nails the heartbreaking mix of pride, frustration, personal failure, anger, and resignation that flashes across Joel’s face as he realizes that Midge isn’t pulling a single punch in her act, and that she’s far better than he could ever hope to be.
That leads to a great final confrontation between Joel and Susie, the two sides who’ve been warring for Midge’s soul. Susie undoubtedly wins the bout coming and going: Her dismissal of Joel as “ripped right out of a bullshit male catalogue” is ridiculously satisfying, and that final “fuck you, Sal Mineo” is far funnier and more revealing than any joke Joel could ever tell. But we know that Midge won’t be able to dismiss him as easily.
The episode ends with Midge triumphant, working the room and completely ignorant of the fact that Joel is just outside, kicking the ass of the guy who heckled her. “She’s good!” he screams as the fight gets broken up — because, deep down, he knows she is. Will he be willing to sacrifice his own dreams to let her become great? It’s the ultimate unresolved question in a finale full of them. The jokes in Mrs. Maisel may go down easy, but the hard truths never do.
• In the episode’s final line, Midge finally drops her stage name “Amanda Gleason,” announcing herself as “Mrs. Maisel.” I have to say it’s a little weird, and overly on the nose to match the show title: Is she really going by Mrs. Maisel instead of Miriam or Midge Maisel?
• Before she drops the Amanda name, Midge also gets her first bout of bad press for her rant about Sophie, because Susie made the unfortunate call of inviting reporters. (“I had no idea it was Seppuku Night.”) It’ll be interesting to see how media coverage colors her career going forward.
• Another unresolved issue: Rose still has no idea what Midge is up to, and it’s obviously hurting her. Though I have to give credit to Mrs. Maisel for letting Abe just keep sitting on the bombshell of Midge’s arrest record, instead of blowing it up for some finale theatrics.
• A season-long shoutout is due to the heroics of the music department: The show owes a lot of its energy and appeal to the huge range of period tunes that hold its scene transitions together.
• I really loved the little scene where Joel, attempting to write jokes, asks a stranger if corned beef or pastrami is funnier, and she responds “pastrami” without missing a stride. A proto–Billy on the Street moment, it really showed the depth of this show’s affection for New York and New Yorkers.
• If you loved Mrs. Maisel, you’ll be pleased to know it was already ordered to a second season before the first was made. See you then!