We all knew it was coming: To be a good comedian, you have to bomb, and Midge not only hasn’t bombed, she’s never not killed. (Well, excepting her appearance in court). She’s done an above-average amount of groundwork — scribbling in that pink notebook, devotedly listening to comedy records — but as Susie mentioned between attempts to steal her fries, there are lessons about comedy that one can only learn onstage.
And man, does Midge ever learn them the hard way. In her first appearance at the Gaslight not aided by drugs or alcohol, her rambling isn’t quite as well-received, probably because it’s not punctuated by many (well, any) jokes. Plotwise, it’s a bit of an easy out to have Midge, otherwise such a faithful student, walk onstage so unprepared; surely someone as comedy-savvy as Susie wouldn’t let her up there without at least sketching out the basics of a routine. But since she’s managed to win over audiences this far by only her wits and the contents of her purse, I’ll suspend disbelief that she actually thinks that’s how it works.
What I don’t quite understand is why Midge, who should theoretically have a healthy post-Joel disdain for any jokes she hasn’t personally written, seeks a ghostwriter. Sure, writing jokes is hard, but so is reckoning with the outside shame of potentially using pilfered material, especially when that was the prime ingredient in ending her marriage.
In any case, we do get to witness Wallace Shawn, as bottom-feeding comedy writer Herb Smith, consuming scenery with the same voracity that his character consumes kasha varnishkes. Even when Midge finds out the pile of joke notecards he sold her are a bill of goods (albeit with a free pickle), Shawn looks like he’s having the time of his life. I can’t imagine a better pairing of actor and material, and I wish he wasn’t gone so soon.
Because of Herb, recycled jokes are once again the breaking point in a relationship for Midge: this time, with Susie. Susie is livid that Midge has circumvented her comedy tutelage in such a dumb way; Midge is livid that Susie is letting her fail. And so the two women undertake a nasty breakup, which, in Midge’s case, is also a breakup with her newfound dream.
The funny thing is, Midge has far more problems in her life uptown than she does at the Gaslight, yet she handles them with much more aplomb. It’s hard for me to buy that someone with the moxie to march into a department store and sell herself as a potential elevator operator, or tell a stranger precisely what shade of lipstick she should wear, would up and quit after heckles from a few beatniks. But even though the transition from Chanel-wearing housewife to B. Altman makeup-counter girl would be ten times more disheartening for any other woman, Midge thrives in her first encounter with the working world. She’s even delighted by the time clock.
Midge’s new gig offers the show a fresh opportunity to conjure up another ‘50s fantasia, and wage slavery has never looked so good. There’s a fresh set of expensive licensed music to montage with, another luxurious dollop of huge department-store sets and drool-worthy tailored dresses, some pricey absurdity in the form of a casting call of Santas, and even a new trio of work pals: practical Mary, boy-crazy Vivian, and glamorous model Harriet. The real-life B. Altman women hawking tubes of Cherries in the Snow no doubt faced an unending slog of pay disparity, varicose veins, and prodigious sexual harassment, but this show has enough rouge in its handbag to brighten any reality.
Midge’s delight in playing career girl is even more bizarre because it’s clearly killing Rose, who’s still hoping against hope that Midge and Joel aren’t done. She barely speaks to her daughter this entire episode, and even nonchalantly fires the backup babysitter for being “a drunk.” On the upside, Midge’s zest for work wins her some grudging respect from her dad, who’s initially doubtful and then adorably proud that she’s actually able to manage her own life.
The same cannot be said of Joel, who’s destroying relationships left and right in his attempt to integrate Penny into his world. Though she acquits herself well at dinner with his parents, they despise her: (“You practice on shiksas, you don’t marry them,” his father notes, while his mother just concludes, “No.” Penny’s presence also causes a rift with Archie and Imogene, who boycotts a chance to see The Music Man, presumably in solidarity with Midge. I’m personally on team “tired of Joel” and think Midge would be just fine without him, but the way this season’s structure is going, I think we’re stuck with him long-term. My guess? He’ll end up atoning for his crimes against both his wife and comedy by switching roles with her (and, I’m sure, immediately clashing heads with Susie).
For now, this much is clear: Comedy is Midge’s destiny. Even when she thinks she’s done and tries to settle into her new life at the makeup counter, entertaining other people finds her. Unlike her doubts about motherhood, this isn’t a setback of any real complexity. It’s a fake roadblock, and she’ll be back onstage soon enough. Whether that’s the kind of storytelling you find satisfying is, like chopped liver on challah, a matter of taste.
• I’ve enjoyed living in this world without thinking what a modern Midge would be like, but after this episode, I can’t stop thinking what an amazing makeup YouTuber she’d be.
• Not Rose, though. Who could possibly remain so grouchy in the face of free lipstick?
• Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron continue to steal scenes as Joel’s parents. When Joel says Penny is sweet and good, Pollak’s “sweet, good, she sounds like a Danish” had me in stitches.
• But I still think Sherman-Palladino is playing dirty by not giving Penny a backstory or a personality of her own. On a show that values female complexity, she’s a cipher designed for the audience to unthinkingly hate. When Moishe said, “Young lady, we want to learn more about you,” immediately followed by a scene cut, I actually yelled at my laptop.
• Speaking of underwritten women, Sherman-Palladino has had a (small) speaking role for a black actress in every episode thus far; given the era and Midge’s milieu, she easily could have copped out on casting women of color, and it’s nice that she didn’t. But I’ll know things have actually changed when I get to watch the show about Harriet trying to break into a segregated modeling industry, not just gripe about it for two lines of what barely passes as character development.