If you came away from “The Punishment Room” feeling exhausted by how all over the place it was, all I can say is you’ve earned what’s about to come next. This fourth episode of season two is the epitome of why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an Emmy winner, so keep calm and carry on binging.
The third episode is a typical transitional one in a series, in which it doesn’t feel like there’s a huge amount of movement, and it’s hard to know if any of the subplots are worth the analysis. Having seen episodes four and five already, I can’t be sure which of the storylines featured in “The Punishment Room” have been resolved without our knowing it and which have been left dangling until later in the season.
This is why, as I mentioned in my season premiere recap, the real joy of Maisel lies in its visual splendor, and how the show’s actors carry it. That means the highlights of “The Punishment Room” include moments like makeup counter exile Midge gliding over to three separate B. Altman shoppers and presenting them with exactly what they need before zipping off to her next stand-up gig. Or Abe’s students marching in step behind him as he continues his lecture on his favorite mathematicians; even the artistry of how they put on their coats is pleasing.
So, the first big question: Is Susie really out of danger? After spending most of the episode camping out at the Gaslight and then switching apartments with a stereotypically boisterous Italian immigrant family, she’s approached by a cordial Harry Drake (David Paymer) and invited to lunch. Her pithy explanation to Midge boils down to, “That’s showbiz!” I’m just as perplexed as Midge, here. Also, did she ever catch the record store nerds, and will she make a profit from their “Mrs. X at the Gaslight” bootleg?
Second big question: What does Joel have planned now that he’s discovered a room at his father’s garment-district factory that he’s deemed “my place”? Side note on Joel: Michael Zegen continues to be terrific, but he’s stuck in the least compelling subplots of the season. What I do like about his presence, though, is that he and Midge have developed a camaraderie that, while not suggesting a reconciliation, demonstrates that a separated couple doesn’t have to be an estranged couple.
The third big question is what really consumed me in “The Punishment Room,” because it involves Rose and Abe, who, due to Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub’s increasingly stellar performances, are slowly becoming the real reason to watch Maisel: Where exactly does Rose stand on feminism?
I get the sense that even she isn’t quite sure. Now that we’ve moved ahead approximately three months to March 1959 (thank you, Easter signs in B. Altman), it’s a pleasure to see Rose and Abe’s relationship thrive; they lunch regularly at Columbia and Rose is as happy as a clam in her art classes. But “The Punishment Room” contains a puzzling and fascinating storyline in which Rose inadvertently — or purposely? — pushes her fellow female art students onto the far more lucrative business track over an innocent cup of tea.
Rose, as a wealthy Upper West Side housewife taking art classes purely for fun, at least recognizes the hypocrisy of how Columbia is taking the female master’s degree candidates’ money “and not giving them anything in return.” (The girls’ choices are limited to teaching and becoming artists; yet Columbia employs no female art teachers and Rose has plenty of stories of failed women artists.) She uses the age-old “it’s where the men are!” selling point for the business school, and soon enough, Columbia’s art department is in danger of closing because it no longer has any students.
Just as Rose is about to lose her auditing privileges (it’s not just Carrie Ann in the punishment room!), Abe embraces his feminist side and refuses to allow his boss to kick his wife out of school by arguing that she’s got a point about the female art students having zero prospects. Now, is Abe really a feminist? Probably not, but as he admits to his boss, Simon, he will do whatever it takes to keep Rose happy and enrolled — ensuring that she doesn’t return to Paris. You just have to love that while Rose and Abe remain oblivious to their daughter’s own burgeoning independence, they may have sparked a major feminist revolution on the Columbia campus.
And that leads us, finally, to Midge, who finds herself in multiple punishment rooms this episode. Even her “promotion” from the switchboard to the coat check (“You’re the most presentable of the basement girls,” her supervisor, Mrs. O’Toole, deadpans) lands her shut away in a closet.
We see from a montage that Midge has been working the non-midtown comedy club circuit, but she hasn’t come clean to her parents yet. And speaking of clean: the hard lesson Midge has to learn this episode? How to Read the Room. Rule Number One: Don’t work blue at your friend’s shotgun Catholic nuptials. After Midge schmoozes the hell out of Father O’Brien, garnering her B. Altman pal Mary a reception in the Window Room (as opposed to the aptly titled and cheaper Punishment Room) at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, she then thinks it funny to make a joke about how she didn’t “shtup the priest,” only to accidentally out Mary as preggers.
By the end of the episode, a despondent Midge has been thrown into yet another punishment room (she’s back at the switchboard; you shouldn’t have left the booth, girlie!), and she’s lost her B. Altman colleague Mary as a friend. But this is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, where all of Midge’s setbacks last for as long as it takes to get the next episode queued up. See you over at episode four.
— I appreciate that Maisel is cognizant of the fact that Midge’s children are constantly an afterthought. This is a world in which I wouldn’t put it past Midge, Rose, and Abe to walk out of the apartment and actually leave Ethan and Esther to their own devices.
— Which is why I did a double-take when I saw Midge reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to Ethan.
— Kevin Pollak’s Moishe Maisel is totally my late grandfather in the way he sees society as made up of two types of people: those who are Jewish, and those who are goyim.
— I’ve got a bad feeling that Carrie Ann is still sitting in the punishment room.
— Why is Midge still wearing her rings?
— Can I hire Rachel Brosnahan to teach me the mi shebeirach prayer?
— Watching Midge and Susie discussing New York’s best Jewish eateries was a fantasy I never knew I had.
— Second only to Susie slamming “Princess” Midge for her continued ignorance toward people who don’t live in “18-room apartments on the Upper West Side.”
— What I heard in my head when the full-frontal male model in Rose’s drawing class showed up: “Amazon: We show gratuitous cock (and drop F-bombs every five minutes), because we can.”