The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
It feels as if we’ve lived a dozen lifetimes since The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last graced our screens in December 2019.
Oh, right. That’s because we have.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel? Not so much. Between the 1960 setting and season three’s cliffhanger finale, it was easy — and, frankly, necessary — to pick up exactly where the series left off two years ago without shoehorning in any COVID references. But in case you need a refresher: Midge was unceremoniously dumped from the European leg of the Shy Baldwin tour after she nearly outed him onstage at the Apollo, leaving her career in jeopardy. Also in jeopardy are Midge’s finances and her relationship with her manager, Susie Myerson. See, Susie gambled away all of Midge’s earnings last season (unbeknownst to Midge) and attempted to replace them by setting fire to her dead mother’s house and collecting the insurance money.
The good news is that despite a two-year hiatus, the show is still the vibrant and vivacious Mrs. Maisel we know and love. The bad news is it doesn’t appear to be dealing with Midge’s privilege the way Vulture TV critic Jen Chaney and I had hoped it would at the end of season three. Has Midge been humbled? Eh, kind of. Her primal taxicab meltdown hinted that it was time for a new perspective, but then the rest of the episode was all about how she could proceed with buying back her palatial Upper West Side apartment even though she has no cash, no collateral, and no work lined up.
Midge’s apartment problem is dealt with way too swiftly for my taste. By the end of “Rumble on the Wonder Wheel,” Susie has persuaded Midge’s ex-husband Joel to loan her the money to cover Midge’s lost earnings. Midge, who remains none the wiser, then uses that cash to pay her former father-in-law, Moishe, who owned her marital apartment in the first place, thus reclaiming her upper-middle-class lifestyle. Basically, Joel is providing his ex with a safety net (which is not going to go over well with Mei), and Susie is committing arson and getting further into debt so that — what? Midge can conveniently shop at Zabar’s?
Although I like how Midge and Susie have resolved to “change the business” so a pre-cancel-culture Mrs. Maisel can tell jokes without fear of offending anyone, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t dealing with the real hardship of having to start over. It’s not a spoiler to say Midge will be worrying about money in the next episode, but she’s doing so from her deluxe apartment in the sky, wearing Vogue-worthy ensembles. (To be fair about that last part, she did buy a whole tour’s worth of clothes, and she’s gotta wear them somewhere. Even if it’s to the Stage Deli.)
Aside from a sardonic Gaslight stand-up set that bookends the episode, in which a bitter Midge seethes with revenge fantasies against Baldwin, “Rumble on the Wonder Wheel” begins with a stunned Midge and Susie taking a cab back to the city. This is the scene I’ve been waiting two years for: Midge exhibiting a full-on mental breakdown. It’s the only time Mrs. Maisel refuses to skip over the very real, very brutal aftermath of losing the biggest gig of your career, and I am here for it. Would I also be offering Midge a pill if I watched her strip off her immaculate white traveling suit and beat the living shit out of a taxicab with a giant tree branch wearing nothing but purple skivvies? Absolutely. Would I blame her for this outburst? Not one bit.
With Midge unwilling to return to Queens a failure in less than 24 hours, she and Susie camp out at the Gaslight for the time being. But there’s no rest for the broke and unemployed because, apparently, the Daily News got word of Midge’s firing, which means Moishe’s gonna be coming to collect, and — oh, yeah — Susie, did you know Midge bought back her apartment? Crank up the Rihanna.
Susie may not have any money, but Joel Maisel sure does. We reconnect with Midge’s ex in Chinatown to find out that the Button Club is doing quite well and that the elderly couple that runs the connecting gambling den — who may or may not be Mei’s parents — are not happy. A prosperous club means more eyes on the building itself, putting the illicit businesses in danger. Mei’s one job was to ensure the Button Club’s failure. Instead it’s a success, and she and Joel are in love. Fortunately, Joel has enough cash flow to pay off his landlords, so his club and Mei are good, for now. (It’s a good thing Stephanie Hsu is such a delight because otherwise I’d still be napping during any scenes involving Joel.)
While Midge is discovering that her family “rescheduled” her son Ethan’s fifth birthday several months early for their convenience, Susie meets up with her sister and partner-in-arson Tessie at the insurance office. Except here’s a shock: No one is buying their story about the fire, and there’s no check in the offing. Their only hope is for Tessie to flirt with the highly suspicious insurance agent.
A depressing subplot, I know. Making it just the right time for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s trademark splashy ensemble scene in Coney Island! The whole clan is there: Rose and Abe Weissman, Moishe and Shirley Maisel, Joel, Ethan, Ethan’s friends — even devoted maid Zelda.
(I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here it comes: Where. Is. Esther????? I’m sorry, but Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have painted themselves into a corner with Midge’s poor, unassuming toddler. They have no idea what to do with her, so I guess we’re supposed to forget about this kid along with her own family.)
Anyway, back to Ethan’s fake birthday party: Tony Shalhoub is an absolute gem here, turning hand-holding avoidance into art, and nothing beats the on-location vibe of Coney Island from 60 years ago. (But there is no way that cacophonous, Palladino-esque scene on the Wonder Wheel could’ve been filmed anywhere except an indoor set — which it was, at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios.) Midge, having surprised her family with her sudden return, has no choice but to scream out every detail of her tour dismissal — and subsequent ill-advised apartment purchase — to her obnoxious family members while riding the iconic Ferris wheel.
I’m sure this scene was intended to be stressful, but rather than being a clever way for Midge to reveal important plot points, it just came off as tiresome.
Now that Joel knows Midge both got fired and is in serious debt to his unscrupulous father, he makes Susie an offer: He’ll loan her the money so Midge can buy the apartment if Susie tells him every detail about how Midge got fired. It’s an interesting twist that I can’t say I’m comfortable with. Midge talks a good game about wanting to smash all the glass ceilings, but here’s her ex-husband riding in with his giant checkbook so she can stay in her upscale bubble. What about Susie and her mountains of debt? Who’s coming to rescue her?
I guess Midge’s apartment woes had to be tied up (semi-)neatly so our plucky comic and her fearless manager can charge ahead with season four’s big narrative arc of changing the comedy business. During a Stage Deli meetup, we learn that Midge hasn’t been chastened by the Baldwin experience; she’s had a fire lit under her instead. Even Susie can’t deny that her client’s best sets happened when Midge was raw and unfiltered. But Susie also knows that no star will book an opener who could potentially insult them onstage.
Midge doesn’t care about that because she doesn’t want to open for other people anymore, or at least for anyone who will censor her. If Lenny Bruce can do it, why can’t she?
Back at the Gaslight, Midge reflects on Abe’s warnings from last season — when she was almost a paid mouthpiece for Phyllis Schlafly — about the power of once’s voice. If this set, or the Barbra Streisand music cue about being “the best or nothing at all,” is any indication, Midge has no intention of playing by the rules or keeping her mouth shut.
I’m all for that plan, Palladinos, but let’s throw a few obstacles in her way, hmmm?
More Maisel Musings!
• I know that Palladino productions are whimsical by trade, but WTF was up with that bar scene in which a magician snaps Susie into a calendar for two seconds?
• Obviously, we need to remember that Daily News columnist’s name: Elroy Dunham. I’m predicting it’s Milo Ventimiglia’s character.