The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Sometimes a TV show can do more for its characters, narrative, and overall audience enjoyment in just a tiny fraction of an episode’s 50-minute running time.
We get so much out of “It’s a Man, Man, Man, Man World” in the first four and a half minutes that, word of warning, I’m spending half the recap on that 60 Minutes profile opener. A profile that confirms once and for all, a full seven episodes before The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s series finale, that Midge becomes a huge star.
Terms like worldwide fame, notoriety, and legend are tossed around by the actor portraying venerated correspondent Mike Wallace, who interviews a “press-shy” Midge circa 1985. I love the subtle makeup job on Rachel Brosnahan here: Midge is supposed to be 53, yet she still looks as fabulous as she did 25 years earlier with just the slightest of age added to her eyes and cheekbones.
Through this career retrospective, the audience learns that we’re on the cusp of Midge’s big break. In a full-circle moment that takes us back to season one, when Midge imagined herself taking the stage at the Copacabana, Wallace announces that, at age 30 (which would be 1962), Mrs. Maisel performed “18 consecutive sold-out nights” at that very nightclub. Over the years, she’s won a Grammy and an Emmy and even France’s esteemed Order of Arts and Letters. We see Brosnahan as Midge Photoshopped into black-and-white pics with Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Warhol, and — gasp! — Carol Burnett. Midge is also Forrest Gump–ed into vintage footage of Bob Hope’s renowned USO shows in Vietnam.
But despite her stratospheric fame, Midge never forgot her roots. Wallace mentions her infamous Jim Morrison–Lenny Bruce moment in 1971 when she was arrested at Carnegie Hall for using foul language. Instead of getting canceled, the incident led to a string of college tours.
Then the profile moves into Midge’s personal life, which is where things get super-awkward. Naturally, this level of success doesn’t come without a deep emotional cost. Wallace talks about how “Midge raised two children,” and we all know that’s a debatable statement. “Dr. Esther Maisel” herself is interviewed, and it is painful. Poor thing has clearly been coached to say that Midge was an amazing mother who gave her a warm, loving childhood. Cringe.
The only relief (if you can call it that) this segment provides is assurance that Midge doesn’t end up with Joel. As of the mid-1980s, Midge has been married a whopping four times and can count Paul Simon, Robert Evans, and Quincy Jones as three of her high-profile exes. Midge calls herself “lucky in life, unlucky in love,” and never have truer words been spoken. She’s achieved everything she set out to do, but the great sacrifice for this illustrious career was love and family. Was it worth it? I’m not sure yet if the series will give us that answer (and I’m not sure it should).
It’s not Midge’s career success that ends up being the biggest bombshell of this flash-forward or that Susie took on Liza Minnelli, George Carlin, and Barbra Streisand as clients. It’s that Midge and Susie had a major falling out. We don’t know when the breakup occurred or why, but it had to have been shortly before the 60 Minutes profile because Wallace says they were friends and business associates for 25 years.
As the 60 Minutes segment concludes, Midge takes the audience on a tour of her warehouse-filled designer-clothing collection, which she’s planning to auction off for the ambiguously named Weissman-Maisel Children’s Foundation. It’s a fun little walk down memory lane as Midge waxes poetic about the blue nightie and pink coat she wore that fateful first night at the Gaslight, her tire-marked white suit from “the great tarmac dump of 1960,” and the outfit she wore on her first day of work at The Gordon Ford Show. The dress she wore to Woodstock was gorgeous too, but I’d like to hear more about who she got “muddy” with …
While it appears that Midge’s foundation does a great deal of good — funding education, health, housing, etc. — I think this might be her way of assuaging her own absentee-mother guilt. “Children are my best teachers”? “Everything I do, I do for the children”? I’ve never heard Midge Maisel sound so phony before.
And on that note, just as we’re trying to absorb the shock of a Midge-Susie collapse, it’s time to revert to late 1960 for the rest of the episode.
Whatever warm and fuzzy feelings Midge may have about children later in life, she certainly isn’t exhibiting them at age 28. Between yelling at Ethan to “eat, you little bastard!” and berating her parents for creating an environment that convinced her she had to become a mother, she’s given up hiding her true feelings on the subject: She’s pissed she has kids. I get it. Only in recent generations have women had the opportunity to imagine a childless lifestyle, and Midge was never given that chance.
This segues into a depressing scene in which Ethan and Esther’s parental and grandparental neglect is confirmed by the fact that they’re being raised by Zelda and her boyfriend, Janusz, a.k.a. the random bald dude who’s been roaming around the apartment. Bad news: Privileged assholes Midge, Rose, and Abe haven’t noticed him until now (though Susie’s known him for months). Good news: Janusz loves Ethan and Esther, they love him, and as Abe fittingly observes, “Whoever he is, sounds like he’s free!” Insert facepalm emoji here.
So now that the babysitting has been settled, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel can focus on its real priorities like letting Susie pick out the perfect outfit for Midge’s first-ever “sitting job” (what Midge calls her Gordon Ford Show gig) and giving us some much-needed closure on last season’s bust of a Milo Ventimiglia cameo.
During her subway commute on her first day of work, Midge notices Ventimiglia’s character trying to get her attention. (Quick refresher: Midge slept with this espresso-loving “handsome man” only to be discovered by his angry wife.) An overlong sequence ensues with Ventimiglia eventually apologizing — in that signature Jack Pearson style we miss so much — for putting Midge in such an uncomfortable position. Long story short, he was separated from his wife when he met Midge, they’re now getting a divorce, and his name is Sylvio. Nice seeing you, Milo, but Midge is late for work.
Midge arrives at the Gordon Ford Show offices, where we’ve joined an episode of Mad Men lite already in progress. Thanks to the 60 Minutes segment, we already know she’s about to break some serious glass ceilings over the next year or so, but if her all-male colleagues are any indication, this will be an enormous task. The writers’ room consists of five white dudes, led by head writer Alvin, and to say Midge isn’t welcome would be an understatement. But we already know our girl is a quick study, so while she’s initially intimidated at the prospect of writing 20 jokes in one hour — or singing “The Army Goes Rolling Along” every time one of the guys goes to the bathroom — she accepts the challenge(s). What’s harder for her to accept is that none of her jokes get into Gordon’s monologue on her first day.
We’re also introduced to the intricacies of The Gordon Ford Show’s office politics. Namely, Mike Carr’s loathing of producer George Toladano (Peter Friedman, fresh off Succession’s mourning period). George is basically the Roger Sterling of the place, sexually harassing anyone wearing a skirt and inciting this endearing comment from Mike: “I want him to die.”
We also get a front-row seat to Gordon Ford’s mercurial nature: The writers are sent back to the drawing board at least twice before the evening’s taping, and still no one wants to accept Midge’s contributions or the idea she knows funny. She offers a joke about how there’s about to be a new baby in the White House (JFK Jr., R.I.P.). It’s good, but no one laughs, so it’s rejected. She stands her ground, calling out her co-worker, Mel, for pushing for a Ben Hur joke that (a) wasn’t funny and (b) was used by Jack Paar two weeks earlier.
Although Midge doesn’t get her joke into the monologue, her colleagues do slowly acknowledge she knows what she’s talking about. During the taping, Mel offers a mea culpa: He checked, and she was right about Paar. But she still (unfairly) has a long way to go when it comes to earning her co-workers’ respect. While having after-work drinks at the very real Toots Shor’s, Midge and Gordon have a friendly exchange. Considering that Gordon normally avoids Toots Shor’s like the plague, this development leads the writers to only one conclusion: Midge was hired because Gordon wants to sleep with her.
Whether true or not, Midge has more important things to worry about. Right now, she needs to verify that her baby in the White House joke was indeed funny, so she tries it out on the Wolford crowd: The new president’s staff will have no trouble changing diapers because they already got their practice in with Eisenhower. The crowd roars with laughter, and director Daniel Palladino zooms in on Midge’s face, now glowing with validation. “I knew that was funny,” she whispers to herself.
Now she just needs to figure out how to get her colleagues to stop deliberately suppressing her talent.
Psst! I know a gal over on Madison Avenue who can give you some tips, Midge.
More Maisel Musings!
• Rose’s war with the matchmaking mafia is heating up — literally. The tearoom where she conducts her business has burned to the ground. This prompts a hilarious phone call between Rose and her CIA analyst son, Noah, in which she politely requests “a quick raid on an enemy.” Hate to break it to you, Rose, but you can’t just order up a firebomb of Coney Island.
• I’m trying so hard to picture real-life married couple Rachel Brosnahan and Jason Ralph rehearsing that Stewie Griffin–esque “Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike!” scene at home. (I would love to know if Alex Borstein had any input.)
• The women George references to Midge, Madelyn Pugh and Nancy Clark, did indeed write for I Love Lucy and The Ann Sothern Show, respectively.