Will Mrs Maisel Stop Being Marvellous and Start Being Vulnerable?

Pop Culture

Will Mrs Maisel Stop Being Marvellous and Start Being Vulnerable?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“I’m getting back on that horse because failure is our right as Americans,” says stand-up comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel, addressing a small audience in a swanky Las Vegas hotel. The year is 1960 and she’s the opening act for legendary crooner Shy Baldwin’s USA tour. She’s just bombed her very first show in front of a debauched and disinterested Sin City crowd and her faithful manager Susie (Alex Borstein) has forced her to try out a more forgiving room. “People have fought and died so I can do stupid things like leave the sugar out of a cake or forget to bring an extra diaper with me when I take the baby to the park,” Midge continues, to chuckles. Already, this new audience is in the palm of her hand. It’s almost like her humiliation of a minute ago never happened.

Going into the third season of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, centred about a 1950s housewife who finds comedy after her husband leaves her, fans and critics alike have wondered whether the sheen is wearing off. After all, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel has in its last two seasons lived up to its undeniably gripping premise, building an idyllic world in which Midge is a flourishing stand-up comic. But there’s also a nagging concern. The show has increasingly strayed away from exploring the form and function of comedy through Midge  – one of the most compelling aspects of the breakout first season – and instead remains focused on the wider Maiselverse. Midge’s stand-up, too, is little more than an observation of the same.

In the course of the new season, Midge and her parents are forced to leave their opulent Upper East Side flat, her home since childhood; she navigates the complications of her divorce and breaks up with the strapping Dr Benjamin (Zachary Levi) to go on a tour that’s rife with hiccups. And yet, the show looks as glossy as ever, brimming with rose-tinted nostalgia that makes for countless guilty pleasures, from Midge’s gorgeous period ensembles, to her chowing down on toothsome pastrami sandwiches while keeping her lipstick intact. Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge is still impossibly zippy, a wisecracking, wasp-waisted goddess who soldiers through the kind of dysfunction that would have us lesser mortals crying in our beds.

A reality check for The Marvellous Mrs Maisel has been a long time coming and at this point, it’s what the show, like Midge, needs in order to justify its laurels.

But then again, this is Midge Maisel we’re talking about: A woman who parlayed the breakdown of her marriage into a meteoric rise in stand-up. For all her talk of failure onstage, viewers watching Midge onscreen have seen her take her problems in stride, skipping merrily from strength to strength. Two years into her comedy career, Midge kills on TV spots and radio ads, and wins over hardboiled midtown clubgoers and American soldiers. Even under the influence of the soft-focus bubble that perpetually cocoons Midge, it’s hard not to feel a creeping sense of jadedness.

In the last two years, the show’s titular character has always walked a fine line between being impressive and insufferable, a Mary Sue who skirts around self-awareness as if it were an open manhole. If Midge’s drunken foray into comedy was an acerbic rant about her ex-husband’s infidelity, now she is a polished professional whose most honest moments of reflection come not from her craft, but other characters (her adorable friendship with prickly Susie, for instance.) As usual, Midge’s singular goal is to excel at whatever she does and while her fearsomely fast delivery is sharp as ever, every trace of vulnerability has been carefully ironed out. If the scrappy heroine of Marvelous Mrs Maisel is now firmly on the path to superstardom, is there anything left for her to do or say?

It’s a question whose answer comes at the very last episode of the series titled, obviously, “A Jewish Girl Walks Into the Apollo.” Midge, as it turns out, doesn’t need anyone else to put obstacles in her way. We’ve seen her cross the line in pursuit of a laugh before, like making jokes about her father’s penis in front of him. Here, Midge decides to throw her celebrity friend, Shy (Leroy McClain), under the bus, taking uproarious digs at his sexuality that could undermine not only his career, but his safety as a closeted black man. For once, it seems like Midge’s astounding self-centredness has caught up with her. Earlier in the season, Benjamin confronts her angrily about dismissing him with a Dear John letter, pointing out that she neglected to even ask him if he had a problem with her going on tour. These men are essentially the casualties of the Marvelous Mrs Maisel, a woman who has obsessively honed her strengths, but still has no idea how to address her weaknesses.

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There are times when the supporting actors are a good deal more marvellous to watch than Mrs Maisel, simply because they have to tackle the fallout of their folly.

Amazon Studios

Despite Midge’s many achievements, she, like the rest of the characters this season, regresses into the worst version of herself when given a chance. There are times when the supporting actors are a good deal more marvellous to watch than Mrs Maisel, simply because they have to tackle the fallout of their folly. Take for instance, the moment where Susie’s new client, popular comedian Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) who wants to make it as a serious actress in a Broadway play, throws it all away on opening night by reverting to her crass comic persona. Sophie tries to blame Susie for her failure, but Susie mercilessly tells Sophie that she had the talent. Unlike Midge, says Susie, she didn’t have the guts. It’s all the more ironic when Midge, in her turn, ruins Susie by playing the Apollo audience for cheap laughs at Shy’s expense. For the first time, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel seems to call Midge’s courage into question, asking if she has what it takes to be not just a better comic but also a better person.

A reality check for The Marvellous Mrs Maisel has been a long time coming and at this point, it’s what the show, like Midge, needs in order to justify its laurels. Don’t get me wrong, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel continues to be a perfectly pleasant – if overly long – confection. And it’s refreshing to see an out-and-out comedy about comedy, one that doesn’t leave you wondering whether it’s been nominated in the right category at the Golden Globes. But even then, it will be hard to be satiated by a fourth season of prettily spun, insubstantial candy floss  – especially when Mrs Maisel has the frustrating potential to be so much more. If only it could learn to be less afraid of its own failures.

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