Halfway through the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) asks Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) the million-dollar question: “Do you really think you can go back to making Jell-O molds again?” After stumbling (almost literally) into the world of comedy, Midge must choose between a career in stand-up or a return to 1950s housewife normalcy. And the timing of Lenny’s question (five episodes in, out of 10!) is emblematic of Maisel’s pace in season 2: Sure, Midge has a big decision to make, but neither she nor the show is in any hurry to make it.
When last we left Mrs. Maisel, she was killing it on stage at the Gaslight, blissfully unaware that her unfaithful, not-yet-ex-husband Joel (the soulful Michael Zegen) was standing in the back, listening to her spin their marital woes into comedy gold. Now Midge must once again set about rebuilding her life, working her way back up to the makeup counter at B. Altman while her acerbic manager Susie (Alex Borstein) — blackballed last season by powerful manager Harry Drake (David Paymer) — hustles endlessly for gigs.
But the first half of season 2 is all about detours, starting with Midge and Abe’s (Tony Shaloub) unexpected trip to Paris. It seems Rose (Marin Hinkle, unforgivably underrated) is living her meilleure vie in the City of Light, rediscovering the artistic, intellectually curious woman she was before marriage. Her mother’s feminist awakening leads to a wonderful role-reversal moment in the premiere, as Midge lectures Rose on the “commitment” she made to her marriage. “Well, look who’s talking,” responds Rose with regal dryness.
For all of Mrs. Maisel’s talk about equality — “Comedy is fueled by oppression, by a lack of power… Now who the hell does that describe more than women?” she asks one audience — Midge is more reliant on the comforts of her sheltered life than she cares to admit. When Susie is aghast to learn that her only client is taking a two-month family vacation in the Catskills, Midge asks with absurd Upper West Side myopia, “What do you do for the summer?” (Answer: “I stay here. And I sweat!”) Yes, Midge may be marvelous but she’s also a narcissist, stubbornly oblivious to the fact that her bawdy comedy isn’t appropriate everywhere — like, say, her Catholic friend’s wedding reception — and that the more she dilly-dallies about her career, the more her cash-strapped manager suffers. “I’m picking up half-eaten apples outta trash cans at the Port Authority,” a frantic Susie snaps. “It’s gettin’ dire here!”
As Midge knows, though, you can get away with a lot when you’re pretty, and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel remains one of the most gorgeous shows on any screen. Costume designer Donna Zakowska serves up an onslaught of sartorial elegance, from Midge’s magenta-and-pink ensemble in Paris (the matching plaid hat and gloves, my God!) to her candy-colored pedal pushers and silky swing-dresses in the Catskills. The camera swoops alongside Abe and Rose as they stroll through the picturesque Musée Rodin in Paris (creator Amy Sherman-Palladino directs the overseas episodes) and soars above Susie as she wanders through a field of undulating hula-hoopers at Midge’s summer resort.
One benefit of this season’s leisurely pace is it allows us more time with the stellar ensemble. Abe and Rose’s stay in Paris allows Shaloub to reveal a layer of tenderness underneath his character’s kvetchy exterior. Joel, unemployed and heartbroken, throws himself into fixing his family’s woefully inefficient garment business, leading to an uproarious trip to the bank with his parents Moishe (Kevin Pollock, boisterously profane) and Shirley (Caroline Aaron). Zegen does an outstanding job channeling Joel’s Costanza-level frustration into rage banter. Zachary Levi turns up as a smug doctor Midge encounters in the Catskills; their meet-cute is such a disastrous meet-can’t they seem destined to fall for each other.
It’s fun, frothy, and designed to perfection, much like Midge herself. In fact, the look of Maisel is just so very that the beauty almost obscures the story; it was only after watching the episodes a second time that I was able to feel the characters’ emotions seeping through the visuals. As far as Lenny Bruce’s question — what in the world is Midge going to do? — well, the show finally begins ambling toward an answer as episode 5 draws to a close. But hey, when the view is this beautiful, it’s not so hard to hurry up and wait. Grade: A-
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 2 premieres Wednesday, Dec. 5 on Amazon Prime.