I reviewed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Two based on the first five episodes. Now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I have more thoughts — with full season spoilers — coming up just as soon as I tell you about my romper…
My biggest concern across the season’s first half was that both Mrs. Maisel herself and executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino seemed to be losing interest in Midge’s comedy career, when that’s far and away the best part of the series. As it turned out over the remaining five episodes, her waffling was not an accident but the major question of the season: How badly does Midge want to be a comedian, and how much is she willing to sacrifice to achieve that dream?
“I want to be big,” she tells Susie near the end of the seventh episode. “I want to be the biggest thing out there.” But she makes this pronouncement at the end of an hour where a reclusive, drunken artist (played well by Rufus Sewell) shows her his secret masterpiece and explains that painting it cost him everything else he cared about in life. Midge seems to understand this math, and the point is hit hard again in the finale, when she watches Lenny Bruce sing “All Alone” (an actual Lenny Bruce song) on Steve Allen’s show. When Shy Baldwin offers her a spot touring with him for the next six months, she takes it, even as she assumes it will end her relationship with her new love interest, the doctor Benjamin, and further estrange her from Abe, Rose, Imogene and everyone else she has cared about in her pre-comedy life.
In the broad strokes, it’s a perfectly reasonable character arc. Season One was about Midge developing confidence in her ability to do comedy, and in her fine-tuning her act a bit. By the start of Season Two, her ability is no longer in question(*), so now the tension comes a bit from her and Susie battling sexism in the business (like being kicked offstage for saying “pregnant”), but mainly from her commitment to this strange new career. However, the execution of that arc is spotty throughout, hindered by some of Sherman-Palladino’s creative blindspots, and by her and Palladino’s desire to turn the show into more of an ensemble piece this year.
(*) Though ironically, her improvised routines tended to be more of a mixed bag this year than last. The Parisian drag club appearance mostly landed with a thud, despite the audience seeming to eat up the translated jokes, but her panicked blue routine at the Concord in front of Abe was one of the funnier things she’s done on stage in either season.
Part of the frustration of the season’s first half came from the way that Midge’s professional ambivalence seemed almost accidental. When she goes off to the Catskills for two months, it is presented not as her deliberately shying away from comedy but her not even thinking about how a vacation might disrupt her momentum. It’s a relief that Susie calls her out — and that the road-trip episode is filled with Susie pointing out the many ways in which her client is naively privileged — but the show seems to be siding with Midge about the Catskills being simply too much fun to skip. Later episodes more explicitly show Midge questioning this choice she’s made, but it takes a while to get there as we’re focusing on entertainment dead-ends like Joel helping to rescue Moishe’s business. And when we arrive at Midge’s choice to take the Shy Baldwin gig, it’s presented solely as a Benjamin/not-Benjamin binary. Not only does poor Benjamin get the Max Medina treatment from the end of Gilmore Girls Season One — a perfectly nice guy who had good chemistry with the leading lady, abandoned without warning because he wouldn’t have delivered enough drama for the show going forward — but it’s so Midge can fall back in with her One True Pairing in Joel.
Joel is utterly useless, but the Palladinos have a history of falling in love with romantic interests from whom their heroines should run screaming (see also: Logan, early-period Jess, late-period Luke…). Still, ending the season on Midge going to Joel for a night of comfort takes the focus away from her career and puts it back on the far less interesting question of whether these two crazy kids can somehow make it work now that Joel has made himself into a better man. Just as baffling is the way that Midge never once considers what will happen to her children, Ethan and Esther, over the six months she’ll be traveling across America and Europe with Shy. The show rarely seems interested in the children — don’t forget that joke in Episode Four when baby Esther is left in a hot car for a long time — but we’re at a point where Mrs. Maisel may be better off pretending they never existed. Midge’s internal struggle is always between wife and comedian, never between mother and comedian, mother and lover, or mother and anything else. In a lot of shows, this limited dynamic wouldn’t much matter, but in one about a young, Jewish, single mom in the Fifties? No. At minimum, those conflicts should be as much a part of the story as the romantic dilemma, even if the outcome is Midge realizing that she’s either not a good mom or just not particularly interested in motherhood. Forgetting for long stretches that she’s a mom at all is a bad look for the show and its heroine, in a way both seem oblivious to.
The season’s attempt to give Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle more to do also met with uneven results. Rose post-Paris was all but indistinguishable from the Rose of Season One. Abe has more interesting moments, particularly in the immediate aftermath of learning Midge’s secret identity (and that his son works for the CIA), with the earlier romper joke turning very sad as we see him in despair at the end of the same dock that once gave him such joy each morning in the Catskills. But Abe this season felt like a collection of tics in search of a character to make them all make sense. The notion that he was once a socialist radical — and is acquainted with the same civil rights lawyer that defended Midge’s obscenity charge last season — doesn’t particularly fit with the man we’ve been watching so far on the series, nor with one who would be this uptight about his daughter’s comedy aspirations. (And once we got past that uncomfortable Yom Kippur break-the-fast meal, the show barely did anything with the idea that Rose and the others knew about Midge’s career and how she talks about them in her act.)
Rachel Brosnahan is just so charming (whether solo-ing or working in tandem with Alex Borstein), and the period recreations just so lush and energetic, that Mrs. Maisel still works far more often than it doesn’t. But where Midge has mostly figured out what she wants to do and how to do it, the series is still fumbling around. Or maybe it just has a less keen sense of its strengths (Midge and Susie) versus its weaknesses (Joel, non-showbiz stories) than Midge has started to develop.
Some other thoughts :
* Perhaps the most promising development of the finale was Sophie Lennon asking Susie to manage her. That’s less about Jane Lynch, who’s fun in a very strange and outsize role, than it is about forcing the show to devote even more time to Susie. Borstein had some good solo material this year in dealing with the goons and reaching out to her own family for help, but, like Midge, she’s at her best when she’s in a showbiz milieu. I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be the show’s new big secret, where Midge doesn’t find out for half a season that she’s no longer Susie’s only client. It would be just as inexplicable and designed to generate false tension as Midge’s secret identity.
* Imogene remains the show’s great untapped comic resource. As she was on Bunheads, Bailey DeYoung (née Bailey Buntain, the Blonde Bunhead) is a natural with this highly-stylized dialogue, and the show very badly needs to have someone Midge can open up to, since there are professional boundaries with Susie, generational ones with Abe and Rose and about 17 different ones with Joel.
* There are times on Mrs. Maisel (and on Gilmore Girls and Bunheads) where you can very clearly distinguish a Daniel episode from an Amy one without seeing the credits, just because he tends to lean harder on certain aspects of their shared sense of humor — repeated dialogue, for example — than she does. Think: the telethon control people yelling at Susie over and over in the ninth episode. But he managed to trick me with Episode Four, when the family arrives in the Catskills. Featuring bold visuals and more controlled jokes, I had the episode pegged for one of his wife’s, but it was all Daniel.
What did everybody else think?