With the arrival of season three of the Emmy award-winning Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Tara Ward explains her topsy-turvy love affair with the show’s infuriating heroine.
When season one of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel burst onto our screens in 2017, it was love at first sight. After years of watching nightmarish shows about tortured handmaids and Swedish murders, the candy-coloured Maisel was a welcome breath of fresh air. Created by the team behind Gilmore Girls, the show is a gorgeous whirlwind of fabulous costumes, a barrage of rapid fire dialogue that made you laugh out loud, and a feminist story about a brave woman who, when the shit hits the fan, gets her boobs out and starts cracking the funnies.
The funny woman is Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, who won an Emmy and two Golden Globes for this role). In episode one, Midge is happily fulfilling her destiny as an upper-class Jewish housewife and mother in 1950s New York, but it all goes tits up/boobs out when her husband Joel announces he’s in love with his secretary, Penny Pann. Penny Pann! The name’s as ridiculous as the whole situation, and Midge does what every self-respecting woman does when they realise a tasty casserole isn’t enough to save a marriage: she gets drunk, goes out in her nightie, tells some dirty jokes and gets arrested.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with a smart, sassy heroine like Midge? While her family and friends reel from the shame of her divorce, Midge steps into the (spot)light and reinvents herself as a stand-up comedian. Comedy gives Midge the freedom to vent her anger and frustrations, and helps her make sense of her new life. She fights to be taken seriously, both as a single woman and a female comic, and she’s not afraid to call out gender stereotypes and double standards. “Comedy is fuelled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment, by abandonment and humiliation. Now, who the hell does that describe more than women? Judging by those standards, only women should be funny,” she says.
I fell hard for Midge in season one, but like Joel’s feelings for Penny Pann, something changed. While characters like Midge’s parents Rose and Abe evolved and grew during seasons two and three (which arrived on Amazon Prime earlier this month), Midge’s journey of self discovery stalled. Instead of being inspired by Midge’s bravery, I became frustrated by her lack of self awareness. Her bedroom filled with clothes and her love of shopping annoyed me. She remained naive and impulsive, an immaculately dressed tornado blustering into every room. There was no challenge she couldn’t conquer, no crowd she couldn’t charm. It was too much. Midge was too much. I was in her corner, but sheesh, Midge could be exhausting.
I began to wonder if Midge and I needed to take a break. I couldn’t reconcile the Midge who wants independence with the Midge who leaves her baby in the car on holiday and orders the hired help to bring it inside. Midge gets to kick comedy butt on stage because she lives with her wealthy parents who employ a maid and can babysit at the drop of a hat, privileges which Midge rarely acknowledges. Midge gets older but not necessarily wiser, and it’s as frustrating as the time she was eliminated from a hectic game of Simon Says in the Catskills for touching her nose when Simon did not say “Simon Says”. By that, I mean a lot.
If Midge’s whole shtick is that she’s a single mother building a career in stand-up, I’d love to see The Marvelous Mrs Maisel lean in harder and let Midge face more of the challenges of a working parent, instead of protecting her from them. I’m thinking constant childcare juggling or endless loads of washing or being so exhausted you fall asleep at 7:30pm in front of a Love Island marathon with biscuit crumbs stuck down your bra that you’ll discover the next morning all melted and smooshed, but eat them anyway. Or so I’ve heard.
Praise be to the Tupperware gods, then, for Susie Meyerson (two-time Emmy Award winner Alex Borstein), Midge’s wonderfully sarcastic manager. She’s the dark to Midge’s light, the rough to her smooth, the socially awkward to Midge’s polished socialite. It’s Susie who encourages Midge to do the unthinkable and become a comedian, and when Midge flies too high, Susie’s brutal honesty keeps both Midge and the show grounded. Susie keeps you coming back for more.
Together, Midge and Susie are the beating heart of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, because they have faith in each other when nobody else does. They both work in a man’s world, each pushing back on societal expectations about how women should behave. Their partnership is tested during season three, but essentially they’re a team taking on the world, one stand-up show at a time. “Alone, I’m a spittoon. With you, I’m a somebody,” Susie tells Midge.
Season three ends at a turning point for Midge, which means I can’t break up with her yet. Like a good, strong girdle, this is a love that can’t be undone, just loosened enough to catch your breath and ask “what the fork is happening here?” It’s not perfect, but The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is still a colourful, sharp-witted show that knows how to spark joy, and that’s mostly down its two intelligent and funny heroines. I have faith in Mrs Maisel, because you get the feeling that whatever happens, she’s going to do great things. Tits up, thank you and goodnight.
Seasons 1-3 of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 for as little as $1 to help us continue our work and cover the stories that matter. Get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.