Review: ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ cannot have it all
Last June, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby released her Netflix stand-up special “Nanette.” The show received critical acclaim and an entire literature of think-pieces, not because it was especially funny or because the jokes were radical (although they were), but because Gadsby used her special to question what it means to use self-deprecating comedy as a woman, a queer individual and as an “other” who exists in the margins.
“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said. “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”
Gadsby’s special asked a multitude of questions, not only about gender, sexuality and marginalization, but about comedy as a genre, as a tool to examine the comic’s personal life and see how it reflects the larger world around them. And Amazon’s second season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which aired in December and whose title actress, Rachel Brosnahan, won a Golden Globe for her performance on Sunday, asks its own questions about women and comedy — but with mixed results.
I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the first season of “Mrs. Maisel” when it first came out, full of bubbly exuberance and reams of brightly colored 1950s fashion. The premise felt fresh and intriguing — a 1950s housewife discovers her talent for stand-up comedy when her life implodes after her husband leaves her. The housewife in question, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, is largely based on Joan Rivers, who was also a rich, college-educated woman whose divorce became the kick-off point for her comedy career in the 1960s. Yet unlike Rivers, who had originally dreamed of being a serious actress and became homeless for a short term after a falling-out with her parents, Midge’s life maintains a shiny veneer that surrounds her like a halo. The viewer, alongside the audience inside the television, recognizes Midge’s brilliance as a comic. Her career suffers setbacks, sure, but we all know she won’t be down for long. She’s also rich and beautiful and a social butterfly; multiple men, including her ex-husband, seem to fall in love with her at every turn. She seems to have it all.
The show felt like sheer escapism when it first came out in 2017, and in all honesty, it still felt the same way in 2018. The ugly misogyny of the 1950s seemed to be a monster that could be defeated with a series of quick-witted quips and foul-mouthed banter; a woman could be both conventionally feminine and a trailblazer. She could be a mother, an ex-wife, a daughter, a friend and an accepted member of her society while also pursuing what she loved. Yet I don’t know if I still want this iridescent bubble of a reality; I don’t know if I really want to see Midge have it all.
The final episode of the second season concludes with Midge at a crossroads; she’s about to embark on an international tour opening for a famous musician. It’s her first truly big break. On the other hand, her boyfriend Benjamin, portrayed by Zachary Levi, has just proposed to her, after going through numerous hoops to receive permission from her father for her hand in marriage. Midge seems to be facing a decision between a life of artistic fulfillment and ambition and a life of domestic bliss — yet the weight of this decision by the end of the season rings completely false.
Narratively, viewers spend the entire second season following an arc based on this idea that Midge can have it all — her relationship with Benjamin begins because she is “weird,” a comic, an unusual woman who wants more than domestic bliss. He is attracted to her precisely because of her inclinations toward comedy. It’s hard to imagine that he would withdraw his proposal because she wants to postpone her marriage by six months; one would imagine that her children — whose neglect becomes a running joke during this season — provide a bigger incentive to decline the tour.
But like her love for her children, Midge’s love for comedy is also never made obvious throughout the show. She seems to have greater passion for her job as the assistant at the makeup counter at B. Altman, a job that she was demoted from at the beginning of the season, than she does for any progress in her comedy career. Why else would she gleefully fly off to a two-month vacation in the Catskills without even telling her manager Susie (Alex Borstein), despite having been explicitly told that the summer is a crucial time for her comedy?
The finale attempts to inject a dose of realism to the fluffy pink world of “Mrs. Maisel,” but it’s an abrupt transition from what the viewer has been told all season. Midge simply does not have the sheer desperation that is needed for an artistic career; she instead seems to be floating on her own privilege and talent.
Midge’s manager, Susie, highlights this lack of desperation even more with her own drive for her client’s career — and the viewer sees, through her character, that this desperation is inherently linked to privilege, or the lack of it. Susie’s butch appearance, her poverty and her flagrant disregard for social norms is everything Midge is not. In one pivotal scene, Susie shouts at a clueless Midge that she has no money, that she needs Midge to do well so she can survive. It’s no longer simply a matter of prestige or creative ambition, but a matter of survival. Susie does not have it all; she will never have it all.
The contrast between Susie and Midge becomes the focal point of this season, but it is not enough. The creator of the show, Amy Sherman-Palladino, tries to address Midge’s obvious privilege with Susie, but the show is not “The Marvelous Susie” — it’s about Midge. If Midge is to understand Susie’s desperation, to deliver the feminist message that the creators intended, and to really address what comedy is for women and marginalized groups, she needs to live that life. She needs to live Joan Rivers’ life, as a formerly chubby girl who lived a life of mortification due to society’s view of her body, as someone who had her dreams crushed and rejected by those around her.
Because unlike what Gadsby said in her special, Midge does not live her life in the margins. She does not feel humiliation with self-deprecating humor, because she has nothing to be humiliated about. And because of this, she cannot be the underdog character that the show intends for her to be, who represents women when they struggle to live both inside and outside of society’s expectations.