Picture New York City in the 1950s: vintage cars with the same dirty streets and rat problem you love to hate. Imagine you walk around downtown’s maze-like streets and can’t help but go into a dingy comedy club, the sound of laughter spilling out of it. Between the stench of Cuban cigars and whiskey, you can’t decide if you should cough from secondhand smoke or join in but take a seat anyway—only for a drunk lady to kvetch and flash the audience before being whisked away by the police. Well, what if I told you this woman was not a lady of the night, but rather an abandoned housewife who turns her misfortune into a comedy career? Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel acts as a 1950s time capsule with a twist. Of course, there are plenty of women who wear extravagant fascinators, but Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is different. Her strong-headed, Jewish-mother persona resembles your bubbe who nags you to nosh on a third helping of kugel and gefilte fish. However, she is to be reckoned with as she emerges as a comic who is not afraid to hold her middle finger up to the patriarchy. While witnessing character’s triumphs unfold in television dramas is certainly fulfilling, let’s be honest here: We love watching someone’s perfect life fall apart and come together again. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s pilot delivers such delightful catastrophe through a character who must work her way to the top, launching the series’ revolutionary story about resistance and female empowerment alongside inspiring audiences today despite being set in the twentieth century.
They say behind every great man is a great woman, but not every great woman has a great man. For example, Midge Maisel’s husband Joel (Michael Zegen) is five feet and eight inches of pure mediocrity and Irish Spring soap. Within the first few minutes of the pilot, we learn Joel is a struggling comic who can never get a good time slot for his sets at the Gaslight Comedy Club. Yet while Joel calls himself a comedian, viewers realize the only funny thing about him is that he thinks he can pull off an ill-fitting turtleneck. Joel comes to understand he will never have a successful career in comedy and starts to pack his bags for one reason: The failing comedian had enough sex appeal to have an affair with his secretary. Heartbroken, Midge stands alone in her fancy Upper West Side apartment, left with no choice but to disappoint her parents by telling the truth, and drink an entire bottle of wine before going back to the Gaslight drunk and angry—which we all know is a bad combination. She stumbles onto the stage, intoxicated by the lights and, well, the booze. Mumbling, Midge starts to complain about her husband when she hears faint laughter coming from the audience and one woman encouraging her to speak up. With great defiance, she rips the microphone off its stand and talks about the struggles of being a housewife. And while this is a grimy club for young, trendy people who self-medicate with nicotine and alcohol, Midge in all her Upper West Side glory manages to win them over because she sticks out like a dropped stitch in a scarf and upper-class family problems are funny. Despite being out of place, a star reminiscent of Joan Rivers and her brash housewife commentary is born in the boys’ club that is stand-up comedy; her jokes provoke everyone to chortle and smack their hands together, including Susie (Alex Borstein), the club’s the tough manager who likes no one’s comedy—except Midge’s. After an arrest for flashing the audience, downtrodden Midge is bailed out by Susie, who recommends she take up comedy professionally.
What makes this episode an excellent drama is Midge Maisel and how she rebels against the parameters of the period. All the characters are conscious of what a supposedly perfect life consists of for 1950s Jewish families: lots of children, a nice home on the Upper West Side, fancy dresses that look like cupcakes, and nagging Jewish parents who are proud of you—even if you aren’t a lawyer or doctor. It’s certainly mundane to follow the crowd, but can you blame people for choosing a life like this? Think about it. No one is going to give nasty looks at the grocery store to families where the wife cooks, cleans, and preens while the husband works. And so, the Maisels happily lived this way like it was gospel (poor word choice for a Jewish show, I know). Yet, when Joel leaves, Midge wakes up from this glorified dream of having a perfect family to realize that this kind of life often comes with crippling expectations and disappointment. Forced to face her parents and tell them about her husband, Midge receives no sympathy but rather is bombarded with accusations. Her father Abe (Tony Shalhoub) storms to his piano and begins to slam on the keys before saying,
ABE. When I agreed to send you to that fancy goyim college, what was the one thing I told you?
MIDGE. Don’t pick a weak man.
ABE. It’s your fault. Everything we bring on ourselves is our own fault. . .You listen to me. You are a child. You cannot survive without a husband. 1
Such an exclamation is a demonstration of the archaic Eve and the original sin complex: Women are the cause of every man’s downfall. It’s not Joel’s fault for having an affair when Midge didn’t do enough. It’s not Joel’s fault for leaving when Midge should’ve begged him to stay more. It’s not Joel’s fault he’s a piece of shit but Midge’s for picking a “weak man.” And despite being this all-knowing father figure every Jewish daughter should respect, Abe demonstrates his (and society’s) sexist beliefs about women being incapable of supporting a family by themselves or simply riding solo. Oy this thinking makes my feminist skin crawl, but that’s what makes this moment so compelling; viewers now want this posh housewife to raise hell and come out on top.
I wouldn’t say Midge’s choice to drown her sorrows in alcohol is necessarily vengeful, but liquid courage pushes her to a breaking point. After knocking back glass after glass of wine, Midge stops playing her perfect housewife role; she ditches the Upper West Side costume consisting of a perfect bob, an impeccable dress, and world-class manners in exchange for rain-soaked hair, runny makeup, and a skimpy nightgown. Without a husband or parents to expect her to complete chores and look the part of a wife, we finally see Midge in her most authentic form—free to do things she never even considered due to the risk of being seen as socially unacceptable, such as perform in a club and say:
I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m losing him to Penny Pann. That’s her name. Terrible, right? Penny Pann. . . Penny Pann. . . Penny Pan . . .I’m officially losing my mind. Which is perfect. Now, I’ll be alone and crazy. The famous mad divorcee of the Upper West Side. You know, I’ve seen her twice wearing her shirt inside out? Penny. Twice. Once, fine, you were rushed in the morning. Twice—you can only be trusted to butter people’s corn at the county fair. 2
Sure, we know it’s wrong to call people dumb, but we also know smoking is bad for us and still do it anyway. So, what’s the harm in Midge getting this off her chest? The character’s choice to speak on stage is inherently defiant, proving she is far from well-behaved and has a bite far worse than her bark—skills she will come to learn cannot be improvised in a professional career. After this turning point, viewers watch Midge develop an autonomy that motivates her to write her own material on the subway, go back to the Gaslight, indulge in some drinking, and try to become a comedian: a career that allows her to speak freely and develop who she truly is. She doesn’t need a man. She just needs a microphone.
Now, how could a pilot ever be the best episode in television drama when season finales have more action? The answer is simple. This pilot introduces viewers to one of the most empowered characters in the television genre. You see, this episode sets up Midge as the presentable woman most females feel they must be. For decades, society has imposed standards upon women, expecting them to cover their shoulders, wear a full face of makeup, cross their legs, and speak appropriately to be considered ladylike. But who first decided what qualifies as ladylike? It’s obvious: men. Of course, some women choose to look and act certain ways that please themselves but think about how many of our customs are designed to appeal to the male gaze. Midge literally wakes up before her husband every morning to touch up her appearance, only to get back in bed and appear as if she is naturally that perfect. But what happened to wanting to be authentic and independent? Well, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel introduces audiences to a strong female who learns to not care about what the patriarchy wants from her and does not need a man to thrive, demonstrated by her ability to succeed as a comic faster than her husband ever did. She oozes a confidence and determination each of us has the potential to unleash—we just have to be unapologetically true to ourselves to find it.
I know what you’re thinking. There are so many television shows with strong female leads who have families and Midge is like all the rest. However, comparing Midge to other housewife characters is like saying Cool Whip is the same as Reddi-Wip—one looks perfect but is flat-out fake and the other, while lopsided, is genuine dairy that comes in a festive, red aerosol can. I know setting up a food analogy sounds rather silly (or like I was hungry when writing this piece . . . which isn’t not true), but think about some well-known wives in television. Sure, Mrs. Brady (Florence Henderson) knows how to love and corral the Brady Bunch, but does she ever do wrong? Sheldon’s mother Mary Cooper (Zoe Perry) from Young Sheldon is a devout Christian whose morals are always in check, yet does she ever have an off day? Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones) manages her kids on music tours and somehow always has dinner on the table, yet does she ever get worn out? You see, mothers like these are depicted as perfect, taking care of everyone around them—except themselves—without a single hair out of place. Forget the fact that they have their own anxieties, passions, and pitfalls because family TV shows like these dismiss the possibility that housewives may not love what they were told to do: raise a family with a husband who pays the bills and puts his dirty shoes on the ottoman when watching Sunday football while she vacuums the carpet. Midge Maisel, however, is messy. Even after she realizes being a housewife isn’t for her and still chooses to dress like a high-class, Upper West Side woman, she speaks before she thinks, is arguably a bad mother who neglects and insults her children (like obsessing over her one-year-old daughter’s gigantic forehead out of the fear she will be ugly), gets a little too drunk, and has an insatiable hunger for success that drives her to do questionable things like out a closeted gay man. And yet, despite her flaws, we cannot help but fall in love with her because she lives her life with an empowered authenticity that is hard not to admire. Midge makes us realize how sick we are of playing the roles society chooses to cast us in and teaches that sometimes you have to tell the director off to get the part you were born to play. And if that part means dressing like Cinderella’s stepsister Drizella, going to a bar that doesn’t use coasters, and telling jokes about schmucks who did you dirty, so be it.
Now, to the readers who have the chutzpah to call The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a period piece that just acts as an homage to a simpler time, I just want to set you straight: You’re wrong—so wrong in fact that I am starting to think flat Earthers might have more of a compelling argument than you, which says something . . . Insults aside, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel manages to make the 1950s relevant to today’s world by practicing the timeless skill of self-acceptance. The show’s pilot is set during Yom Kippur—a Jewish holiday centered around repentance and forgiveness. While it is easy for Midge to blame society’s constructs for the life she used to lead, what good does that really do aside from resulting in greater complacency and dissatisfaction? To change her life, Midge had to become her own catalyst; instead of moping about how she wasted more than twenty years of her life abiding by the rules of what makes a perfect housewife, she learned to accept her mistakes and embrace her flaws, ultimately turning them into the very strengths that feed her professional success and personal contentment—a message that represents the spirit of Yom Kippur and transcends decades. So even though The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set during a time when Jell-O molds and Elvis Presley were all the rage, don’t be fooled: what we learn from the past inspires the people we are bound to become.