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Mrs. Maisel must decide, like all other men and women who follow a path that separates them from their family, home, gods, and city, whether the allure of a life in the spotlight and the total freedom it promises is preferable to, or reconcilable with, the many good things she risks turning away from…

marvelous mrs. maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a television show that is primarily concerned with the horizon between freedom and constraint—and the natural tension created by the respective poles. The show’s brilliant pilot sets the stage for the eponymous protagonist and apparent heroine Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Her husband Joel, in an attempt to loosen the shackles of his corporate career and to escape his upscale New York apartment located just one floor below his in-laws’ place, pursues a sidegig as a stand-up comedian. But Joel’s plan to balance the world he lives in with the world he loves has two irreconcilable problems: first, though charismatic, Joel isn’t particularly funny. And perhaps as a result his desire for recognition hasn’t led him only to a club on the Lower East Side, but also to his secretary’s bed. With his dreams of moonlighting as a stand-up comedian and the respite it brings him from the snobbish, duty-bound life of the Upper West Side in flames, Joel reveals his affair to Miriam—to this point the dutiful, doting housewife who sits in the audience charting Joel’s performances and who removes her makeup only after her husband has already fallen asleep and re-applies before he wakes up—and walks out on his wife, his two children, and his life as he knows it.

Miriam, understandably, is in shock. She is not only well-educated, charming, and beautiful, but as she boasts just hours later in the same club where her soon-to-be ex-husband just bombed, there was nothing about her performance in the bedroom that motivated his departure. “There are French whores standing around the Marais District saying, did you hear what Midge did to Joel…?” she says to a raucous crowd as she explains with justifiable outrage the explicit details of their tattered relationship. But out of the ashes of her marriage the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is born. Sharp-tongued, whip smart, and obscene, her first night on the stage ends with her first night in jail as the cops take her off in handcuffs for violating the decency laws of 1958 New York City. As audience members with twenty-first century sensibilities we are more than sympathetic to Miriam’s plight. Her constancy and devotion to her husband and her utter brilliance on stage land her a night in the clink, while Joel spends his first night as a “free” man in, we are to assume, considerably different circumstances. And of course we are supposed to applaud and admire Miriam’s daring, liberating, and uproarious first night on stage and to detest the repressive laws that enforce the limits of what can be said in decent society. But while cops, New York mafiosi, and the “old boys club” mentality of the New York comedy scene will all provide serious setbacks for Miriam to overcome, perhaps the greatest danger of all is not society’s backward attitude toward women, but the allure of absolute freedom that the spotlight, the microphone, and an audience waiting to erupt provide.

The comic, as comic, cannot be afraid to say or to joke about anything. Nothing can be truly off-limits. This not only frees comedians to hold up a mirror to society’s blemishes, but necessitates that they do. And Miriam is particularly well-positioned both as a woman and by her wealthy upbringing to point out the utter absurdities of the world she lives in. Above all, however, she is marvelous because her wit is matched only by her fearlessness. When she discovers that Sophie Lennon, the trailblazing, working-class female comic and her instant hero, is in fact a fraud, she outs her on stage in front of Lennon’s powerful agent, revealing Lennon for what she really is, a tea-and-crumpets snob. For breaking the code of “honor amongst thieves” Miriam is barred from performing almost anywhere in the City, and her manager Suzy, who first discovered Miriam for the budding star she was, narrowly avoids getting whacked by the agent’s hit men. Undaunted, Miriam continues to make both enemies as well as a name for herself by battling down the proud, highlighting hypocrisy, and unmercifully upstaging the lesser lights among the male ranks whose acts, she knows, would be shunted off stage if delivered by a woman. There is much to admire and much that is indeed marvelous about Mrs. Maisel.

But: the comic, as comic, cannot be afraid to say or to joke about anything. Of particular delight and constantly in the comedian’s crosshairs is the Sacred. The family and its secrets, from the noises your mother makes in bed to the mundanity of your father’s prized career, as well as religion, marriage, and even one’s own children are where the true booty of comics is buried—waiting to be dug up and paraded for the world to see. “She’s a comedian: they humiliate their families on stage, that’s their job,” her father tries to explain to a mock tribunal in defense of his cushy and obviously trivial, but nonetheless covert government research position after Miriam reveals harmless but ludicrously classified information on stage. What begins as a cathartic opportunity for Miriam to aim a well-deserved snowball at the eye of the overbearing and often oppressive society around her at the outset has, by the end of the show’s second season, steadily built into an avalanche that threatens to devastate everyone and everything in Miriam’s path, not pausing even for her mother’s sanity, her father’s career, her children’s upbringing, or Joel’s newfound commitment to salvaging what is left of a teetering relationship. In the final moments of the finale of the second season Miriam is finally confronted with the possibility that the consequence of being The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—with her insatiable desire for the spotlight, the liberating power of the microphone, and the wild adoration of the audience—threatens to send Miriam into unconstrained freefall and bring about freedom’s furthest extreme—the tyrant’s freedom of being totally and utterly alone.

Having overcome many of the undue constraints and expectations levied on women of the age, Miriam has successfully shed off the belittling title comedienne. She is a stand-up and a star—a new Venus in the stand-up constellation. But Miriam must decide, like all other men and women who follow a path that separates them from their family, home, gods, and city, whether the allure of a life in the spotlight and the total freedom it promises is preferable to, or reconcilable with, the many good things she risks turning away from. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel suggests, in title at least, that Miriam’s career can find a happy middle between the horizon’s extremes. But doing so requires recognizing the fundamental flaw of freedom and what is indeed marvelous about the constraints that come with being Mrs. Maisel.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, courtesy of IMDB.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Well reasoned take on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. My wife and I have watched both seasons, and we were rather disturbed by the conclusion of season by the speed with which she abandons her children. I’m not terribly sympathetic to Joel, but the rest of her family merits her love; there is of course also the factors that her parents are not great role models for loving commitment to a tight family unit.

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