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The Real Reason Midge Maisel’s A Terrible Mother Isn’t Her Career


“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” titular character recently sparked new conversation when her portraying actress Rachel Brosnahan responded thusly on Twitter:

As readers know, I’m a fan of the show, but watching the second season eroded some of that enjoyment particularly because Midge’s attempts to “find herself” in smoky comedy clubs and an extramarital fling deepened our knowledge of her massive self-absorption. I saw more of Midge, and I liked her less because of it.

Midge routinely gets in trouble for popping off into monologues that amuse her (but not many others) at inappropriate times, and this focus on herself and her overweening belief in her awesomeness has other uncomfortable consequences. Do we see her learn from the harm she does to others by refusing to control her tongue?

Sometimes she promises she will, as after the scene where she ruins a fellow B. Altman employee’s wedding reception with jokes in terrible taste. Yet rather than much self-reflection and self-correction she chooses to amplify her character flaw into a career. Thus I’m not so sure she is growing as a person from her suffering, self-inflicted and otherwise. Instead, she may be exploiting it — and consequently exploiting those she is duty-bound to love (such as her parents and children).

It’s hard for me to tell if Midge is a bad mother, because we hardly see her interactions with her children. That may be simply because the story isn’t about them or the mothering aspects of Midge’s life, or it may be because she doesn’t actually spend much time with them. Certainly just about every time they are in the picture, they’re not treated as humans whose ideas, desires, and feelings deserve cultivation and consideration, including and especially by Midge, their own mother. They are basically props, objects to pick up here and dump off there.

Midge’s interactions with her children seem to be efforts basically to get them out of the way so she can do what she wants, including sex with a man who isn’t their father, an action children overwhelmingly experience as a devastating betrayal. If what we see on screen is an accurate representation of Midge’s life, yes, she’s a terrible mother. But she’s not only a terrible mother, she’s kind of a terrible person, similarly to how Don Draper’s horribleness as a person affects his fathering as well.

Watching her in season two flick essentially everyone in her life aside to monetize her ability to skewer people has gotten me wondering: Is Mrs. Maisel really so marvelous? Certainly she thinks so. And the moment that dawns on her audience is exactly the moment her charm begins to wear off.

I used to have very little sympathy for Joel Maisel. Initially, he seemed to be an incomprehensibly stupid idiot, hopping into adultery with his secretary for no apparent reason besides boredom, thus destroying all the best things in his life with no way to undo the damage. I still have little sympathy for this obviously foolish and massively harmful choice, but after more time with the show I’m better able to understand how someone might be a little sick of constantly dealing with a wife who is full of herself.

I also initially had little sympathy for Midge’s parents, Rose and Abe. Although Tony Shalub and Marin Hinkle play their parts to the hilt, they’re typecast as an old caricature: those whiny, meddlesome, overcontrolling yet also utterly clueless parents who cannot fathom who their daughter really is inside. I mean, as soon as I write that description you know you’ve seen these parents in a million movies. Yet, again, as I slowly noticed how selfish Midge is I also gained sympathy for her parents.

Regardless of whether they “understand” (read: endorse and pay for) everything Midge feels like doing, they obviously care deeply about her. Her father would not be angry with her career choice if he didn’t care deeply about her having a good life. She and he merely disagree about what constitutes a good life. It seems that his own understanding of what a good life is is about to change and grow, but so far the indications are that he is growing out of his own narrow desires and into something broader. This is evidenced by his admirable re-wooing of his temporarily estranged wife and then hinted at in his career change right at the end of season two.

Midge seems to have moved the opposite way. At least when she was a full-time mom, she spent many of her energies loving other people and seeking to help them have a good life. Her glorious offerings of perfect Jell-O may have been wasted on ingrates (aren’t ours all), but there’s still something beautiful about giving deeply to support other people’s dreams. It’s beautiful because it’s a sacrifice. That’s what love is — giving oneself up for another person.

Midge’s entire career and personal arc in this show has been about reversing what self-sacrifice she exhibited straight into self-indulgence. Does she really love anyone besides herself? We don’t really see her doing much that shows she does. Now, there’s nothing beautiful about a martyr complex, and that may have been her former position rather than one of true self-giving. In that case, Midge hasn’t changed at all. She’s just gotten herself a bigger audience for her self-congratulation (the comedy-going public), in the process discarding the old one (her family).

The sadness of that, however, is that Midge wouldn’t then just be throwing herself away. She’d be throwing away the happiness of other people who depend upon her, whom she brought into this life and who have every right to expect that she put their needs before hers instead of the other way around.

Midge’s career isn’t the problem. It’s how she uses it, and what and who she sacrifices along the way.