Spoilers for the first two seasons below.
One of life’s great annoyances is when a perfectly good show, with a truly engaging script and endearing cast of characters, becomes a raucous stomping ground for Hollywood’s elite to virtue signal to the plebians below them. Alas, Amazon’s award-winning comedy, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” has slipped into this unfortunate category.
Set at the cusp of the 1960s, “Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Miriam (Midge) Maisel, a vivacious and affluent Jewish housewife of the Upper West Side, who embarks on a career of stand-up comedy when her husband leaves her for another woman.
When I first watched season one, I was utterly charmed. Midge is beautiful and witty, and her fabulous wardrobe alone makes the show worth watching. Viewers can’t help but admire her undimmed sense of humor even during her husband’s affair and subsequent abandonment of his wife and two children.
Faced with her perfect world crumbling around her, Midge ventures into stand-up comedy. Her first performance is a spontaneous set brilliantly delivered at a seedy bar within hours of learning of her husband’s infidelity, and following an exorbitant consumption of wine.
Even as she drunkenly entertains the crowd, Midge’s heartbreak perforates the laughter as she wonders out loud what made her husband leave her, a woman with a college degree, who “weighs the same as she did on her wedding day, even after two kids.” Her pain is tremendous, but it’s balanced flawlessly by her wit.
From that moment on, the audience is swept up by Mrs. Maisel’s emphatic refusal to play the defeated wife. She can be self-absorbed and superficial, but we cannot help but hope to see her succeed and be happy.
The Kids’ Existence Is an Obstacle to Overcome
But that was in the first season. By season two, Midge and her husband are on amicable terms, and they even attempt a reconciliation, but her burgeoning comedy career stands in the way, leading her husband to support her by encouraging her to pursue her dreams of comedic stardom at the expense of any efforts to rebuild their marriage. The unspoken victims of this decision are of course their two young children.
Throughout the show, Midge’s two children, a toddler girl and preschool-aged boy, are mostly in the background, watched by various grandparents and the housekeeper, while Midge spends her days working in a department store and her evenings perfecting her comedy set at bars downtown. The show is clearly not designed to portray her as a mother, and for this reason the producers’ complete neglect of the children in the first two seasons can be irksome, but seemingly lacks malintent.
As previously pointed out in this publication, the children are not crucial to the story, so Midge’s parenting, or demonstrable lack thereof, is a relative nonissue. Furthermore, Midge is now a single mom who may need to earn a living. Her determination to pay her way and salvage her sense of worth after her husband’s affair is hardly unforgivable. Her children are neutral elements to the story, and the audience is not required to weigh in on their status.
However, soon it becomes clear that Midge’s detached form of motherhood is not simply a byproduct of the script, but an increasingly obvious social statement. She wants to be a world-famous comedian, and her children are no longer passive bystanders, but obstacles she must overcome. Therefore, leaving behind her children is a deliberate choice, and throughout the third season, the audience is instructed to celebrate her for it.
First the Dad Abandons Them, Then Their Mother
At the beginning of season three, viewers find Midge poised to begin a months-long global tour, opening for Shy Baldwin, a fictional superstar male singer. By the second episode, Midge’s new priorities are brought to the forefront.
As Midge and her husband stand in the divorce court to finalize the dissolution of their marriage, they are so obviously still in love that the presiding judge asks them to take more time on the decision. Midge refuses. When pressed on why, she looks sadly back at her husband, then at the judge, and says, “I just can’t be a wife right now.” The scene is clearly engineered to elicit some form of sympathy for being torn between her love for her ex-husband and her desire for a career.
Of course, “can’t” is a foolish choice of words for a show built upon the concept of chutzpah, especially when spoken by a woman who has spent the past two seasons proving herself to be the epitome of competence and perseverance. Midge has shown she can do anything, but she is choosing not to be a wife. Instead of seeking a way to reconcile the two dreams, she is choosing to sacrifice her marriage and her children’s upbringing on the altar of her ambition.
The show attempts to salvage Midge’s image as a mother a few times. During one scene she sits with her parents, in-laws, and ex-husband while they discuss the children’s schedule during her upcoming tour, with the intention clearly being to show Midge’s maternal instincts in a flattering light. The effort falls flat.
Midge may have created a very organized schedule for her children (On carbon paper! Everyone will have copies!), but she seems perfectly happy to overlook the fact that her little ones will spend the foreseeable future being shuttled from apartment to apartment without parents while their mother leaves them to gallivant around the world. But look, she packed their favorite toys for them!
Almost a Moment of Self-Knowledge
In a later scene, during one of the early stops of her tour, Midge befriends a female member of Shy’s band, and the two talk about life on the road. The other woman has three children, all under the age of ten, who live with her mother and to whom she sends money every week.
Midge asks if she ever feels guilty. It’s one of the few times Midge betrays any sense of doubt in her choice to leave her family, and it is a refreshing break from her usual nonchalance—often bordering on indifference—concerning her children.
Unfortunately, the moment passes almost immediately. The band member quickly says her own father was often absent due to work and no one thought twice about it, presumably because he was a man and children supposedly don’t need fathers either, and as if that somehow absolves her own absence in her children’s lives. She then segues into a long speech about how life on the road is hard, but at the end of her life she will have really lived.
There is no mention of the fact that her children will have to grow up without a mother so she can achieve this dream. Midge’s eyes begin to shine as the other woman speaks of seeing the world, and all traces of doubt vanish. Children do not travel well.
The message of the scene is clear: viewers should feel guilty for questioning Midge’s love of her children. She is a modern woman working in a male-dominant field, and we must support her at all costs. Anything less and we risk falling victim to patriarchal preconceptions of a woman’s role in the world.
Then Attacks a Woman Who Fought for Kids
In case viewers missed the not-so-subtle scripting of the above scenes, “Mrs. Maisel” goes one step further. While on a break from tour, Midge is asked to read a commercial promoting the congressional campaign of Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent figure in the conservative movement during the latter half of the twentieth century.
The show’s script writers portray Schlafly as racist, xenophobic, and sexist. Midge and her fellow characters at times refer to her as “terrible,” a “monster,” and “Satan.” Not coincidentally, Schlafly led the grassroots movement that ultimately defeated efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and thus was vehemently despised by second-wave feminists. Ultimately, Midge refuses to read the commercial, mutely staring down the male radio producer.
Although the entire Schlafly sequence was unnecessary to any actual plot development, it served its purpose of removing all neutrality from Midge’s choices. Before, while her character treated her children as accessories in her life, it was never done deliberately. She was not a great mother, but at least there was no subliminal messaging behind her parenting decisions.
Now, however, she is on a crusade. From this point on, Midge is not only determined to be famous, she is on a mission to empower women to follow her brand of enlightenment, which clearly involves placing their own desires above the needs and wants of those they have a duty to serve.
I’d like to hope that future seasons of “Mrs. Maisel” will reunite Midge with her husband, who after his initial transgressions in the first season—which were certainly reprehensible—has proven repentant and dependable. However, the script writers have chosen to draw a clear line in the sand, and Midge’s career aspirations are now diametrically opposed to her role as a wife and mother, and any reconciliation of the two will require a sacrifice.
Midge is clearly not willing to make a sacrifice that affects her desires, and even if she wants to, such a decision would undermine the work done in season three to solidify her feminist credentials. Ergo, it looks like faithful viewers of the show are guaranteed more episodes of watching the leading lady trot about the world in glittering high heels while the script shames anyone who questions a mother’s decision to leave her children who need her.
Vive le Resistance.