The curtain closed on Amy Sherman-Palladino’s cinematic masterpiece, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” last week after five seasons. The final season, and especially its finale, elicited mixed reviews from critics and viewers.
I’ve been a faithful viewer from season one, episode one of the Prime Video show. The gorgeous cinematography and witty banter hooked me, and Rachel Brosnahan’s classically feminine wardrobe alone was enough to keep me watching. But by the start of season five, I started to lose interest, because — spoiler alert — as a 20-year fan of Sherman-Palladino’s shows, I already knew how it was going to end: “Midge” Maisel would certainly succeed, at least, she would succeed in her quest to become a famous comedienne. But her personal life? Not so much.
Indeed, the show whispers of Midge’s fate from the very start of season five, where the first few episodes open with “flash-forwards” to the ’70s and ’80s. We see an older (still impeccably dressed) Midge ascend to atmospheric levels of success and mind-bending wealth, yet we also learn of her quasi-estrangement from her two children and “four marriages” (we are not told whether the fourth marriage stuck, but the absence of a spousal appearance in these future scenes indicates it did not).
The season finale confirms what earlier episodes signaled: We flash forward to the year 2005, where an older Midge sits in a glorious penthouse surrounded by staff and advisers, discussing her upcoming events and travel schedule. It is clear that Midge (still impeccable!) has no plans to slow down her career.
Yet when her staff disperses, she walks alone through her cavernous rooms, including a dining room with a long table that could easily accommodate two dozen guests. She sits down to eat dinner in an industrial-style kitchen, professional chefs milling in the background, but she eats her meal alone.
The older, elegant Midge eventually makes her way to a small den that is reminiscent of her old bedroom in her Upper West Side apartment, switches on her television, and phones Susie, her longtime friend and manager. The season ends with Susie, located thousands of miles away in her own palatial quarters, and Midge reminiscing, watching “Jeopardy!,” and laughing together. When the laughter fades, so, too, does the scene and the series.
On the one hand, it is an undeniably sweet ending for longtime fans of the show: a glimpse into an intimate moment between the two beloved protagonists. Yet as Midge and Susie connect telephonically, one cannot help but question: Where is everyone else in Midge’s life?
Grappling with Competing Priorities
Given Sherman-Palladino’s track record of sending her protagonists’ personal lives into spirals, it seems clear that this omission was intentional. From the days of “Gilmore Girls” characters’ gut-wrenching breakups that seem to have no legitimate justification, Sherman-Palladino’s protagonists are seldom, if ever, allowed to flourish both professionally and personally. Woman after ambitious woman in her world is presented a false binary between pursuing their own dreams and accepting a life of personal sacrifice and, with it, deep fulfillment. And when given the choice, it’s clear which one is sacrificed.
This is made further evident by how the successful marriages she does portray are little more than caricatures. In “Maisel,” we see Abe and Rose, Moishe and Shirley, Archie and Imogene, for example: pairings of henpecked men and shallow wives. Married people in “Maisel” are the dull and dim ones who subject themselves to lives of Jell-O molds and brisket, elaborate makeup routines, and exercise classes. There is certainly no room for ambition in these domestic worlds. The life of a married person is presented as a stifling life, a second-rate option.
As the heroine of the show, Midge throws off her diamond-studded domestic shackles. And yet her story arc can often smack of the tiresome refrain that women simply cannot “have it all.” The show further forces this point through characters like Mei, Joel Maisel’s charming love interest, who claims “I can’t have it all” to defend her decision to abort her child so that she could continue to pursue her medical degree.
When interviewed on this point, Sherman-Palladino shared: “We wanted [to portray] a woman who was that next thinking generation of women who decided, ‘Hold on, maybe I don’t need that. Let me work on me first.’”
But what the show contributes to this dialogue is nothing new, and it fails to adequately grapple with the undeniable tension between competing priorities. There are a few whispers of this tension, most poignantly perhaps in season two, episode 10, when storied comedian Lenny Bruce satires his own recent relationship failure with a campy song:
All alone, all alone
I’ll be living in my Knob Hill mansion, rich, and all alone
I’ll be rich, but so all alone.
This is what propels Midge to fly to her ex-husband Joel’s office to share the news about her big break — an invitation to open for a famous singer on his international tour — and share: “I didn’t think about anything, or anyone. … I made a choice. I am going to be all alone for the rest of my life.”
Briefly Grappling with an Alternative Reality
We see a similar tension in a heart-wrenching confrontation between Midge and her former fiancé, Benjamin, at the end of season three. When Benjamin confronts Midge to ask why she’d ended their engagement, Midge replies once again that she’d chosen a life of ambition yet solitude. When she said, of her totalizing comedy career, “it would be constant; you wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he replied, poignantly: “Did you ask?” (Of course, Midge didn’t.)
The writers hint that Benjamin might have been completely on board with Midge’s lifestyle, yet in making that choice, she failed to consider how she could make both work: both a career on the road and a marriage. The brief grapple with an alternative reality, one in which Midge had asked, and her fiancé assented, is agonizing to watch.
Sadly, we see little of this same poignancy throughout the next two seasons of the show. In fact, Midge’s bullheadedness about relationships starts to rankle by season five, notably, her banter with Gordon, who pursues her romantically only to elicit yet another rejection by Midge (her protestations involved wanting to prove to herself that she could make it onto his show by her own merit, not his personal attachment to her).
Could Midge have chosen success and a successful romantic relationship? Could she have emotionally, logistically, practically, and physically sustained life in the limelight and a life firmly rooted in community, love, connection, and family? Granted, navigating the logistics of balancing work and home life would not have made for very interesting TV, but I couldn’t help but wish the writers had grappled with these tensions just a bit more.
The show does successfully convey that the path to fame isn’t paved in gold, and, yes, it is clear that Midge suffered plenty of setbacks in her ascent to the top of the comedy ladder. Yet Midge’s only tragedy is all that she sacrificed to get there. And the show’s great weakness is its insistence that this collateral damage was simply that — collateral. Unavoidable, inevitable, and in the end, necessary.