‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Rediscovers Its Comedic Essence as the Series Exits the Stage
After trying in vain to recycle some of its original plotting last season, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” rediscovers its stride while continuing to celebrate the long, hard road of success, and personal discovery. This is the fifth and final season of the Amazon hit, sending off its memorable comedian in ways both surprising and inevitable. After Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) finally caught some big breaks in the world of stand-up comedy, the show cornered itself into justifying our rooting for her. The writers decided to get her fired and have her start from zero all over again. For this final round, creator Amy Sherman-Palladinodo and team do something smarter by planting a new challenge in Midge’s path that also leads to real growth.
This time the series also zig-zags between the show’s ongoing narrative and the future. Season five opens in 1981 on Midge’s daughter, Esther (Alexandra Socha), who is now a brilliant PhD candidate at MIT. She goes to therapy to discuss the fallout of being the offspring of a famous comedian. It’s an early reveal that Midge has achieved the heights of fame, including rocky relationships with her kids and a colorful set of multiple marriages. We return back to 1960s New York to find Midge bedridden with hyperthermia following the snow storm that ended season four. In comes manager Susie (Alex Borstein) to get Midge back into shape. She also needs to find her client some good work after the disastrous fight with Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) at Carnegie Hall. Eventually, Midge does get out of bed and carries on. Susie finds Midge a new opportunity when she marches into the offices of Gordon Ford (Reid Scott), demanding her client be given a seat in the writer’s room for his TV show.
So begins an entertaining new phase for Midge. Having proven her worth onstage as a stand-up, she’s now going to try the brutally hard task of being a TV writer. Many comedians think their jokes are funny, but there’s nothing like the pressure of having to write them professionally. In a sense it’s also a great metaphor for everyone’s pressures this season, as characters are forced to adapt. Midge’s ex-husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), announces he and Mei (Stephanie Hsu) are going to get married. Mei’s also expecting a baby. It’s nothing but fleeting stability. Mei soon enough announces to Joel in their apartment that she’s leaving to do her medical residency in Chicago and is no longer pregnant. The implication is clearly that she had an abortion. This development sends Joel into meltdown mode for a good portion of the season’s first half. He eventually goes to confront Mei’s shady mah-jong club owner parents and gets pounded by their henchmen.
Midge’s storyline is so strong she almost doesn’t need all the side plots involving the other characters. They are still quirky delights. In one episode Midge’s father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), has a profound crisis of confidence over a mistake in one of his articles for the Village Voice. His editor gets even more stressed when Abe decides to pen a hilariously long apology to readers. Mom and matchmaker, Rose (Marin Hinkle), appears to be the target of some fierce competition by rival matchmakers, who are willing to sabotage her transport and even her flight plans. Susie is in full hustle mode trying to get some work for Midge, as well as client and magician Alfie (Gideon Glick). Getting him to a sold-out gig in Las Vegas proves to be its own challenge since Alfie is terrified of flying. It’s also inspirational to watch Susie go hard when cornering Gordon Ford’s booker at a Christmas tree farm, or mad-dogging the TV personality himself into letting Midge into his coveted writer’s room.
In the end, this show is all about Midge. Her journey into the world of television brings some emotional highs and lows, juxtaposed with glimpses into the future two decades ahead. One episode opens with an older Midge visiting her grown son at a Kibbutz in 1980s Israel, revealing that Esther isn’t the only offspring she has a complicated relationship with. It is almost as if this is a price to pay for career success. We see more of the struggle to get there in the offices of the “The Gordon Ford Show.” You can sense Sherman-Palladinodo and team cheerfully diving into classic TV lore. During the Kennedy years having a woman writer on a staff was more than a rarity. Midge has to adjust to a different terrain from her usual club gigs and tours. Here there’s a staff where every joke is brutally traded and assessed. If Gordon isn’t happy the material gets tossed back. Being the only woman on the writing team, Midge has to endure a misogynist zone and fight to get her material on the air. When she finally gets one joke into Gordon’s cue cards, he fumbles the lines. The moment culminates with one of Midge’s typical, funny public gaffs when she moans out loud, in anger, during the live broadcast.
New relationships emerge while old ones seem to find resolution or quiet closure. While helping get Alfie on his flight, Midge bumps into Lenny at the airport. He’s moving to Los Angeles and could be exiting Midge’s life. Shot wonderfully in wide angles, their goodbye is devoid of cheap sentimentality. Lenny apologizes briskly for not calling after that night they slept together last season, and Midge, holding back emotion, tells him in quite a dignified way that she won’t blow her new opportunities. There’s no rancor in the moment, but the maturity of two adults parting ways, knowing that what has transpired between them will still linger somewhere in their memories.
More than just winding down the story, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” begins its exit with the refreshing, no less tense, feeling of transition in the lead character’s life. Her talent is taking her to new places and introducing her to new people. Predictably, Gordon becomes attracted to Midge and starts hitting on her. But she’s even more careful and tactful now, assessing the situation fully before deciding whether to reciprocate his advances. Then there are those small, wonderful moments like Abe and Rose wondering why Gordon needs writers for his material, when learning for the first time how TV production works. The writer’s room for the show becomes a likable den of bros who slowly come to tolerate, even like, Midge in their circle. She still tries out her material onstage, because this is who she truly is and will always be. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has been many things, from a colorful portrait of middle class Jewish life in ‘60s America to a classic underdog journey. Midge isn’t necessarily heading toward a happy ending, but a human one full of great triumphs and the kind of endurance tests that are our ultimate life lessons.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” season five begins streaming April 14 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.