tv The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rejection of ‘Having It All’
This article contains spoilers through Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
In the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, a painter sings “Finishing the Hat,” a melancholic but sweepingly lovely confession that art will always come first. The impulse, for George, to paint—to finish the hat, the dog, the grass, the sky—even when it costs him love, is paramount. “When the woman that you wanted goes, you can say to yourself, Well, I give what I give,” he sings. “But the woman who won’t wait for you knows that however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by, mapping out the sky, finishing a hat … Look, I made a hat.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino, who knows a thing or two about hats, it must be said, borrowed from Sondheim to title a Season 2 episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In “Look, She Made a Hat,” Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is introduced to the late-1950s art scene in New York by her new boyfriend, Benjamin (Zachary Levi), a collector. The two of them attend a gallery opening, where Benjamin buys a large, highly prized painting, while Midge’s eye is drawn to a smaller work in a back room. Later, Benjamin takes Midge to a bar frequented by artists, where they encounter the reclusive genius Declan Howell (Rufus Sewell), who’s infamous for refusing to sell any of his paintings. Captivated by Midge, Declan invites her to his studio, where—when Benjamin ducks out to make a phone call—he shows her his masterpiece.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is by no means a perfect show, although it is a perfectly charming one. I haven’t smiled more during a series this year than I did when Midge’s manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), left the home of the comedian Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) wearing a fur coat and an expression so perplexed it almost defied facial recognition. Sherman-Palladino’s resolute lack of imagination when it comes to, say, characters of color—or Susie’s sexuality, or vibrant, intelligent women who maybe don’t throw up innocuous patter at six words a second or see shopping as a competitive sport—is a pain point for me, as is the director’s impulse to consistently send her characters back to transparently awful men. But “Look, She Made a Hat,” combined with the Season 2 finale, did something distinct, something that sets up the series for an intriguing third season. It suggested that Midge will eventually choose comedy not only over love, but also over family.
Given how cavalierly Midge has treated motherhood over the series so far, this might not seem like much of a sacrifice. Her kids, Ethan and baby Esther, are fobbed off on her parents, dropped off with babysitters, left with the housekeeper, abandoned to holiday-camp staffers, and sometimes forgotten about completely. In the second-season episode where Midge and her parents go to the Catskills, Esther is left in a hot car by herself until Midge yells for someone to bring her in along with the rest of the luggage. Parenting, or a lack thereof, is a running joke in the show. Amy Sherman-Palladino was born in 1966, a few years after Esther; it’s possible she’s making a point about casual Boomer attitudes toward raising children, modern helicopter parenting, or both.
Midge seems to think about her children so infrequently that her realization in the season finale, “All Alone,” that she’s the kind of person who will always prioritize comedy over family is pegged to the loss of Benjamin, not the potential loss of seeing, say, her kids grow up. When the musician Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain) calls Midge on the phone and invites her to open for him on a world tour for six months, Midge accepts instantaneously, and celebrates without compunction. She shrieks with excitement, and rushes to share the news with Susie. It isn’t until her father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), finally tells her he’s given Benjamin his blessing to propose that Midge seems to figure something out. (Maybe even before the audience does—it wasn’t entirely unlikely to me that Benjamin, weird in his way and unfussed by Midge’s comedy, would be fine with her zipping off for a while.)
For Midge, though, her response to Shy Baldwin’s proposal signals something. Her life with Benjamin, a second marriage with the possibility of new children, represents one thing; her life with Susie, performing and traveling and having the nightly thrill of a new audience, represents another. It’s not just that the two lives aren’t compatible—to Midge, they don’t even meet to share space on her biographical Venn diagram. When she watches Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) sing “All Alone,” a wistful bit the real Bruce delivered about the end of a relationship, her realization is cemented. “I can’t go back to Jell-O molds,” Midge tells her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Joel. “There won’t be three [kids] before 30 for me. I just made a choice. I am gonna be all alone for the rest of my life. That’s what I just decided in a five-minute phone call.”
This isn’t a purely generational dilemma. Admittedly, in 1959, the concept of women having careers at all, let alone vocations, was rare enough that Midge sees no way for her personal happiness and her professional fulfillment to intersect. But she also isn’t interested in even trying to fit them together. Comedy is her calling now. It’s a less isolating field than, say, painting or writing, and Midge’s partnership with Susie seems to save her from the loneliness of Sondheim’s George. But, like George, she’s made a fundamentally selfish decision to commit herself to her work, no matter the personal cost to herself or others. All she can do is hope, like Declan, that what she creates will ultimately be worth it.
The genius of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my colleague Caitlin Flanagan wrote last year, is how it allows its central character “to enjoy both the best of the glamorized 1950s and the best of today without any of the difficult, inevitable trade-offs and transitions that women have spent the past 60 years navigating.” Not anymore. With Midge’s final decision, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has complicated its sparkly, shiny, impossibly buoyant outlook. It’s set up conflicts for future seasons that will make the show more interesting if it explores them (rather than, for example, kicking Levi’s Benjamin to the curb without even a cursory goodbye). Midge, Sherman-Palladino seems to hope, can do what few women before her have managed: Put herself first above everything else, while still demanding that audiences like her.
SOPHIE GILBERT is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.