Throughout the three-season run of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the eponymous Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) and her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) have been attached at the hip. And their odd-couple chemistry is the true heart of the show—a “Borscht Belt Barbie” and a brawler from Queens communicating in the shared language of Amy Sherman-Palladino. But then, midway through Maisel’s newest season, Midge and Susie do the unthinkable: They split up.
“You’re kicking ass every night,” Susie explains as she prepares to leave Midge’s temporary home of Las Vegas for a quick trip back to New York. “And I’ll be back before you know it.”
In its third volume, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel allows its heroine to do what its frustrating sophomore effort would not: become good enough at her new vocation to settle into a routine, a machine sufficiently oiled for Susie to step away without fear of collapse. Maisel spent two full seasons dwelling on the same conflict: Would Midge embrace the craft, and unorthodox lifestyle, of stand-up comedy in the aftermath of her divorce, or would she revert to the affluent Jewish family life she was raised to replicate? There wouldn’t be much of a show if Midge seriously entertained the latter, and yet Maisel kept worrying at her identity crisis, stalling her professional progress for lavish, frivolous detours to Paris and the Catskills. But the latest batch of episodes, out Friday, finally allow us to see Maisel’s protagonist as a working comic with an established set of skills and priorities, freeing her for all that comes after the initial commitment.
Midge is now the opening act for Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), a singer whose rabid fan base gives Midge access to bigger crowds and glitzier venues. The plot device allows Sherman-Palladino and cocreator Daniel Palladino, spouses and collaborators on past series like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, to put their Bezos budget to use on lush period detail; Midge’s new gig takes her to Las Vegas and Miami, both swanked out in mid-century glory. The Palladinos have a longstanding passion for dance and theater, and here, they use dancers as background players and curate the soundtrack themselves; Shy’s presence ensures full-blown musical numbers are now a regular occurence, starting with a blockbuster USO performance in the premiere. Maisel is still blatantly self-indulgent, but it’s an indulgence that comes at the expense of Amazon’s pocketbooks, not viewers’ patience.
Maisel shows a surprising willingness to make up, or at least try to make up, for other shortcomings, as well. Midge will never not be a borderline fairy princess who men fall in love with and women want to be, but her namesake show has gotten better at acknowledging, and portraying, the monstrous selfishness that comes with a life at the center of everyone’s attention—first from her social set, now from her audience. When Midge tries to shame Susie for taking on another client she dislikes, Susie upbraids her for demanding she turn down the kind of financial opportunity Midge has never had to strive for.
A running joke about the show holds that Midge’s two children are essentially nonentities, but this new season benefits from turning her ambivalence about motherhood into material, both for Maisel itself and its heroine’s act. “Isn’t it weird how, when you’re away from home, you start missing the little things you never really thought about—like your kids?” she cracks. The line falls flat, suggesting that some of Midge’s deviations from early-’60s social norms are more palatable than others.
Even Midge’s parents come under some scrutiny. Now that Abe (Tony Shalhoub) has self-righteously quit his professorship at Columbia, Rose (Marin Hinkle) explains that his job never truly paid for their full-time maid and expensive European furniture; that would be her trust fund. Plausible explanations of financial well-being are hardly what one expects from Maisel’s candy-colored fantasia, but they’re appreciated when they arrive. Later, the Maisels have to learn to live without the material comforts they’ve allowed to define them, a reversal of fortune that unlocks new sides of these sometimes-stock characters.
Most significant is the addition of a precious rarity in the extended Palladino-verse: substantive characters of color. Shy and a large swath of his entourage are black, including his childhood friend and manager Reggie, played with luminous suaveness by Sterling K. Brown. (Reggie runs things from behind the scenes, using a white stand-in for dealings with prejudiced outsiders.) Racial persecution doesn’t exactly square with Maisel’s sunny mood, but with the show rapidly approaching the mid-’60s, a countercultural setting, and a longstanding interest in Judaism as ethnicity as well as religion, other minorities have been an increasingly conspicuous absence. Susie’s implied sexuality remains unaddressed, and Shy’s crew thus far remains a peripheral presence, but it represents a marked improvement from, say, lily-white Stars Hollow. Meanwhile, Midge’s ex Joel (Michael Zegen) decides to open a comedy club in Chinatown, renting a space that turns out to be directly above an illicit gambling parlor. The owners may not speak English, but their daughter Mei (Stephanie Hsu) turns out to speak fluent Palladino banter.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is still a Sherman-Palladino show, and retains the polarizing qualities that make its oeuvre an acquired taste, at least outside the Television Academy. Maisel may have let Midge graduate to steady employment and a smooth set, but it still refuses to let go of Joel, his parents, or even Midge’s parents, straining to keep a hand in her home life even as her rise takes her farther from home. And Maisel will never be a realistic portrayal of the gradual, painstaking work of joke writing; Midge has barely finished having an experience before she’s synthesized it into a polished bit. And the line between stagey and wacky remains as well-trampled as ever: It doesn’t really make sense that genteel Rose turns out to be from an oil dynasty in Oklahoma, but one gets the feeling the Palladinos just couldn’t resist the visual of a bunch of businessmen wearing yarmulkes under their cowboy hats.
Still, mid-period Maisel finally feels like a show that has matched the pace of its narrative to the pace of its dialogue. Midge has achieved sufficient velocity to carry the draggier parts of the show with her. Having learned the basics of how to work a room and bomb with dignity, Midge can move on to broadening her regional humor and introducing her headliner. Her show still has its flaws, but inertia isn’t one of them.