TV Review: Choices & consequences: Good-bye, Mrs. Maisel, wherever you are

By Bill Simons

After 43 episodes, showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s groundbreaking dramedy “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime, 2017-23) has retired, sort of. It enjoys video immortality on streaming services and may yet inspire a movie, play, novel, clothing line, signature cosmetics or chain of Jewish delis. Moreover, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” continues to elicit popular and intellectual commentary. 

Chronicling the life and times of Midge Maisel from her 1954 marriage as a privileged, 22-year-old Jewish American princess to her 2005 epilogue as a 73-year-old entertainment icon determined to remain relevant, the program leavened robust humor – ranging from observational to madcap – with serious commentary about gender, sexism, sexuality, feminism, parenting, priorities and Jewish assimilation. 

In the final season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” drama took precedence. The choices open to Midge in the late 1950s and early 1960s took center stage, then flashed forward to the decades that followed tracing the consequences of past decisions. Through her courage, talent and ferocious ambition, Midge evolved from the pampered daughter of Abe and Rose Weissman, and cheated upon wife of Joel Maisel, to become a celebrated standup comic, but what price did she and those closest to her pay? That uncomfortable question pervades Midge’s concluding journey in the elegiac season 5. 

In a flash-forward, the final season opens in Cambridge, MA, home to Harvard University. The year is 1981. A 23-year-old woman – quirky, resentful, alternately braggadocious and insecure, recipient of a Ph.D. in the sciences – is in a therapy session. She badgers and bullies her male therapist. Claiming that only her maternal grandfather understood her, the young woman displays special anger toward her absent mother for not appreciating her. The young woman’s name is Esther Maisel, the daughter of the famous Midge. The career-centric Midge spent little time with her daughter, left parenting to Esther’s grandparents, and remarked on the supposedly odd shape of the little girl’s head. 

Absentee parenting also tainted Midge’s relationship with her son Ethan, Esther’s senior by three years. As a child, Ethan came to understand that he did not possess the intellectual endowments endemic amongst men in the Weissman line and evident in his little sister. Insecurity created problems for Ethan at the private school he attended and at home where he feared sleeping in his own bed. A child psychologist might have helped Ethan, but that idea was vetoed. Episode three has a flash forward to 1984, revealing a dust-spewing helicopter landing in a cabbage field in Israel, the disruption sending anxious kibbutz workers scurrying. 

Then, a middle-aged but still glitzy celebrity steps out of the helicopter. Midge is there to cajole Ethan, now a tall, good-looking, kippah-wearing rabbinical student and kibbutzim member, to accompany her to a United Jewish Appeal dinner honoring her philanthropic work. The emotional distance between Ethan and Midge is evident. When Midge jokes about her multiple romantic misadventures, Chava, Ethan’s girlfriend and eventual wife, denounces her in Hebrew as an evil narcissist, a judgment that only hardens through the years and that Ethan does not challenge. 
Midge makes the most important decision of her life while still in her mid-20s during the heyday of the 1950s feminine mystique. Discovering husband Joel Maisel having an affair with his secretary, Midge decides that she is not going to accept disrespect, subordination and standing in the shadow of a spouse. Taking the stage after her businessman husband’s failed foray into standup comedy, Midge finds that she has a talent for making people laugh. Midge is a natural comic, not by telling jokes but by putting a spin on observations about her own life and the people who are part of it. And she loves the attention and applause. 

Sharing laughter with an audience makes Midge happy. Neither romance nor children are going to stand in the way. Midge jilts both a Jewish doctor and the acclaimed novelist Philip Roth at the altar, moves on from comic genius and mentor Lenny Bruce during his drug-fueled descent, marries four times and has a kaleidoscope of affairs with famous men, but her true love is standup comedy. Midge is determined to make it big and she does.

Midge briefly remarries Joel. On some level, their love never ends. To stop the mob from fleecing a percentage from Midge’s earnings, an arrangement that her manager Susie Myerson, a compulsive gambler with heavy debts, enters into without Midge’s knowledge, Joel gives the mob a piece of his nightclub. The mob connections land Joel in prison. Intervals of cheer occasionally lighten incarceration for Joel, grown paunchy and sad in middle-aged confinement, through periodic visits by someone who cares about him, Midge. 

Despite Midge’s relentless pursuit of fame and adulation, there are people she loves. She neglects her children and dumps Joel, but she loves them; ditto the eccentric parents from whom she inherits an appealing weirdness. As entertainment brings Midge riches, her parents – the mother a status-conscious heiress turned professional matchmaker and the father a Columbia math professor morphed into Village Voice columnist – experience serious financial loss, and Midge gladly supports them. Midge also loves Susie, save for a long interval of anger. 

Tough, profane, mannish in dress and the daughter of working-class Jews, talent manager Susie is devoted to Midge, ruthless in pushing her client’s career forward and battling, on Midge’s behalf, against sexist opposition to a woman doing standup comedy. Susie leverages a youthful affair with Hedy, wife of the star of “The Gordon Ford Show” – late-night must-watch TV – into Midge’s brief on-camera cameo appearance on the program, where Midge labors in anonymity as a writer. Once on the air, Midge subverts a nothing appearance into a full-blow, hilarious, star-is-born monologue, skewering Joel, her children and most of all herself. 

Appreciation for Susie getting her airtime on “The Gordon Ford Show,” however, sours when Midge learns of Susie’s mob ties and the trajectory that ensnares Joel. The Midge-Susie sisterhood descends into years of anger and rejection, reconciliation a late comer. 

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” ends with a flash forward to a 2005 vignette of Midge as a septuagenarian. The sequence is set in Midge’s huge apartment in the legendary Dakota – also the home of Yoko Ono – across from Central Park on the Upper West Side. Meeting with her show business staff, Midge, clearly anxious about down time, repeatedly demands a gig to fill an open date. After her handlers exit, Midge passes servants and a large empty dining table. She eats alone in the kitchen. A black and white photo of Midge and Joel on their wedding day adds to the autumnal tone as Midge transverses cavernous rooms. Lonely, Midge turns on the TV to watch “Jeopardy” and makes a phone call to Susie, now retired and a continent away. In the final fadeout, “Jeopardy” audio is foil to the kibbitzing and laughter of Susie and Midge.