Amazon Prime’s new streaming show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, portrays the paradoxical lives of its characters with panache. Stylish and perfectly proportioned Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a witty, beautiful Jewish housewife in 1960s New York’s Upper West Side. Her husband, Joel Maisel, is a vice-president at his uncle’s company by day, and he enlists Midge’s homemaking hospitality and winsome ways to help him score performance slots for his developing comedy act in a downtown club. The personality differences between husband and wife are clear from the beginning: she is optimistic, confident, and genuinely funny; he is pessimistic, indecisive, and cowardly.
The whole series has plenty of character exposition and development, and many memorable (comedic and poignant) characters besides Midge and Joel, and so a few first-episode spoilers aren’t out of line: One night, Joel’s comic act flops and he descends into a sulky, self-pitying state. He blames Midge (for encouraging him to do something original rather than his usual habit of “borrowing” a professional’s comic act). He goes on to announce that he is leaving her and gives a tiresome “my life isn’t what I thought it was going to be” speech while informing her that he’s been having an affair with his secretary. He packs his things in Midge’s suitcase, and leaves her and their two kids.
Startled by Joel’s betrayal and his over-the-top response to his failure at the club, Midge reaches for a wine bottle off the elegantly-set Yom Kippur table prepared for the following day’s break fast festivities. She gets drunk; and pulling her coat over her nightgown, she decides to take the subway back to the downtown club where she and Joel had spent their evening. Midge walks into the club and onto the stage. In that moment, with her inhibition gone, she tells the audience about Joel leaving her for his secretary. Midge is naturally funny, her talent as a comedian is evident as she turns the events of the evening into a simultaneously hilarious and poignant comedic act. (Note: The show is set during the early days of underground comedy, so expect vulgarity and profanity).
Midge, by all measures having suffered a true injustice and deserving of pity, instead invites the audience to join her in ridiculing her circumstances. She can do this, rather than wallowing in self-pity, because Midge plants herself—that is, her self—outside of this awful situation. Whereas Joel appears to build his identity on a foundation of his circumstances, Midge has a strong identity, so that even when the unthinkable happens—her husband leaves her—she manages to move through the devastation in such a way that she is awakened to a talent she didn’t realize she had.
Midge Maisel is a modern schlemiel. Many of us are used to thinking of the schlemiel as the fool, the weak simpleton, who succeeds in the end despite his foibles. This archetypal hero of Jewish literature has been used over the years to show that the ability to absorb wrong and injustice, is, in the final analysis, the victorious position. It is a firm sense of his distinct self that allows the schlemiel to disassociate himself from his toxic environment. Self-pity is the trap door that weakens self-identity, allowing a person to be overcome by his or her circumstance.
It is Midge who retains her sense of personal identity and worth in the face of her husband’s adultery and abandonment. It is Midge who can overcome comedy failures on the stage because she does not allow outside failure or misfortune to disrupt her self-worth. And she does all this because she does not fall into self-pity.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fabulous show providing a captivating modern-day schlemiel in its titular character, from whom our victim-centric society has much to learn.
Image: Amazon Productions