The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Two Proves That Tragedy Is the Backbone of Comedy
If tragedy eventually yields comedy, Miriam Maisel shouldn't have to look far for material. At the end of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's first season, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) had honed her craft, made an enemy of one of the comedy world's biggest names, and further alienated herself from her family in the process. In the meantime, Amazon's biggest powerhouse went on to collect two Golden Globes, five Emmys, and a slew of fans before releasing its 10-episode second season on Wednesday. But the big question heading into the Season Two premiere applies to both Midge and the show itself: can Maisel keep up the momentum?
Overall, the series does. If Amy Sherman-Palladino can be relied on for anything, it’s dialogue with a staggering pace. The Maisel universe remains a unique microcosm of both '50s caricature and modern revisionism, adorned with beautiful sets and wardrobes. (Also a spectacular polo-onesie that only Tony Shaloub can make work.) But now that Midge has proven herself to be more than a housewife haphazardly spewing stream of consciousness on stage, Season Two doubles down on its heroine. Everyone has tragedy, but no one can spin it like Midge can.
The quote "humor is tragedy plus time" has been attributed to dozens of comedians along the way, but in this case, it's the premise that Maisel hangs on. Comedy has always relied on tragedy for a punchline because it evokes an emotional well within us that hits deeper than anything else. And the humor that worked so well in Season One came directly from the pain Midge felt from her husband's infidelity. The "tight ten" that she worked so hard to perfect in Season One, though, becomes less relevant in the newer episodes. Mrs. Maisel's new tragedy is something grander: it's the idea that this comedic road she's on might diverge from the one she planned her whole life around, and even for someone as bold as Midge, choosing between the life she's come to love and a prospect she's come to adore is her greatest tragedy yet.
Maisel picks up close to where the first season left off. While Midge, her manager Susie (Alex Borstein), and Midge's husband Joel (Michael Zegen) settle into their new roles in Midge's comedic orbit, the series takes a weird detour to Paris, where Midge's mother Rose (Marin Hinkle) has abandoned her husband Abe (Tony Shaloub) to "discover herself." In a season that shines so brightly otherwise, the first episode feels like a creator's self-indulgent hiccup. The Paris storyline that kicks off the season comes across less like a narrative device and more like an allowance to shoot a gorgeously shot comedy in an equally gorgeous location. But once Maisel returns stateside, the second season gets its feet back under it.
After an episode back in New York, the series shifts its setting again-this time to the Catskills: a mid-century Jewish wonderland with a Dirty Dancing-vibe that epitomizes upper-middle class success. For Midge, it also serves as a backdrop for how alien she's come to be in a world she once thrived in. It's in the Catskills-set episodes that Maisel lingers on the season's thesis: Midge's divorce and unconventional relationship with Joel and retail career and newfound love of the word "fuck" just don't belong in the Catskills.
Everyone has tragedy, but no one can spin it like Midge can.
Narratively, the move feels like a cultural parenthesis in a fast-paced narrative and a strange long-play on the part of Sherman-Palladino-especially after Season One was steeped in so much forward motion. (An entire Catskills episode feels like one long social explainer of what a '50s divorce can do to your life). But it's all in place to drive the point home: Not only is Midge's relationship with Joel over, but so is her place in the world she's known her whole life.
Though the Catskills helps to launch a couple new storylines and a new character, including guest star Zachary Levi's Benjamin, it's most powerful function is when Midge secretly performs a local show there. Upon seeing her dad in the audience, she nervously pulls out some of her raunchiest and most personal material to date, but it all comes with a price. All those laughs are from the same type of people who decided she's no longer welcome in their world-and even more heartbreakingly, it's all in front of her father.
Even with the mid-season visit to the Borscht Belt, the strongest episodes of Maisel are those that document the rocky and bawdy journey Midge is making from '50s housewife to full-fledged comedian. The back half of the season launches Maisel into the space it should have been in to start-with Midge and Susie navigating a breakneck performance schedule with on stage material that comments on the sexism and current events that shape Midge’s life. And much like the dialogue (honestly, Midge Maisel makes Lorelai Gilmore’s conversations sound like a bedtime story), the encounters and players that shape Midge's life in this season's later episodes are as thoughtful as they are entertaining. The slow deterioration of Midge's personal life that happens as she morphs into a vulgar, tough-skinned comic is the fuel that pushes Season Two forward.
It’s not until later in the season that the time spent in the Catskills really sinks in. Yes, the tribe who raised her disapproves of her shifting persona, but for the first time, Midge is seeing that they don't quite work for her either. The people Midge has spent her entire life around are affluent and wealthy and privileged, but they’re not exceptional. Not like her. And she might not have been either had it not been for the tragedy (OK, divorce, which in 1958 is a tragedy) that kickstarted her career. Midge’s journey comes to a definitive crossroad by the end of the season with one poignant exchange in episode seven. While standing beside elusive artist Declan Howell (played to perfection by guest star Rufus Sewell), he all but confirms what is becoming more and more evident: Midge is different, and being different comes with its own set of decisions and consequences. That difference is going to change her life, for better or worse.
The 10-episode season is ultimately another solid venture in storytelling, thanks largely to the writing of Sherman-Palladino and the powerhouse acting of Rachel Brosnahan. Flanking her is the anxious hilarity of Tony Shaloub and bullish comedy of Alex Borstein. And while it may take a minute to make sense of all its pieces and parts, Maisel is proof that if you add a little time and a bright enough spotlight, tragedy can surely turn into something worth laughing about.