Midge Maisel’s radical pivot has affected everyone in her life. Mostly we hear them grousing – blaming her, lamenting her unwillingness to fall back in line. But, more than the previous two, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season three shows how Midge’s gambit has opened up a world of possibility for others in her life, encouraging them to find their own passions and stand up for themselves.
The most obvious glow-up is Joel, who went from the object of extreme audience hatred to a legitimate ‘ship. Or, in non-stan terms, went from an absolute putz to a man who actually stands for something. Abe and Rose have their own journeys, as do Moishe and Shirley, though the elder Maisels have somewhat less radical dreams.
Centered around Rachel Brosnahan’s continually stunning performance, season three brings what you expect – sumptuous costumes, rat-a-tat dialogue, delightfully painful family dynamics – and expands the world of Maisel even further than before, with Midge going on tour and Joel working on opening a comedy club in Chinatown. Now in 1960, Maisel also brings in a more eclectic bunch, including some free-loading Marxists who hang out with Abe and speak of proletarian values while ordering a beleaguered Zelda about. Midge finally gets a woman friend in the entertainment business, a savvy, sexually active guest star in the form of Palladino favourite Liza Weil (that’s Paris Gellar, you plebeians.) It all adds up to an entertainment experience that feels like comfort food but is made with all the best ingredients.
Leroy McClain returns with more opportunities to croon and charm as Shy Baldwin, which is always welcome, but the true surprise is the beguiling presence of Sterling K. Brown as his manager, Reggie. Even Reggie’s position, Shy’s true manager, hidden behind a white “manager” for show, is a statement. Everything about Brown’s energy makes Reggie’s presence linger after he’s left the frame, like an unanswered question, leaving the audience searching for some unnamable something more.
As Maisel gets deeper into the professional world of performance, seeing how people other than Midge and Susie do it is fascinating, and with Sophie Lennon’s offer to Susie at the end of last season hanging in the air when season three starts, the relationship between a performer and their manager becomes (if possible) even more of a theme than it has been so far. Alex Borstein continues to prove why she has all those trophies, and watching her Susie find her way through the deep end of the entertainment business world manages to be both funny and poignant. Maisel even manages to outdo its Palladino predecessor Gilmore Girls by holding Midge accountable when she gets into an argument with Susie based on her own hurt feelings, blinded by her privilege and the financial realities of Susie’s life.
One of these season’s best additions is a dive into Rose’s surprising backstory, which illuminates so much about her character, while also pushing her relationships and overall story forward. Anyone who watches Maisel knows there isn’t a bad actor in the bunch, but watching Rose reduced to anything less than the regal woman we know and love is fascinating and difficult. Here, too, while I enjoyed Rose’s story, it would have felt entirely different if we hadn’t spent so much time on Susie’s far more dire financial situation. Seeing them both allows us to appreciate the pain of each on its own terms, whereas past Palladino outings have opted to ignore the plight of the more marginalized characters in favor of only the Roses of the world, and then been shocked by the response to such lopsided storytelling.
Lenny Bruce doesn’t make many appearances (at least in the first five episodes screened to critics), but boy does he ever make them count. Luke Kirby continues to embody Bruce with a jangly sort of kinetic energy that only seems to settle when he’s performing or in a few fleeting moments of raw honesty with Midge. The performance feels empathetic and deeply human, studied and informed yet completely loose and in the moment. Kirby’s Bruce continues to be one of the best parts of Maisel and hopefully will be for years to come, even as it becomes impossible not to contemplate the ticking clock on his tragic 1966 death.
The chemistry between Kirby and Brosnahan is unlike almost anything else on screen, and calls to mind Michael and Alex from Roswell, NM for sheer, undeniable gravitational pull. Luke Kirby has a way of looking at someone that, from a lesser actor, would be called smoldering. Instead, he does something more devastating. He looks directly into his scene partner with such intensity that the camera picks up the phenomenon of what it feels like to be truly seen for who you are. He can choose when and how to broadcast his character’s feelings directly on his face without saying a word, silently opening his character up or closing him off at will.
Season three addresses a few past criticisms head on – there’s a rather droll scene of the extended family learning their assignments for childcare duties for the time while Midge is gone, with the obvious caveat that the kids will spend the majority of the time with their father. It’s an adroit little eff you to those who clutch their pearls at Midge’s parenting skills (or Mindy’s) without ever asking after the children of single male characters, like Louie or Ross from Friends.
The Palladinos have clearly heard the very legitimate criticism of Maisel’s overwhelming whiteness. In Shy Baldwin’s world, Midge and Susie are the ones out of place, although in the first five episodes the only Black character given a chance to differentiate himself on a personal level is Sterling K. Brown’s protective manager. While Liza Weil’s bass player is a welcome and much-needed addition (how does Midge only have two women friends, one of whom is her boss?) it is so like a Palladino show to open up into the world of a Black singer and only add two lead characters, one of whom is a white woman.
The third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a perfect holiday binge watch. You’re likely getting exactly what you expected: a gorgeous period piece with plenty of gender commentary, enough blue comedy to make it interesting but not so much you can’t watch it with your mom, and some of the most talented people in the business at the top of their game. But there are still a few surprises, like the dry humor of Cary Elwes playing against Jane Lynch, newcomer Stephanie Hsu as mysteriously everywhere Mei, and whatever Sterling K. Brown’s Reggie has up his sleeve. Like any good comic, Maisel knows it has to balance giving more of what we know with keeping things fresh.