Rachel Brosnahan in the fourth season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Photo/Amazon)
Rachel Brosnahan in the fourth season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Photo/Amazon)

Mrs. Maisel and her marvelous alternate reality

It’s been two years since audiences have seen new adventures from Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the 1950s-housewife-turned-divorcee comedian who twirls the streets of Manhattan cloaked in fashionable pinks and palpable privilege. When we last left Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), the titular character of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” her European comedy tour had been canceled as punishment for a set at the Apollo in which she intimated that the tour’s star, Shy Baldwin, was a gay man. This unexpected loss of income shocked Midge as well as manager/sidekick Susie (Alex Borstein), as always draped in dark colors, a cap and sarcasm. The two of them, for various reasons including real estate purchases and gambling addictions, had no idea what to do next.

The new season is here, along with its patented blend of reality and magical realism. Based on the first two episodes — new episodes will be released weekly on Amazon Prime Video to milk the conversation over months instead of the previous seasons’ single-week binge strategy — this season is already leaning into the surreal in a way that reminds us that the Maiselverse is more fantasy than reality. (Spoilers for episodes one and two ahead.)

The season begins with Midge performing, so we know she is basically okay after the trauma of the previous season’s ending, although the words she shares on stage — “Revenge…Revenge…I want it…oh, do I want it…I need it…” — tell us she’s far from over it. In the taxi after the shocking sacking, Midge starts stripping off her clothes — she believes in shedding the past literally — and then subsequently exits the car, now only in a bodysuit and heels, and wallops the taxi and Susie with a fallen tree branch. Eventually, they get back in the car and head to the Gaslight Cafe, the scene of Midge’s first stripped-down performance in the pilot episode.

Over the course of the first two episodes, Midge ditches her grief and confronts her new reality with gauzy overconfidence. She relies on her schmoozing talents to talk store owners into advancing her a store limit and emerges from her tour loss trauma convinced that she’s the kind of performer who gives epic and unpolished monologues instead of doing traditional standup, and that the world better change to accommodate her.

It becomes clearer with every episode of the show that this universe is not meant to be realistic. “Maisel” doesn’t illustrate the experience of standup comics in the 1950s and ’60s any more than “Mad Men” accurately reflected the reality of New York ad men. From Midge’s fashion sensibility to her assumption that everyone will find her irresistible, this feels like an alternate dimension 1960s New York. And while it’s a stretch to draw a straight line between “Maisel” and the comic book idea of a multiverse, thinking about this as a secondary version of reality may explain some of the episodes’ more surreal moments.

For instance, Susie meets a magician in a bar, gets magically transported into a forest for a few minutes, and returns unaware of what happened or how she bought the magician a drink. She’s been drinking (but she’s always drinking), but is it intoxication? Hallucination? An unspecified medical brain event? The kabbalistic concept of a kefitzat derech, a jumping across time and space through an unseen portal?


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Other strange and surrealistic moments follow. Midge’s parents reveal that they changed Ethan’s birthday to be more convenient for them. When their daughter expresses outrage, they reveal they had also changed Midge’s brother’s birthday, but stop the conversation before Midge can have the truth of her own birthday confirmed or denied. Susie and her sister Tess go to pick up an insurance check and instead get escorted through a hidden passage to an interrogation area, as if they’re suddenly in a noir police procedural. Joel interacts with the couple who seem to run the illegal pool hall underneath his club — they may or may not be his landlords or his girlfriend’s parents — in scenes that are both sitcom-y and vaguely threatening.

In a scene that simultaneously underscores how real and unreal this series can be at the same time, major information is revealed on the Coney Island Wonder Wheel. The Maisels and the Weissmans are all in separate ferris wheel cars, screaming at each other. It’s singularly embarrassing how loud and lacking in self-awareness the members of this family are.

It’s also a great scene thanks to the cacophony of two generations embodying their narcissism. Moishe only thinks about his business arrangement with Midge. Rose focuses on her daughter’s humiliation and how it reflects on the family. Abe is fixated on something his wife told him before they got on the Wonder Wheel. Midge is delivering news without any shame or embarrassment. And Joel resents being out of the loop. (Despite my love for Caroline Aaron, who plays Joel’s mother Shirley, her repeatedly screaming “Is your funnel cake delicious?” made me want to mute the TV.)

In the Maiselverse, Midge sees no reason why change isn’t possible. So what if she’s broke? She’ll just get the local businesses to extend her a line of credit by smiling, schmoozing and manipulating them in a long con that she hopes she’ll be able to make good on. That’s not the way the industry works? Then let’s change it. Easy peasy. Even broke, Midge believes because she has grown up in privilege, every mess she gets into, she gets out of because of money or charm.

Last season, Midge had begun to feel the gentle breezes of what would become the winds of change in the 1960s. If we stay tied to the 1960s of our timeline, the FDA will have approved birth control pills, the civil rights movement will accelerate, Kennedy will run against and beat Nixon to the White House, and Eichmann will be arrested, tried and executed. And if change in the Maiselverse is proportional to change in the outside world, this season may become properly unhinged and/or revolutionary.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.