‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Meets Her Meh Conclusion
Season 5 makes you wonder why it took so long
When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel first came out in 2017 as an inaugural project for Amazon Prime, the show was an immediate hit for the nascent streaming service. There was a lot to like–great late 50s set design and costuming, appealing characters, snappy dialogue, and a core premise of a Jewish housewife with brilliant comedic potential who needs a push on the tail end of a really bad day to actually use it. Ever since then, “potential” has been the main watchword of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. After a third season with Mrs. Maisel on tour, itself not really going anywhere, the titular Mrs. Maisel spends the entirety of the fourth season working at a burlesque house, if anything going backward in terms of any long-term goal of becoming a famed comedienne.
This is the awkward backdrop leading up to the fifth and final season of the show, where we learn that the showrunners always knew where they wanted to go. They just didn’t have the slightest idea how to get there. Several cold opens this season, and even a full episode, take place as flash forwards. There are some fantastic ideas in these scenes. Esther grows up to be a neurotic scientist and Ethan a distant rabbi, both feeling very diffident about their celebrity mother. The problem is that Esther and Ethan are so comically out of focus that it’s practically a running gag. Zelda, the maid who actually took care of them, got a boyfriend and no one even noticed. Cue a witty one-liner from Mrs. Maisel’s manager Susie about how Mrs. Maisel is supposed to be an observational comic.
That’s just a smaller version of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s greater overarching problem- how everything is just individual joke fodder. Take the extent to which Susie has become involved with organized crime following an increasingly disastrous habit of being an incompetent gambler. Susie’s half-baked efforts to escape this arrangement aren’t terribly interesting. Susie’s willingness to ask them for favors hints at a dark side to her management skill set that could explain why she’s such a big player in the entertainment industry in the flash forwards.
Unfortunately, aside from taking a cut of her action, the show just portrays the mobsters as these guys Susie knows, with Susie’s talent alone allowing her to become a success. Well, that and a fairly ludicrously fortuitous inheritance from a man. This is another definite issue with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s attempts at girl-power messaging, is just how much its heroines need rescuing. With his own inexplicable success as a nightclub manager, Mrs. Maisel’s ex-husband Joel is once again in a position to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves, and he inevitably does so, the script still being coy about allowing them to actually reconcile.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has always been in an awkward place regarding its attempts at feminism, still white feminism, despite classic Jewish showbiz style banter being such a crucial selling point. The final scene of the series includes, of all bizarre things, a comment implying that the world persecuted Martha Stewart for being a woman. But even the cringe of that scene can’t compare to a few episodes earlier that aggressively uses the phrase “it’s her turn” to emphasize how unfair it is that another character gets his break before Mrs. Maisel does.
If you’re blanking on the significance of this phrase, “it’s her turn” is a phrase infamous for the Hillary Clinton campaign floating it as a potential official slogan for 2016, the very structure of the slogan implying the lack of an actual argument. I’m honestly not sure what point The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was trying to make with this phrase.
The real disappointment is that The Marvelous Mrs. is able to get in some compelling materialist feminism instead of mere representationalist feminism. In one of the few genuinely excellent setpieces of this season, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel wraps up the Mei Lin subplot–Mei Lin being the Chinese-American daughter of Joel’s landlords for his Chinatown nightclub. The repartee between Michael Zegen and Stephanie Hsu, while good, was never the right kind of chemistry to justify a romantic relationship given their neuroses and life situations, and Mei Lin’s decision to get an abortion, played for swift, brutal drama here, is one of the few moments of the series with appropriate gravitas.
The emotional gut punch is even able to inspire Joel to do an actually funny stand-up routine–suggesting that much as was the case with Mrs. Maisel, the issue with Joel was never that he wasn’t funny, but that he didn’t have a distinctive voice and needed to be at a truly low point to actually be able to awaken one.
The show does very little with this, though, as Joel just lapses back into his usual role. A lot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is like that, the script being less about character development and more setting up funny setpieces. There’s a great one with Joel’s parents interpreting Joel’s explanation for what happened with Mei Lin at face value and going to absurd, heroic lengths to help. Despite the main joke about the elder Maisels being that they constantly bicker with everyone as obnoxiously as possible, their consistent sincerity has long been a high point of the show. Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron really nail the dynamic of a couple that feels like they belong together because they enjoy each other’s company but drive every other person around them crazy.
What’s Mrs. Maisel up to herself this season? Surprisingly little of comparative interest. She gets a job as a writer on the Gordon Ford Show, apparently just as a ruse so she can actually perform her routine on the show and shoot to stardom, only belatedly learning that staff on the show can’t perform on the show. ‘Mrs. Maisel’ treats this rule as preposterous despite it sounding like…a pretty reasonable way to avoid nepotism in booking. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel doesn’t, in general, have a very clear sense of entertainment industry ethics. Susie in the flash-forward sequences is widely understood to be heavily involved with organized crime, to no apparent detriment in regard to her career.
A show with a smart script, as opposed to a merely clever one, would actually do something with all of this. Draw parallels with Mrs. Maisel’s comedienne career, Joel’s nightclub management, and Susie’s mob connections, to show that just being talented at something isn’t good enough. You have to know the right people, cut the right deals, know who to offend and when and why. The Shy Baldwin storyline from the third season almost did all of that. But after the sheer aimlessness of the fourth season, I’m not sure the showrunners thought that the Shy Baldwin storyline was supposed to establish anything except that racism and homophobia existed in the late 50s and that Mrs. Maisel just had a run of bad luck.
There’s simply not enough dramatic weight behind that final moment to convincingly explain how Mrs. Maisel became such a huge celebrity in the fast-forwards. But what’s worse is, the climax feels less like a climax and more just a beginning, since the flash-forwards hint at years worth of potentially interesting storylines that the show didn’t do so that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel could do…what again? Her mother’s conflict with the matchmaker mafia? Her father making pompous criticisms as a theater critic? A musical sequence on the value of private waste management?
There’s good potential in all of these bits. Marin Hinkle is vibrant whenever she actually engages the matchmaking material instead of the mafia nonsense. Tony Shalhoub fretting over his grandchildren is likewise fantastic. We see glimmers of how Esther and Ethan ultimately relate more to their grandparents than their parents. But that’s all we get is glimmers, great individual scenes with no arc or larger purpose. And even if The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel had five more seasons, I doubt that writing this shallow could have ever convincingly explained how Mrs. Maisel became a major celebrity. Much like with Mrs. Maisel herself, making a bright exciting splash is one thing–putting in the hard work necessary to become an icon that can stand the test of time is something else entirely.