‘Mrs. Maisel’ and a Dangerous Myth about Art
By J.D. ECARMA
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” seasons 1 and 2.]
“I’m going to be all alone for the rest of my life,” Midge Maisel declares in the season 2 finale of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Midge is leaving her family and her fiancé so she can pursue her art. It’s a dramatic moment of renunciation, Midge giving up the comfort and familiarity of her old life for a new, ascetic existence as a stand-up comic. But the way Midge describes it, the sacrifice goes beyond that: Midge believes she will be alone forever, that pursuing her art means that whenever she’s not onstage, she has to be the sad, lonely alcoholic still at the bar at the end of the night.
Similar to 2016’s pastiche musical “La La Land,” this is a postmodern story that takes place in a glittering, old-timey fairytale setting. In the show’s pilot, Midge starts out as a 1950s housewife who prides herself on running a perfect household, making her perfect husband happy and keeping herself perfect through strict beauty regimens. Even though she has a flair for the spotlight, Midge never thinks about pursuing a creative dream until her life implodes. Her husband’s affair pushes a drunken Midge onstage to talk about it, and presto! A stand-up comedy star is born.
Sometimes incredible art rises from the ashes of tragedy. Midge’s first monologue is born of a desperate need to articulate the horrible thing that is happening to her. The husband she loves is leaving her, and the life she carefully planned for herself is over as she knows it. Her grief turns into a strange, exultant, unexpected joy — and a wild hope for her future — when she realizes that people connect to her words. Her loneliness and despair produce something raw and real.
But while Midge spent much of season 1 realizing that she was not alone in that loneliness, season 2 culminates in a much more isolating picture of art. In the pilot, Midge lost her husband and gained not only a sympathetic audience but also new friends who introduced her to a whole new world. The picture of an artist was malleable, fluid, wide-open. An artist could be a homemaker and a beautiful woman and a lover of stylish hats and a mom and an aggressive, sometimes foul-mouthed comedian all in one. She could be something of a superhero, leading a double life: demure Upper West Side socialite turned makeup counter girl by day, edgy stand-up comic by night.
The second season finale seems to be taking us to a much narrower view of what it is to be an artist, one that boils down to one truth: You must suffer. You can only pursue a creative dream if you are willing to be “all alone” and sacrifice everything to your art.
There’s a harsh contrast between happy, simple, content, uncreative people and Les Artistes. Are you an Imogen or a Midge? Because you can only pick one.
One could argue that Midge’s constraints are a reflection of the times. Her only comedy role model seems to be Lenny Bruce, a real-life comic who fought for free speech and is remembered as a comedy icon (in the show, he’s played by actor Luke Kirby). But Bruce’s fate isn’t what anyone should want for Midge or any other comic — he died at age 40 of a drug overdose.
Who else could Midge look to for inspiration? Lest we forget, “Mrs. Maisel” takes place in the same era as comedy pioneer Lucille Ball and her then-groundbreaking sitcom, “I Love Lucy.” Along with her creative partner and husband, Desi Arnaz, Ball broke barriers for women, for people of color and for anyone in an interracial relationship. “I Love Lucy,” which ran on CBS from 1951 to 1957, pushed the boundaries for what could be shown on TV.
And was Ball “all alone” with her career? Definitely not. Her creative and romantic partnership with Arnaz lasted for more than 20 years of marriage and yielded two children, two movies and nearly a decade of classic TV. After she and Arnaz divorced, Ball married stand-up comedian Gary Morton, her second marriage lasting until her death in 1989.
Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the couple and writing partners behind “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” had a healthier take on creativity in Netflix’s “A Year in the Life.” The four-episode special revisited the world of Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” and Rory’s and Lorelai’s lives 10 years after the original series ended.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “A Year in the Life.”]
In the Netflix revival, Lorelai sees her creative dream renewed, while Rory’s falls apart. Lorelai struggles through burnout at the inn she built into a success, wondering what the next step is when she can’t expand the building and can’t afford to give her top employee a deserved raise. But she doesn’t give up on the inn that was her dream for years and eventually finds a new dream: expanding into another space in Stars Hollow just waiting for the Lorelai touch.
On the other hand, Rory starts “A Year in the Life” on top of the world. She’s written a well-received New Yorker article, she’s constantly travelling, and she’s full of bright ideas … unfortunately, each idea seems to be burn out before she can sustain it into a flame. Rory’s fragmented approach to her career, never settling on one thing, shows her view of art. She believes that writing should be easy, inspired — if the words flow, that means they’re right. Any difficulty or struggle means it’s time to drop what she’s doing and try something new.
Rory’s best friend, Lane, also shows a healthy view of creativity. For Lane and her husband, Zach, creativity is possible and adds joy to your life even when it’s not your career. They still love playing in a band together, and music is part of their lives and part of what connects them to the rest of the community. They balance fun, creativity, work and family life well.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have been closer to a Lorelai or a Lane in her view of art and how it brightens our lives. Despite suffering from chronic pain for years, Barrett saw art as a source of joy and something to be grateful for. While bedridden and often alone, Barrett refused to take on the label of suffering artist, instead exulting in the pursuit of creativity for its own sake.
“Is it possible that imaginative writers should be so fond of depreciating and lamenting over their own destiny?” she asked in a letter to Robert Browning before they married. “Possible, certainly — but reasonable, not at all — and grateful, less than anything!”
Art should add to your life, not drive everything else out. Let’s hope Midge realizes that before it’s too late.