Throughout The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we see how Midge’s sharp wit has the potential to charm audiences, as well as provoke sheer unadulterated rage. But “The Punishment Room” is the first time when we’ve seen Midge miss the mark completely and, in the process, deeply hurt a friend.
You can see how Midge’s confidence as a comedian was honed by living with Abe and Rose. She grew up in a family of fast talk and witty banter, and, though a lot of the dialogue is clearly affectionate, it’s also a game of dominance with each person vying to be the center of attention. Certainly, the focus on debate is a mainstay in Jewish homes, and the show has historically done a great job conveying the nuances of this by comparing how dialogue works in Midge’s home vs. Joel’s. Both Jewish families are loud and verbose, but though Joel’s parents have created a successful business, their mannerisms, accents, and figures of speech are thoroughly working class, while Midge’s family is presented as much more white collar.
In this way, even though Midge and Joel on the surface come from the same cultural and even financial background, in some ways their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. As Joel tries to figure out his parents’ bizarre finances by taking them to the bank (“Jews use the bank too, Pop!” he tells his father, who retorts, “Show me one!”) Abe returns to teaching in his highly respected position at Columbia, while Rose begins taking art classes and is so scandalized by the attractive male subject standing before her in the nude that she literally faints (“THAT texture’s going to be even harder to capture,” one of Rose’s young grad student friends says as she attempts to both comfort and revive her).
But the heart of this particular episode is really about how Midge is beginning to have a hard time separating out the different parts of her life, not just logistically (she’s gotten pretty good at keeping things from her parents) but also emotionally. After volunteering to help with a make-up counter friend’s upcoming nuptials, Midge is able to sweet talk her way into getting much nicer digs for her friend’s wedding (the initial plan is to use the depressing basement where a little Catholic schoolgirl is being punished for misbehaving in class) but her good work is undercut when she delivers the worst possible bridal toast in the history of bridal toasts.
Up until this point, Midge has always been able to transform disaster into comedy gold, but here, Midge completely misreads her devoutly Catholic conservative audience, as she starts to deliver a number of highly sexual and religiously offensive jokes. But the real kicker is the final zinger about how the whole beautiful affair was actually a shotgun wedding, a shocking statement that leaves the bride in tears since it is absolutely true.
Historically, Midge has used her comedy to punch up, as her most barbed comments have always been reserved for critiquing the status quo. At her most offensive, Midge has railed against philandering husbands, overbearing parents, slutty secretaries, and even sexist comedians she has had to share the stage with. But there is nothing funny about Midge’s wedding jokes, all of which seem to come at the expense of the bride. Even after Midge knows she messed up, she has a hard time bouncing back, saying “I didn’t know you were such a slut!” when trying to comfort the deeply embarrassed newlywed.
In a small way, Rose has a similar kind of faux pas when she informs her new young grad school friends that they have no hope at ever having a future in the arts. After lamenting the lack of female teachers and the fact that lady painters rarely ever find success, Rose encourages them to devote their energies to finding suitable husbands at the business school instead.
It’s hard to tell exactly what Rose’s motivations are for telling these younger women that they should abandon a field that she clearly loves. Is it jealousy that these young women have their whole lives ahead of them and very well may be the artist that she was never able to become? Or is it simply that she is too set in her ways to imagine a world outside the one that she herself has lived? Rose’s sexism has always been an aspect of her character, from her obsession with her granddaughter’s forehead to her constant comments about Midge not being able to make it without a man. Whatever the reason, her observation that none of the teachers at school are women is certainly persuasive. Many of the girls immediately want to jump ship, which almost gets Rose booted from the class she is auditing. After all, the school may not be able to offer the girls a future, but they do need their tuition dollars!
Unlike Midge, Rose is able to bounce back, mostly because Abe simply refuses to allow his wife to get kicked out of the program, and Abe has enough clout as a tenured professor to pretty much do whatever he wants (one day, I hope to have students who follow me from office to office the ways that Abe’s attentive pupils do!).
Social rules may be rigid in the world of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but the show also consistently emphasizes how large part of getting ahead is simply knowing who to appeal to when things go wrong. Rose may be asked to sit outside the art department’s office like a scolded schoolgirl, but with her husband’s support, she gets to experience quite a lot of very real power.
Not so for Midge who is navigating a social hierarchy where she no longer has the same social safety net that she once had as a married woman. Now, she depends on B. Altman to help pay her bills. When she leaves the coat closet without permission, she gets sent right back down to the basement with the older operator girls. At least from here there is nowhere for Midge to go but up.