“Look, She Made a Hat” commemorates Midge’s one-year anniversary of taking the stage the night her husband left her for his secretary. Though this episode has the most forward-moving action of the entire season so far, it’s also an episode that stubbornly refuses reflection, an odd choice considering that Midge’s on-stage debut happened on Yom Kippur, the most important day of the entire Jewish year and one centered entirely on introspection.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this episode for me was the way that Jewish culture is presented as a part of the scenery, rather than being engaged in a more meaningful way. Sure, we see the Maisels and Weissmans going through the holiday motions—they beat their chests in temple; they invite the rabbi for dinner; their meal when breaking the fast is filled with Ashkenazi Jewish staples: liver, leg of lamb, brisket. Still, the mood of everything felt off to me, from the strange insistence on saying, “Happy New Year” in English, to the obsession with confessing one’s sins, rather than actually apologizing for wrong-doings (a central part of Yom Kippur is actively trying to make amends for your mistakes, not simply wallowing in your own sin). These strange cultural slip ups occurred in the first season as well (a number of Jewish viewers were baffled that the butcher shop that Miriam goes to sells pork chops!) but they irked me more in an episode where there is so much potential to use the holiday as a time to probe more deeply into character.
Instead, Midge’s reflection comes in the form of a conversation with an drunken, boorish artist named Declan Howell, who stands on tables in bars and enjoys poking fun at the establishment (are there any introverted artists in the world of 50s New York?). Midge clearly feels something of a kinship with him after seeing him put on a hilarious and ribald act and insists that she and Benjamin introduce themselves at once.
Benjamin is a charming boyfriend who is clearly falling in love with the fantastic Mrs. Maisel, but their relationship is, dare I say it, also kind of boring. Benjamin is enamored of Midge’s every little move, from her charming observations and whimsical outfits to her extreme pushiness and self-absorption. Her obsession with getting Benjamin a painting from Declan is more than a little odd, considering the fact that Benjamin doesn’t seem all that into the idea. I was also stunned by Midge’s odd mixture of street smarts and naiveté—on the one hand she can give Benjamin a whole comedic bit about her strategies for dealing with sexual assault, and yet, at the same time, she is willing to be alone with the slightly unhinged artist who tells her directly that he is very interested in getting in her pants. When Declan opens the secret door to his back room, I wondered at first if the episode was going to take a short foray into horror!
Still, Midge’s conversation with Declan is certainly the most interesting aspect of this episode, as he shares his most private painting with her, one that the audience learns is beautiful, but that we aren’t allowed to actually see. Declan reflects on the importance of this painting is his life, as well as giving a bit of a sob story about artistic sacrifice:
“If you want to do something great, if you want to take something as far as it will go, you can’t have everything. You lose family, sense of home, but then, look at what exists.”
By the end of the episode, when Midge confesses her career to her incredibly hungry family, we can see how already Midge has embraced Declan’s ethos. “I want to be big,” she tells Susie, “I want to be the biggest thing out there.”
“Look, She Made a Hat” is, at its best, about the power of sight. When Midge goes into the back room at the art exhibit and buys an inexpensive painting by an unknown female artist (the kind of woman whom her mother would feel desperately sorry for) she sees something special to treasure and hold on to, regardless of whether anyone else around her sees it as meaningful or important. Likewise, the episode offers small glimpses into how Joel is grieving the death of his marriage a year later, both by getting drunk and going on a lot of dates, and also fully supporting Midge in her pursuit of comedy, even talking her up to his own family at the Yom Kippur dinner table.
Still, I was disappointed that this episode just seemed to skim the surface, relying on stereotypes about what it means to be an artist and a Jew, rather than really delving deeply into how Midge is evolving as a performer and a woman who walks with one foot in a world of tradition and the other in a world of very modern sensibilities. Instead, the episode ends on a beloved tagline. “Tits up!” she and Susie toast on the night of their anniversary, the future as impenetrable as the painting that Declan never lets the viewer see.