The opening scene of “Simone,” which brings us through the gorgeous halls of the B. Altman make-up counters to the basement where Midge now works as an operator girl, illustrates how one of the primary joys of watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is aesthetic. In many ways, the meticulously cool and fashionable world of 50s New York is a larger than life dollhouse, where each restaurant, café, and apartment provides a space for Midge to explore different aspects of her own identity. Through each new setting, even a potentially bleak one, we see how Midge doesn’t wilt. As an operator girl, she is as plucky and resilient as ever, cheerfully helping her exhausted coworkers, all of whom are getting panic attacks from the tedious and constant redirecting of calls.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has always been deeply invested in exploring the tension between our desire for order and our desire for novelty. Unlike a show like, say, Mad Men, where the steady stream of sexism and racism undercuts any potential nostalgia a viewer could have for the 60s, the world of Mrs. Maisel is a more complicated pleasure, one where the viewer is clearly meant to revel in the crisp elegance of 50s fashions, while also being aware of the profound limitations that are placed on a woman as smart, capable, and deeply funny as our heroine.
In “Simone,” viewers are at first invited to re-experience the profound and intoxicating pleasure of nostalgia for the glamour of 50s New York that defined season 1, but we are also quickly ushered into what could possibly be seen as a freer and more bohemian life in Paris. This shift in locations in some ways explodes the vision of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel completely, taking us away from Midge’s immediate concerns of making it as a comic (and making money as a newly single girl) and giving us insight into her mother, Rose, who has decided to move into a humble little apt. in the same little neighborhood in Paris where she once went to school.
After a season watching Rose fret over Midge, it’s a fantastic revelation to see Rose in her own element: smoking defiantly in a run-down apartment with only one chair; adopting an adorable little dog named Simone who she spoils with too many treats; encouraging everyone around her to stay in the moment, rather than worry. In New York, Rose’s identity as a mother and wife have not only been limiting; they have also been unappreciated. Neither husband nor daughter notices that she has been missing for weeks. In fact, it’s only the realization that Rose has not returned in time for his university holiday party that prompts Abe to wonder where on earth his wife is.
If Paris is a reminder that Rose is a woman of multitudes, it’s also a reminder that Midge is not exactly counter culture. Her lecture to her mother is actually rather puritanical, especially her stern reminder that Rose has responsibilities that extend beyond herself:
“You made a commitment to this man,” she tells Rose, “He is your husband. You have to go back to him.”
“Well, look who’s talking,” her mother replies, a comment intended not merely to firmly end the conversation, but to hit Midge where it hurts.
Midge walks through Paris more dejected than we’ve ever seen her. When she wanders into a sultry Cabaret, she is almost back to her old self again, making friends with the girls on stage, one of whom needs her dress to be zipped up, only to discover by the end of their act that the trio of dancers and singers is actually all men. Midge is stunned and charmed by this revelation, prompting her to start up an impromptu comedy skit, with an American audience member acting as translator for her act.
On stage, Midge reflects on how her world has been uprooted and, for the first time, ends her set not angry, or outrageous, or sarcastic, but just deeply, deeply sad. The reality is that Midge’s marriage didn’t end because of an affair. It ended because Midge’s comedic talents proved to be too much for her husband to handle. In flashback, we see how Midge opening for Lenny Bruce was both the best and worst night of her life, cementing how neither she nor Joel can ever go back to the life they had before.
In the present moment, a guy watching Midge’s suddenly depressing act, tells his friend, “I prefer Jerry Lewis.” And the woman who was translating her act gives Midge a card for her psychiatrist who, “did wonders for her friend, Sylvia Plath.”
Throughout Midge’s time in Paris, we see how Joel is coping with living at home with his parents and how Susie is attempting to talk Midge’s comedic talents up before she is apprehended by two hit men who, eventually, let her off the hook, but not without a stern warning to fix whatever got her on a hit list in the first place.
If “Simone” starts with a seductive flourish, it ends with quiet introspection. After seeing couples in deep embrace all around her, Midge calls Joel and begs him to give their relationship another chance. They both confess their love to one another other. And then in the show’s most heartbreaking moment yet, Joel explains that his pride simply can’t handle having a wife who uses their family for material, “You’re going to be okay,” he tells her resolutely, while Midge hangs up the phone in tears.
This phone call was a turning point in how I saw Joel, not merely as an insecure schmuck, but also as a man whose love is genuine, and who is self-aware enough to know that he may not actually be the right person for her. At the start of their marriage, Joel may have dreamed about living downtown, while Midge yearned for a “classic six,” but, in reality, Joel doesn’t know if he’s cut out to be the kind of modern guy who could handle an edgy comedian wife, especially when he knows she is better at it than he is.
Of course, Midge is also unsure of what she wants. At the French cabaret she explains how she embraced, “Mrs. Maisel” as a stage name out of hope for a happy reunion with her husband, but that now she fears that title is simply an ironic one. In the final moments of “Simone,” we see Midge, sad, but resolute, walking into the distance and grieving the loss of a man she deeply loves, and also a profound sense of her own identity.