At first glance, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a show about Midge’s (Rachel Brosnahan) ascent to stardom, but so far, the series has actually focused on the threat that Midge might end up giving up on her dreams and revert to what she has always found most comfortable. Though she clearly loves being the center of attention on the stage (and has built quite a fanbase at The Gaslight), Midge’s new life apart from ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) has been difficult. Not only does she have to deal with social stigma and the economic realities of her new life as a single woman, but she also has to contend with the fact that she is still captivated by the accoutrements of her previous life, from beloved trips to the Catskills with her parents, to the beautiful apartment that she and Joel once shared. The desire to reclaim the parts of her old life that she loves and fit them into a new, more ambitious identity is at the heart of season four, as Midge begins to slowly embrace being herself, rather than trying to please other people.
The first two episodes of the much anticipated fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel remind viewers that the chief pleasure of watching the series is that it is extraordinarily fun. Each entry is not just a cornucopia of vintage visual delights, including fabulous clothes and vibrant scenery, but a near constant stream of witty banter, especially between Midge and Susie (Alex Borstein). Each 53-minute episode seems to pass in the blink of an eye, even if we might want to linger on each gorgeous New York City landscape for just a moment longer.
While the show’s attention to detail is breathtaking in its sheer beauty, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also presents a romanticized vision of mid-20th-century Jewish identity that, at times, seems to be just as much of a costume as Midge’s vintage hair and makeup. In one gag this season, the entire family screams and gesticulates at each other while they are riding a Ferris Wheel, “It’s a very dangerous height to tell a Jewish man he’s been had!” Moishe (Kevin Pollak) exclaims when he learns that Midge lost her comedy gig, while his wife screams about how much she is enjoying the Coney Island funnel cake.
This reliance on caricature increasingly comes at the expense of an authentic portrayal of Jewish identity. In one telling scene, a few members of Midge’s family breezily encourage her to pretend to be Christian when they think she is traveling through Eastern Europe, without even a hint of sadness or loss. While the series is far too fluffy for a more serious look at the effects of the Holocaust, it could offer a far more nuanced and complex look at the Jewish experience that doesn’t just rely on New York deli food.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also continues to struggle with striking the right balance between focusing on Midge’s journey and following the lives and experiences of her extended family. While the acting is always impressive, and every scene is impeccably shot, to spend so much time focusing on the lives of Midge’s parents and her former in-laws is also a distraction from Midge’s central arc. In prior seasons, trips to Paris and the Catskills have been delightful diversions, but the sheer amount of screen time devoted to these kinds of “side quests” has also ended up taking away from watching Midge grow and change as she builds her comedy career.
The fourth season has the potential to bring a greater sense of focus and purpose by homing in on the ways that characters are actively changing, rather than repeating old patterns—from Joel’s relationship with the wonderfully sharp and funny Mei Lin (Stephanie Hsu) to Midge’s increasing sense of self-confidence. “I want to be me every time I walk out on that stage,” Midge tells Susie as they sit together in the same beloved delicatessen where Midge had previously expressed timid excitement as she started to consider a life on the stage. Midge has grown a lot since her first hot mess Yom Kippur comedy routine, so much so that viewers might start to wonder whether the Mrs. Maisel that viewers know and love might even feel ready to go by a different stage name.