Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 finally went where we were all hoping it would — but did they get it right?
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 is streaming on Amazon Prime and as usual, it is absolutely stunning. So now that I’ve finished it — and dried my tears at the finale — I think we should talk about the theme of privilege and underprivilege in this season, especially considering how much of an issue diversity has been for this show.
Now, before anyone tells me I forgot to mention something, please also look at my previous article on this topic. I intend to build on it.
Warning: spoilers for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 below.
Midge Maisel has always been a paradox of privilege and oppression, which makes her an interesting, complex, and realistic character (most of us are a bit of both, in one way or another). She’s a rich, white, straight cis woman living in a city full of opportunities, usually utterly oblivious to the privilege of her position. And at the same time, she’s a Jewish woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated field in the most epic way possible.
The show has clearly been aware of both these aspects from the very beginning. It fully commits to showing us Midge’s religion and the traditions it entails, while also showing the prejudice she and her family face — whether it’s outright slurs or an oblivious culture constantly deferring to ‘default’ Christianity. And the show’s entire premise centers around the fact that people underestimate her (and all the women around her) simply because of gender.
But Midge’s obsession with the frivolous, in contrast to Susie’s constant struggle to simply get by, is always played for laughs. Her obliviousness to how unrelatable many of her problems are is a source of comedy. Susie is often a stand-in for the audience, rolling her eyes at Midge and irritably explaining simple facts of life to her.
Midge does experience prejudice, but she always succeeds in the aftermath. And she’s never really been forced to be self-aware when it comes to just how many opportunities she has had. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 attempts to finally go there by presenting more contrast.
In the aftermath of the Weissmans’ sudden midlife crisis and the collapse of their home life, the family faces poverty for the first time. They are homeless and living at the Maisels’ — and yet, they continue to go out for expensive meals, socialize with rich friends in expensive environments, employ a maid, and refuse to settle for a cheaper lifestyle. Somehow, they survive, proving yet again that financial struggle plays out very differently for a family in the Weissmans’ social class than it would for almost anyone else.
Abe is restless trying to find purpose (the reason he quit his job in the first place). He becomes entangled with a group of young communists who are far from the fighters for justice that they claim to be: instead, they’re happy to enjoy comfortable lives and tackle social issues in the most superficial way possible. This is obviously played for laughs, but it’s a little bit troubling when you consider that much of what they talk about were actual issues at the time, which Abe sees as little more than a hobby. In the end, he abandons this pursuit to write about Broadway, forgetting about everything else.
Midge, in the meantime, continues to parade around in her expensive hotels while utterly aware that, for the most part, the entire band she’s traveling with has to stay at a separate hotel due to racial segregation. She also doesn’t realize how her set might not be relatable to Shy’s mostly-black audience at the Apollo — or that she gets a better position in the program than Moms Mabley, a famous, much more experienced comedian, simply because she’s a white woman.
But while eager to show these contradictions, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 constantly stops short of having Midge truly come to terms with herself. In one episode, she is hired for an ad that furthers hate speech. For the first time, it seems, Midge becomes aware that her voice has weight — that the messages she’s deciding to share has consequences. It’s both a moment of triumph and a moment of some frustration; surely, after offending almost everyone around her with a set, and having to set limits on what she talks about, she must have realized the power of her words?
Maybe that’s because up to the last few episodes, besides Susie, Midge has never really had to look someone in the face, be called out on her privilege, and be forced to respond. Even then, Susie has always brushed it off forgivingly. The closest we ever got to a moment like that was with Moms Mabley, and maybe that’s why it hits so hard. Midge has never been called out before and has never really considered changing anything about her attitude as a result.
So Midge does what she thinks is best — and being tone-deaf and inexperienced in these realms, completely messes it up. She unintentionally exposes Shy as a gay man — while not career-ruining-ly scandal-worthy, still humiliating for Shy — because she’s ignorant of the stigma gay men face, the insults thrown their way, and how difficult it is for someone like Shy to get where he is. And as a result, she gets fired.
It’s the last scene of season 3, so there isn’t much space left for discussion. But it prompts many questions that should have been addressed before. What beliefs, attitudes, and politics are Midge’s “brand”? Where does she draw the line? What will she advocate for — and actively so, not simply on a whim? As Midge’s success grows, it seems more and more irresponsible to continue to avoid these questions.
Yes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has done its best to show a historically-accurate picture of reality in the 1950s-1960s. And yet, that accuracy suffered greatly in the first two seasons due to a glaring lack of diversity: almost everyone in the show was white, particularly the speaking roles. To this day, Susie’s sexuality and gender identity are the butt of jokes, instead of explicitly stated parts of who she is.
While it continues to ignore the Susie thing, season 3 tried hard to bring in more diversity. It gave us a black gay artist and his mostly-black entourage, as well as multiple black artists and audiences, and a great Chinese-American character named Mei. (Although, there were some uncomfortable stereotypes about Chinatown involved.) It was refreshing to see so many speaking roles given to characters who were not white, painting a much more interesting and diverse image of America in that era.
However, it still feels like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel can’t decide where to go from there. How much mention should there be of the racism Shy and his entourage face? A couple of passing comments here or there, no actual racism on screen. This is the 1960s, but no mention of the civil rights movement at all. Hmm. There’s one tiny scene related to the wage gap between men and women — but nothing about the gap when it comes to race.
And yes, Joel’s friends think it’s weird for him to be opening a club in Chinatown — maybe the show should explain why, since it’s going there. But instead, it offers a confusing set of messages that everyone Joel knows is probably racist and a glaring lack of speaking roles paired with a ton of stereotypes when it comes to the community he’s moving into.
Still, I feel the need to defend The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, saying things like “they tried” and “at least they had a diverse cast,” and knowing that most shows wouldn’t have tried at all. We still don’t seem to be sure about how to approach historical accuracy in shows centered around the privileged. If The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was about a black woman, you bet race would be the main theme of the show — but since Midge doesn’t face it herself, it’s barely mentioned. And we don’t want to know about oppression when watching comedy — it’s supposed to be funny, and prejudice is too heavy for that. It’s easier to loosely touch on it and keep going with the humor.
I don’t know what I would have liked The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3 to do. I also don’t know if I’m disappointed. The standards in this industry are low, and yes, it is more fun to focus on Midge’s colorful dresses and take-downs of the patriarchy through jokes. I want to laugh. I want to feel hope.
I don’t know how all of that can exist and paint an accurate picture of the rest of the world around Midge without making the show significantly sadder or making Midge seem even more insensitive… but maybe that’s just because I’ve never seen it before.
I did really enjoy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 3, and I’m extremely excited for season 4. This show has the unique opportunity to make season 4 truly poignant, as Midge recovers from this pitfall in her career and learns to set boundaries for herself as a professional.
This show is unique and revolutionary in many ways, and I look forward to the day when I can say that it has also done a unique job at portraying diversity and privilege the way they should be portrayed — maybe even coined the right way to do it.
I think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel can do that. And maybe we can learn to expect that too.