Mild spoilers ahead for the fist two episodes of the fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel…
Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel opens on Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) performing one of her signature spontaneous, unfiltered monologues onstage at The Gaslight. She’s all in black, moodily smoking a cigarette, her nails a bloody red. She’s battle hardened and thirsting for revenge! “Revenge,” she tells her adoring Greenwich Village audience, “I am completely consumed by the need for it… I want my f*cking pound of flesh!” Only this time, it’s not her caddish ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) or any number of club bookers or sexist comedians who have crossed her. This time it’s Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), the fictional rock star whose US tour Midge opened for in Season 3.
See, in last season’s finale, you may remember, Shy kicked her off the European leg of his tour, having his manager (Sterling K. Brown) break the news to her literally as she and Susie (Alex Borstein) were about to board their flight out of Idlewild. Which was, admittedly, a d*ck move. I mean, I know it’s, like, barely 1960 or whatever, but at this point even Susie has a working telephone.
“Once again, a man has stepped in and f*cked up my life,” Midge tells her audience at The Gaslight—completely ignoring how close she came to effing up Shy’s life in a way that could have had far more dire consequences for the Black gay closeted performer.
Because, if I’m remembering correctly—and I am, because I just watched the Season 3 finale this week—Midge came extremely close to outing Shy during her set at the Apollo. Nervous that her Uptown Jewish girl routine was about to bomb in front the audience at the iconic Harlem theater, she dropped innuendo after innuendo about the singer, many of them bordering on homophobic stereotypes. The crowd ate it up, but Shy was apparently none too pleased.
Now, we all know Midge Maisel is kind of a jerk. A charming jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. She’s selfish, she’s privileged, she exploits her friends and family for stand-up material, she’s a famously inattentive mother. All of this has been said before. We know about Midge’s obvious flaws and love her anyway. So, I can’t say that her victim mentality here isn’t in keeping with a character as self-involved as she is.
But all through the first two episodes that debuted today on Prime Video, I kept waiting for another shoe to drop. This couldn’t be the show’s position on what happened, could it? At some point, there had to be some acknowledgement of what a sh*tty thing Midge had done, of the danger in which her she’d put Shy—again, a closeted gay Black man in mid-century America—just to get some laughs. But again and again, the situation is consistently framed in terms of what Shy has done to Midge. He had already booked a replacement before she ever made it to the airport. He kicked her off the tour. He betrayed her. He ruined her career. His actions had consequences for her. It’s not a great look.
The show’s third season drew criticism for its ahistorical representation of what it would have really been like for a Black artist to tour the US in the late 1950s, and this seems like a similar blind spot for series creator and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed the Season 4 premiere. We have literally already seen the violence Shy frequently encounters due to his sexuality, but we’re also only a few years out from the McCarthy era’s nationwide witch hunts for male homosexuals. States didn’t begin to repeal sodomy laws, which could carry a sentence of up to 60 years in prison, until the mid-1960s. But none of this seems to factor into Mrs. Maisel’s portrayal Midge as the wronged party here.
In Episode 2, Midge learns from a TV news report that Shy is marrying his long-time girlfriend. This, of course, sends her into a rage spiral. And yes, her problems are real. She’s in debt to her former father-in-law, she has no cash and no credit with the various butcher, bakers and milkmen of the Upper West Side. But what Mrs. Maisel neglects to explore here is the very real pain and shame and trauma of the closet, of so fearing for your safety and livelihood that you enter into a sham marriage. That’s real, and not acknowledging Shy’s perspective in favor of making Midge into a righteous victim strikes a discordant note. Honestly, she’s acting a lot like a Karen.
That same news report reveals that Shy’s wedding will take place in New York once his tour is over. Could this, along with Midge’s opening monologue, be foreshadowing. (It totally is, right?) Are we heading for an unfortunate denouement in which Midge attempts to exact her revenge! at Shy’s wedding? God, I hope not. Or, if we are, I hope Sherman-Palladino and co. have the good sense to acknowledge Shy’s side of all this.