Warning: the following contains spoilers for season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel arrived with very little fanfare. Its first season swept the Primetime Emmys, and season two garnered a couple of supporting actor wins. Its third season took home zero wins with five nominations. It seems to have become one of those ensemble period pieces that has a recognizable enough name to be thrown up there with all the other well-regarded series come awards season.
I was quite enamored with the show all the way through season three, but I think the long wait for a new season made it more apparent that the show is past its prime. It is no longer the buzzed-about phenomenon it once was. Unfortunately, season four does nothing to solidify The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s status in the current TV canon. If season three was its dramatic apex, season four sees the show on a slight decline as it is content to meander and spin its wheels.
At the end of last season, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) got dropped from famed singer Shy Baldwin’s tour after she nearly outed him as gay during one of her comedy routines. Midge isn’t quite back at square one, but her career takes a big enough hit that she has to perform at a burlesque club to make ends meet. This is where most of her comedy routines come from this season. Midge ends up enjoying her new job and eventually makes friends with her stripper co-workers and the seedy manager of the club, Boise (Santino Fontana). It’s a place where she feels comfortable. In fact, she becomes so comfortable in her new gig that she turns down offers to open for large touring acts, insisting that she wants to do things on her own terms. However, as fellow comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) points out, that is just a lie Midge tells herself because she fears failure and finds comfort in the familiar. Not to lay it on too thick, but she is spinning her wheels, much like this season is doing.
One area I found this season especially lacking is meaningful characterization. All of the characters have adopted the same quippy, fast-paced way of talking, and there are innumerable conversations this season that follow insufferably circular routines. A typical interaction between characters sees questions being asked only to be answered with a purposefully obtuse remark so that other characters can chime in and ask the same question, only to get more obtuse answers until finally, after much ado, something concrete is reached. These conversations are usually of no consequence whatsoever and they take forever to reach their conclusion, operating as little more than comedic padding. The density of these conversations decreases as the season goes on, and we see more substantive conversations between characters that actually push the plot forward.
It’s a shame that these conversations are the exception rather than the rule, because their overall effect is a distinct loss of dramatic focus. There’s a scene where Suzie (Alex Borstein), Midge’s manager, is accompanying Midge’s mother Rose (Marin Hinkle) to work, and the entire time, Suzie acts like an actual baby, complete with baby talk and the kicking and slamming of furniture as Rose tries to calm her down. I’m usually all for pairing characters who don’t get much screen time together, but the show wastes the potential scenes like this have by failing to explore unique subplots that we otherwise might not get to see, all in the service of some cheap gags.
The show prioritizes comedy over drama this season, to the point where it feels like a long-form sitcom. Various side characters have little adventures that only occasionally intersect with the overarching plot, and never in a meaningful way. For example, Rose has a matchmaking business that is threatened by her daughter’s unseemly profession, but the issue only comes up later in the season and is swiftly resolved. It’s an odd narrative choice because the show really emphasizes how its characters are in dire straits this season, yet the things that pop up to threaten them are quickly dealt with in an episode or two.
For example, Susie is under suspicion of arson (she is, in fact, guilty), but she has her sister Tessie (Emily Bergl) sleep with the insurance agent (Dominic Lombardozzi, AKA Herc from The Wire!) and by the next episode all is well. There are a ridiculous amount of minute conflicts like this in the season. Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) even makes an appearance for a few episodes, but is entirely wasted on a self-contained story involving him and Midge’s father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), committing arson when they were kids. Not only does this not matter because it’s resolved in a few episodes, but it’s yet another arson plotline!
What irks me is that all of these mediocre comedic subplots take away time from what should be the genuine conflicts of the show, so whenever a genuine dramatic conflict comes up, it always seems to be tacked on. Halfway through the season, Susie starts a talent agency and is given office space by two recurring characters who are essentially parodies of New York mafiosos. They’ve been in the show before, and the references to their shady connections have always been played for laughs, but near the end of this season, Midge tells Susie she’s concerned about where the money is coming from, even though it’s never been presented as a genuine issue before.
Another conflict that feels disingenuous is Midge’s discovery that her mother knows about her job at the strip club. This, too, occurs late in the season when one of Susie’s clients, Alfie (Gideon Glick), a magician, hypnotizes Rose and gives her the incredibly specific instruction of demonstrating what her daughter does for work, after which Rose repeats Midge’s act word-for-word. This literally happens, it’s said, because of hypnosis, which is not at all in line with the show’s dramatic sensibilities.
I’m struggling to find positive things to say about the latest season. Yes, the costume and set design is immaculately arranged and fun, but the show’s 1950s period piece appeal comes off as superficial and aesthetically motivated rather than trying to create a real-world or sense of place. The camerawork is polished, but after a while, you get tired of all the tracking shots. I’m really not sure where the show is going to go next. Its final episode hints at Midge’s career taking off, for real this time. It also hints at Lenny Bruce’s drug problem, which killed him in real life, so that could also raise the stakes next season.
I don’t know exactly how much attention this season got, but even Amazon Prime's switch to a weekly release schedule, which their competitor HBO has found success with, didn’t generate a whole lot of buzz. Season five will be the show’s final season, and I hope Mrs. Maisel gives us a reason to remember her.