Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
“My name is Mrs. Maisel. Thank you and good night!”
Miriam “Midge” Maisel closes her set to an eruption of applause in the season finale of Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Midge (played by Rachel Brosnahan) is a revelation. Her comedy is irreverent and electric. No topic is off-limits from her searing wit, much to the delight of the audience.
Outside the bar stands Joel Maisel (played by Michael Zegen), the man who set her meteoric rise in motion. His day was not supposed to go like this. He had planned to show Midge he had changed — he wasn’t the same loser who had walked out on their marriage. Instead, he faces the cold reality that Midge has transformed while he remains stuck where he started.
The events of the season finale offer Joel a second chance and a path towards redemption.Rewind back to the beginning: Joel and Midge Maisel are happily married. Or so it seems. Joel works a comfortable white-collar job; the two have a beautiful apartment and a budding family. Below the surface, however, Joel feels like a fraud. He owes all his success to his wealthy father. He has no idea what he really does at work or why it matters. His picturesque life with Midge only serves to remind him of his inadequacy as a man.
Joel views comedy as his way out of mediocrity. Every week, he and Midge head to the Gaslight, a local bar and club, where he delivers his well-practiced routine. Joel feels important and alive on stage. Problem is, his set is lifted straight from a famous TV comic. When Midge finds out and encourages him to try his own material, he bombs spectacularly. Joel’s failed set ignites the powder keg of his insecurities. That night, he drops another bomb on Midge: he’s been having an affair with his secretary. He packs his suitcase and leaves.
The revelation of the affair launches Midge and Joel into two separate but intertwined trajectories. Midge is initially crushed. Her entire identity had been forged around her role as Joel’s perfect, supportive wife. Drunk and distraught, she wanders into the Gaslight and tears into Joel in an uncensored but highly entertaining rant. Midge, it turns out, has a knack for comedy. After years of being the polite housewife, Midge finds the honesty of comedy exhilarating. Over the course of the show’s first season, she learns to stand on her own both as a comic and a person.
Meanwhile, Joel is miserable. He quickly realizes the stupidity of what he’s done and sets to work trying to fix his relationship with Midge. He resolves to stop being a do-nothing loser. He is determined to make something of himself and win Midge back.
These story arcs collide in the season finale. After their son’s birthday party, Joel and Midge spend the night together. Midge is discouraged by the harsh realities of comedy and is eager for the familiarity of Joel and their old life together. Joel, fresh off a promotion at work, is confident his prospects with Midge are looking up. As he strolls into a record store, however, he hears the recording of Midge’s rant about him at the Gaslight. He is stunned and humiliated.
Which brings us back to our opening scene: Joel staggers out of the Gaslight after hearing Midge perform live. He follows after two men who had heckled her (unsuccessfully) during her performance, shouting at them to take back their words. When they refuse, he snaps and starts punching. As the camera pans into the distance, we hear him yell repeatedly: “She’s good! she’s good!”
This scene reveals the tension within Joel’s character at the end of Season 1. He is scrambling to reconcile the Midge he just witnessed with the Midge he thought he knew. Outwardly, he is angry at the uncomfortable crassness of this new Midge — her willingness to air intimate details of their lives for all to hear. But inwardly, and perhaps unconsciously, he is unnerved by Midge’s brilliance. Her natural skill dwarfs anything he has ever managed to accomplish himself.
His transformation into a successful businessman might have been enough to win back the old Midge, but Joel fears this Midge is completely out of his league. It’s a hard truth to swallow, so he ignores it and directs his frustration with himself at the hecklers. In reality, however, he is trying to will back the old “good” Midge, the perfect wife who once admired him with unwavering devotion, and avoid facing the new Midge who is too “good” for him.
With season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel right around the corner, I’ve been pondering Joel’s role in the story going forward. In particular, I’ve been asking myself: do I want to see Joel redeemed? Do I want him to continue playing an important part in Midge’s story?
For the most part, I disliked Joel in Season 1. I shook my head in disbelief when I saw he had abandoned Midge for the dull Penny Pan. I groaned at his lack of self-awareness towards his defects. I cringed when I realized the two might actually get back together — I had the same experience as one reviewer who wrote she had to suppress an audible “no!” Most of the time, Joel was an annoying, unwanted interruption to Midge’s more engaging storyline.
I think my reaction echoes our culture’s response to men like Joel. In our #MeToo moment, men are rightly being called to account. Outward niceness is being unmasked as entitlement; machismo, as overcompensation for insecurity. Along with the unveiling of toxic masculinity, however, comes a desire to be rid of these men altogether, to deride them for their fragility and then write them out of our stories.
We want to dismiss weak men the way Susie, Midge’s manager, does to Joel: “You are ripped right out of a bull*** male catalog,” she tells him. “King of the mansion, spoiled brat … She’s gonna be a star, and you are just gonna be that guy sitting at some loser bar every night pointing to the television set saying, ‘I used to be married to her, but I f***g blew it’”
I expected the show to treat Joel with that kind of disdain, but to my surprise, it didn’t. Instead of consigning Joel to the fringes or replacing him with a better love interest, the show gives Joel a central role in Midge’s storyline. Instead of painting him as a one-note doofus or villain, it treats him with compassion and takes his relationship with Midge seriously.
Two instances in particular stood out to me during a recent rewatch of the season finale. The first comes when Joel is finally able to apologize to Midge. He tells her:
How did I screw everything up so badly? I never said I’m sorry, did I? … I should have come back on my knees that night. … You just have to understand: you are a lot, Midge. You meet a girl. Maybe she’s pretty, maybe she’s smart, maybe she’s funny. Maybe your parents like her. Maybe you get really lucky, and she’s one or two of those things. I got ’em all. That’s a lot. I never left. I don’t know what I did, but I never really left.
Here, the show gives Joel space to articulate the very human reason behind his destructive actions — the affair, the brawl, and even the comedy and ladder-climbing at work. Joel loves Midge but can’t measure up. He feels unworthy of her love and doesn’t know how to handle that as a man. By giving Joel this brief window of vulnerability, the show encourages us to sympathize with his otherwise unsympathetic behavior.
The second instance takes place in a humorous exchange between Midge and her father, Abe. Midge tells Abe she loves Joel and misses sharing her life with him, but she’s unsure whether they can make the relationship work: “I’m a different person now than when he left. He might not like the new me.” Abe, who has been embroiled in a season-long battle with his own wife, Rose, muses how he still loves Rose despite how she’s changed over the years. Perhaps, Joel can love the new Midge too: “People change … change is part of marriage … if he loves you, and you can forgive ah, who the hell knows? Just, please please, don’t tell your mother unless you’re very, very sure.”
The show could’ve easily treated Midge’s marriage with Joel as an afterthought — a restriction to be cast off so Midge could be empowered and free. Instead, it allows Midge to takes the relationship seriously. Despite all his flaws, Joel will always matter to her because he was her husband. They have a shared history and a family together. It’s not silly or a sign of weakness to want reconciliation. Theirs is a relationship worth fighting for.
Instead of dismissing her marriage, the show expertly weaves it into the dramatic tension of the story going forward. When Midge declares her married name, Mrs. Maisel, as her stage name as a comic, it foreshadows the struggles she will face in upcoming seasons to merge her old and new worlds together. But the implication is clear: Midge’s history with Joel will play an important part in shaping who she becomes.
The events of the season finale offer Joel a second chance and a path towards redemption. He will need to separate his pursuit of excellence and meaningful work from his obsessive desire to become “somebody.” He will need to learn to root for Midge’s successes and understand that supporting her in no way diminishes his masculinity. To the contrary, it requires admirable strength. It remains to be seen if Joel is up for the challenge. He may very well fail or fade into the background, but I, for one, am hoping he succeeds.
For us, we would do well to imitate Mrs. Maisel’s treatment of Joel. It holds him accountable for his mistakes, but also offers him undeserved grace. In the same way, we should call flawed men to repentance for their many failures (and as one myself, I have many!). But we should not gleefully mock them or treat them as if they are beyond the reach of Gospel grace. Instead, let us hope and pray for pathetic men to be transformed into godly ones — into men who turn to God for help in weakness, instead of desperately trying to hide their inadequacies; into men who exemplify Christlike strength, humility, and sacrificial love, because they know they are loved by him.
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