I just finished watching the first two seasons of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. This is a dynamically written show, with impressive acting, and a killer soundtrack. In previous posts, I have been highly critical of poorly written television series, but I can’t stop thinking about the complex undertones present in this exclusive show (Amazon Prime). Spoiler Alert!! I don’t plan on going through a synopsis of the show, but there are certain nuances embedded in both the minor and major story arcs that can spoil certain details for those who haven’t seen it. So if you are still interested, follow me down my obscure middle management rabbit hole.
How does this show tie-in with middle management? Throughout the series, the main character travels a whimsical journey through her own creativity; both physically and emotionally. She finds herself one night drunk, heartbroken, and on the same stage that she watched her husband perform open-mic stand-up comedy just a few days earlier. Crushed by her husband Joel’s sudden and unexpected revelation that he doesn’t want to be married to her any longer, she finds herself pouring her soul to a group of strangers and initiating the ever-encompassing transformation of others. Midge (Miriam) Maisel, the resilient, strong, and charismatic mother of two, engages on a journey of transformation of everything around her, but not of herself.
At first, I thought that the show was going to be about the transformation of the young upper west-side wife and mother into a female version of Lenny Bruce (also a character in the show, more on him later). As the season one episodes unfold, this is clearly not the case, nor is it my observation of the intention of the writers. Midge really doesn’t change much at all, she merely acquires a certain savvy and learns to hone her already sharp wit and observational humor. In essence, Midge serves as an “Agent of Change” and continues to transform everyone else who she touches in her life. She is a living process in which everyone surrounding her has their true self revealed from deep inside their inner depths. They are shown their primal elements of being that have been repressed or distorted by the cultural and social norms that have encapsulated them over time. Each member of her world, with one exception, is turned inside out, and their strengths and passions revealed.
There is another term for this type of person in organizational behavior, the “Linchpin”. Seth Godin wrote a excellent book by this very name. Godin describes the Linchpin as an indispensable part of an organization, a connector. People become linchpins when they possess a certain set of skills and abilities that allow them to improve the actions of individuals by facilitating a smoother transition between members of a group. They can further enhance the team dynamic by inspiring others to see beyond their self-imposed limitations, or to rekindle dormant skills and work passions. The linchpin becomes a workplace enzyme that is never consumed, but continues to encourage a productive chain of events that change peoples’ lives.
Midge manages to touch everyone close to her, and although they resist, none of them can stop what the fast-paced changes in their lives. Abe Weissman, Midge’s stiff academic father, has probably the most dramatic transformation. He is always present at each step of his daughter’s journey, standing in the shadows, and pausing before speaking. When he first finds out that Joel has left Midge, I was waiting for him to walk over and hug his daughter because that is what I would have done, but it isn’t the right time. He is ashamed and disappointed with her and turns away, leaving her alone, without her Papa. Later, when Abe finds out that Joel wished to reconcile and that Midge turned him away, he again stands in the shadows, and demands that his daughter not share the failed reconciliation with her mother. When he serendipitously watches her act at The Concord in season 2, a shadowed Abe, complete with his Polynesian garb is embarrassed by Midge’s act. Afterwords he rushes both her and her manager back to the Catskills retreat of Steiner Mountain without as much as a word, then later admonishing them fiercely.
Meanwhile, throughout these encounters, Abe’s life begins to unravel. His wife Rose runs away to Paris, his students at Columbia begin to drift away from his entourage, and his Bell Labs project is sidelined and subsequently dropped. The cocoon that he has spent his adult life encasing himself inside becomes loose, tattered, and no longer secure. It is as this point that he reminisces about his earlier progressive experiences of fighting the system, and the passion that he once had for walking on the edge. Only then, while his daughter takes on the worst and latest spot of telethon, and proceeds to slay the crowd, does he show a glimmer of adoration and pride in his unconventional daughter. Afterwards, he emerges from the shadows. What is to come will be revealed in season 3, but I believe a rebirth is in the making.
Joel, her young businessman husband who aspires to be a comic, truly feels that he will never be good enough for his wife. She adores him, and engages in arduous and audience amusing rituals to be the perfect wife. Inside, Joel knows how marvelous Mrs. Maisel is, and feels terribly inadequate, especially when he fails on stage. He surmises that his only recourse is to leave his wife, and engage an endless string of low-powered bimbos while he contemplates his monumental errors and seeks redemption. There is an inner struggle between the jealousy of his wife’s achievement and the admiration he always had for her. Soon enough the admiration takes hold as he transitions himself to be a future club owner, and background support for Midge. He begins to see his strength, brought out by his estranged wife, displayed in front of him as a beacon, showing him how to accept that he is the man she fell in love with.
Towards the end of the 2nd season, she calls him, in a fit of desperation, after getting stiffed by a club manager. Susie, her manager perceives this as weakness, but when the money flows forward from a punch in the nose, Mrs. Maisel merely states “It’s a man’s world, and sometimes you need a man.” This isn’t surrender or a setback; this is our linchpin facilitating the transformation of her manager from a rough-around-the edges street urchin into a savvy showbiz player. Susie’s often masculine oriented character is still a woman fighting for respect and her due place in this swift show-business undercurrent. The neo-feminism in the story isn’t about women (Midge and Susie) doing it all alone, but rather standing up, toe to toe with their male counterparts, accomplishing goals, and overcoming obstacles, one struggle at a time.
Throughout the journey from the Gaslight Café open-mic, to the Mid-Town Manhattan A-list clubs, Midge is still Midge. But meanwhile, our Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is extracting from everyone around her their inner strengths and passions and staple-gunning them onto their chests. We see this with her mother’s purposeful rebirth in Paris, and subsequent enlightenment of her place in her home. We see it when Moishe Maisel, Joel’s gregarious father, realizes through seemingly random events, that he must relent, and let his son save the family schmatta (garment) business. Even the iconic Sophie Lennon, abandons her spite, for she knows there is a spark in Midge, and a drive in Susie that she must be a part of. The seemingly static showbiz climate will undergo an upheaval, and the “people” that keep everyone in line will be swept aside. All of this is orchestrated by the one person, the center of all transformation, the linchpin Midge Maisel. All these changes seemingly occur unbeknownst to her, and she travels through everyone's lives.
Then there is Lenny Bruce. Lenny isn’t going to transform. Lenny is going to die. No spoiler here. If this show goes on for a couple more seasons, and into the mid 1960’s, the audience will watch Lenny succumb to his depression, heroin addiction, deepening legal and financial troubles, and eventually his premature and tragic death. Lenny doesn’t change, because Lenny Bruce is the historical linchpin. He doesn’t transform Midge, instead he hands the torch over to her. She is clearly the most worthy person, especially amongst a vast sea of male dominated mediocrity. Historically, Bruce is directly responsible for the pivotal change in American comedy that would be reflected in those who followed him including: George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers (whom the Midge Maisel character is partially based), and countless comics in the 70’sand 80’s that his passion and raw energy inspired to break down barriers of social mores, reshaping popular culture.
It is often that the trailblazer doesn’t reap the reward of their work, but lays a path for others to follow. We can only hope that indispensable people don’t succumb to a tragic end, it is certainly not a necessity. And unfortunately, not all indispensable people become famous or even remarkable, except to those whom they transformed. The passions in our souls and our special skills are often hidden from our view because we convince ourselves that we have different purpose and priorities. It takes a special individual to pull out of us, what we already have, and make plain as day, what we are already capable of accomplishing. Miriam Maisel didn’t give anyone anything they didn’t already have, just as Lenny Bruce didn’t make her a great comedienne, instead both of these crucial linchpins opened the eyes of those around them, to illuminate the possibilities that were already there.