Nov 17, 2022

Very Blue Things in a Very Blue Room: The Marvelous Poetry of Mrs. Maisel

Joan Biddle

The fifth and final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel began filming this month. I’ve been thinking about the last episode of season 4 since it aired last spring. Season 4, episode 8, "How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?" was, like most of the episodes of the show, written and directed by show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Sometimes you have a perfect storm of writing, production, direction, and acting that comes together into something that goes beyond your everyday TV show. This episode is one of those times.

The episode starts off circling around death, with Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) dealing with her ex-father-in-law Moishe (played by Kevin Pollak) in the hospital in a coma after a heart attack. Although no longer married to her ex Joel (played by Michael Zegen), Midge still feels responsible for this man and tied into him. She still loves him and his family. 

She’s having trouble extricating herself from this other life that she has, in a way, grown out of. She has one foot still with these people whom she loves, but who are no longer her life. Her other foot is pressed outward into her career as a stand-up comedian.

Throughout the first scenes it becomes clear to Midge that she’s not as needed as she thought; her ex has a new woman Mei (who’s now pregnant), and she’s needed more at her emcee gig at The Wolford, a strip club. She has created this life for herself before she even realizes that she has. She has set up her life as an artist. The other familial needs are being filled in. Realizing this, she leaves the hospital to go to her show.

In her time onstage that night, she muses on her time spent at the hospital.

Midge: You look around this hospital, you see the doctors. All men, swaggering in and out of the rooms really fast. "I'm important. I have a pen in my pocket. I look at a chart. Hmm, good chart. I sign the chart. I am God, and God can't hang around. God has to be in the gallbladder wing in five." ( laughter )

But spend a few days in the hospital, and you start to notice the nurses. The nurses never rush out of your room. They just clean out the bedpans, draw the blood, insert the suppositories. They don't get to sign a chart. They don't even get a pen. But they hold you while you cry.

So, what does this mean? Are women more important than God? Hmm. What if we discover one day that we were always the ones in charge? Just, no one told us.

After her brief stint on stage to introduce what the audience came there to see - tits and ass, she finds that her friend Lenny Bruce, the one character on the show that represents a real person,  has come to see her backstage. Soon after they begin talking, the club is raided and she and Lenny flee through the snow to his hotel - a blue room painted just for him during his gig playing Carnegie Hall. 

Midge and Lenny have been friends (complicatedly) throughout the series and Lenny has made cameos in each season. Their relationship has finally come to this place, to this moment. In the hotel room, after keeping a safe distance, Lenny says he's got to see the “show corset” that Midge mentioned she was wearing, which leads Midge to say:

Midge: If we do this... If we take our clothes off and we do some very blue things in this very blue room... 

Lenny: Wow, do I not know which way this is going. 

Midge: I need you to look me in the eye first and promise that you will never, ever forget that I am very, very funny. First and foremost. 

(Lenny laughs)

I'm serious, Lenny. 

Lenny: I will be laughing through the entire thing. I promise.

She’s a woman. She’s a person. She’s a comedian. First and foremost. She doesn’t want anything that happens between her and Lenny to change how he sees her. To change who she is in his eyes. In anyone’s eyes. 

Now Lenny Bruce represents a real comedian, and Miriam (Midge) Maisel is loosely based on Joan Rivers. But all I want to focus on at this moment are the two characters played by these two actors, Rachel Brosnahan and Luke Kirby. The chemistry, the sexual tension you could cut with a knife, the blue room, the snow outside, the blue things they are thinking at this moment, the acting, the words floating in the air: sublime.

Sidebar: All of the actors on this show are sublime, and when paired with the writing and production, even better. Midge’s parents Abe and Rose, played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle, have delectable chemistry and seem to be so of this time, the 1960s. Their quiet love for each other and their subtle humor and evolution as characters have floored me. 

A hilarious subplot weaves through the episode in which Midge’s father Abe has been writing Moishe’s obituary for The Village Voice, and comes to find out Moishe is in fact alive and well. Abe rushes into the hospital room with the obituary in his hand and reads it to everyone, ending with the lines, “You… were a very good man. And I … I miss you very much. But you’re not dead, so...”

The two men tear up, and Moishe, lying in his hospital bed, places his hand on his heart and mouths “thank you.”

It’s a perfect example of a scene that’s hilarious and at the same time very touching. 

Moishe: What's that, Abe?

Abe: What?

Moishe: In your hand. 

Abe: Oh, it's nothing. 

Moishe: You're holding it very tightly.

Abe: It's just, uh...

Moishe: It says "Moishe's obituary." You wrote my obituary? 

Abe: No. 

Moishe: You wrote something and titled it "Moishe's Obituary"? 

Abe: No. I just... Yes. I wrote something. 

Moishe: Well, what were you going to do rushing in here like that? 

Abe: I think I was going to read it.

Moishe: To me?

Abe: Yes.

Moishe: While I was unconscious? 

Abe: Or dead. Yes. 

Moishe: I'd like to hear it. 

Abe: What? No.

As Abe is reading what he wrote, a heartfelt thank-you to Moishe for taking him and Rose in when they needed help and for taking care of Midge even when she was no longer married to his son, they argue for a moment over whether God exists. Moishe claims God does exist, and since he’s lying in a hospital bed, Abe allows, nodding slightly: “God exists. For now.”

Another subplot has Midge making her agent Susie (played by Alex Borstein) stick to her manifesto, her plan of performing “no opening acts.” Even though Lenny sets it up so that Midge is asked to open for Tony Bennett on one of his sold-out shows at the Copa,  Midge wants to say no. 

The culmination of the episode is Lenny’s show at Carnegie Hall. When Midge goes to see him backstage after, he pulls her away from the crowd and onto the empty stage. She marvels and stares out into the empty audience, amazed at being in this revered space.

He proceeds to ask her about turning down the Tony Bennett show, after he put himself out there to get it for her. She says she has a plan, at which he goes off on her, telling her she’s hiding.

Lenny: Don't you want this? Don't you want to be here? Don't you want to know a thousand mental patients braved a fսcking snowstorm to see you? That should be the goal. 

Midge: How do you know it's not?

Lenny: Because you're not gonna get here hiding yourself away in a club that technically doesn't exist. 

Midge: I'm not hiding. 

Lenny: You sure as fuck are hiding. So what you got dumped by Baldwin? Who gives a shit? Go get another gig. And another and another. 

Midge: So I'm just supposed to get fired from one job after another? 

Lenny: Yes. If that's what it takes. Listen to me. I have made a lot of mistakes and I am gonna keep making a lot of mistakes, but one thing is crystal clear in my mind and it's what the endgame is. 

Midge: Oh, really? So that's what the bag in your... 

Lenny: No. Do not make this about me. This is about you. You wanted me to remember you're funny, right? That night? You didn't want me to think of you as just a girl. You wanted me to think of you as a comic. Well, don't you forget that I'm a comic, too. Don't you dare look at me as someone to be pitied or helped or fixed. I do not want or need that, especially from you.

Midge: I don't want to fix you.

Lenny: Ninety percent of this game is how they see you. They see you hanging with Tony Bennett, they think you deserve to be there. They see you hauled off to jail for saying "fսck" at a strip club, they think you deserve that also. Wise up. 

Midge: I'm not hiding. I have a plan. 

Lenny: Don't plan! Work. Just work and keep working. There is a moment in this business, window's open. If you miss it, it closes. Just don't... If you blow this, Midge, I swear... you will break my fսcking heart.

The episode ends with Midge walking through the driving snow. Before her looms a billboard for a talk show that reads The Gordon Ford Show, but the snow obscures it and she sees the words Go Forward.

The story says something important about moving forward, and the people who push us out of our comfort zones. People who tell the truth, who hold up a mirror to us to show us exactly what we’re doing even when we don't see it ourselves. People who tell the truth with no thought not to. My friend in high school, at night in the back of somebody’s truck, who told me to take my hair down. And ever after that, I did.

We owe a lot to the people who tell the truth. Most people won’t do it. In life, they're often put down or persecuted, or as Lenny Bruce was, in trouble with the law. And yet these are often the people who show us the way, who help to move us. Most of the people we meet won't even come close. 

Selected Sources:

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 4, Episode 8, Amazon Prime

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