(Warning: Spoilers for Season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” ahead.)
In the most recent season of the hit Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the effervescent and whip-smart comedian Midge Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) goes on tour as the opening act for African American crooner Shy Baldwin.
Toward the end of the season, the show wades into uncharted territory by both highlighting inequalities and dangers that exist outside the four corners of Midge Maisel’s personal experience, and showing how clumsily she navigates this terrain. It offers an interesting lesson for the present day, when videos of police brutality toward black people and protests against systemic racism are prompting people — some for the first time — to acknowledge these issues and consider how they can be better allies to people of color.
The season initially avoids an accurate depiction of the unequal treatment a black performer would have experienced in America in the 1960s. For instance, Shy and his entourage cut loose in a Las Vegas casino, even though black people were not allowed to patronize casinos in the “Mississippi of the West” at that time. They would not even have been allowed to stay in the same hotels as their white audience members.
Unlike characters such as comedian Lenny Bruce, Shy is a fictional person, but through him the show eventually offers a window, however brief, into the real experiences of black performers in the Jim Crow South during the group’s stop in Florida. After episodes chock full of poolside lounging and elegant dining with nary a black guest in sight, the show dedicates one moment in one scene to the reveal that Midge’s superstar employer can’t even enter her hotel unless it is to entertain the all-white clientele. What’s worse is Midge clearly only notices it when Shy points it out to her, despite the fact that the only white member of his band has been in the hotel room adjacent to hers this whole time.
She takes in the information and moves on with the conversation. The subject gets but a beat.
In the penultimate episode of the season, Midge’s father Abe (played by Tony Shalhoub) gives her this instruction: “If you’re gonna have a voice, you’d better be careful what that voice says.” This wasn’t in relation to Shy, but it foreshadowed what was to come.
In the aptly-titled season finale “A Jewish Girl Walks Into the Apollo,” Midge is called out by the manager of African American comedian “Moms” Mabley because despite the fact the Mabley is already an icon at this time (true story), she doesn’t get to open for Baldwin’s performance.
“You got the prime spot, Shirley Temple,” the manager says to Midge. In growing frustration, he asks no one in particular: “Who the hell is this white girl anyhow?”
Midge doesn’t just swallow this reaction or brush it off. “Do you think this is the right crowd for me?” she asks Reggie, Shy’s manager. “They loved Moms. I shouldn’t be on after Moms Mabely, they’ll hate me for this.” This isn’t just about the fact that Moms is a more established comic. “I’m not ready for this, I haven’t earned it,” Midge says. She recognizes that even though she is contractually Baldwin’s opening act, her better billing could be perceived as an expression of her privilege as a white person.
Armed with advice from Reggie to calm down and riff less on Jewish brisket and more on Shy for the Apollo crowd, Midge soon has them in stitches — by making jokes that wink at the singer’s sexual orientation, a secret he confided to Midge just a few episodes prior. Midge thinks that is what Reggie meant when he said to talk about Shy. Reggie didn’t know Midge knows Shy is gay.
“I have no doubt that Midge meant no harm toward Shy,” writes Vulture columnist Sarene Leeds,”but that’s what makes this such an important lesson: There are serious consequences to this kind of naïveté, which means Midge has become a liability.” The season closes with Baldwin and his manager leaving Midge on the tarmac as they take off for the European leg of the tour without her.
In an interview with E! magazine in advance of Season 2, Brosnahan describes Midge as follows:
“She’s imperfect, and I like that about her. She’s somebody who holds her convictions very tightly. She’s a product of her time.”
It is an assessment that rings true at the end of this arc. Is it heartbreaking that Midge ends the season left behind when she intended no harm? Maybe. But this was a case when fiction matched real life, in that black people today are asking allies not to perform friendship and understanding but to make the effort to find out what that really requires of them. In the case of Shy, that meant recognizing the risk his double minority status poses for him. An earlier episode establishes that his celebrity status doesn’t protect him from anti-gay violence. Midge should have been explicit with Reggie, or talked to Shy himself, before she went out in front of a packed hall and made Judy Garland jokes.
The show rightly illustrates that good intentions and heartfelt sentiments are a step in the right direction, but there needs to be more. It is only through a willingness to sit with the discomfort of being wrong sometimes, and through the humility and openness to learn, that well-meaning people can become better allies for people fighting struggles different than their own.