Susie’s struggle in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Although Midge is on stage, Susie has always been the star, living outside the show's carefully constructed fantasy

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published February 19, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Alex Borstein as Susie Myerson in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Christopher Saunders/Amazon Prime Video)
Alex Borstein as Susie Myerson in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Christopher Saunders/Amazon Prime Video)

Last October, Susie stole my Halloween thunder. 

My partner and I had planned to dress as Roy and Keeley from "Ted Lasso," but when internet-ordered wigs proved less than satisfactory, looking more like Muppets than hair, we made a last-minute pivot, scanning our closet for clothes we already had.

We could do "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," I decided. I had dresses, heels, even a vintage pink car coat I had bought at a thrift store the winter I was pregnant; it was the only coat I could find to button around my waist. I could be Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), the wealthy housewife turned standup comic in the Amazon Prime show. And my partner could be Joel, Midge's ex-husband.

No, my partner said. He was going to be a much better character: Susie.

Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) is Midge's manager on the show, now in its fourth season. A heavy smoker and drinker, sarcastic and foul-mouthed but loyal and hopeful, she wears newsboy caps, suspenders, striped shirts and her keys on a chain. A frequent gag on the show is that she's mistaken for a small boy. In my favorite episodes of the second season, Susie follows Midge's family to the Catskills, where they're on vacation, and poses as a plumber. Her only real prop to convince everyone? A plunger.

You try showing up to an outdoor Halloween party full of strangers with a plunger over your shoulder.

Needless to say, my partner made friends.

In this house we believe Susie is queer, asexual if not the butch lesbian that many fans (including this one) wish the show would explicitly give a real storyline to, instead of a years-long is she or isn't she dance that feels like queer-baiting. Played by the wonderful Borstein, Susie is brash, unforgettable and one of the best characters on TV. She's also one of the only ones living in poverty.

Related: Why is Joe Burrow so great? Because he's from Appalachia

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, co-creators of "Mrs. Maisel," have not always been the best at writing about or even addressing inequality. Their single mom, Lorelai, on "Gilmore Girls," though lovable, is one of a long line of unbelievable solo mom characters who never really have to worry about money. The Palladino and Sherman-Palladino heroine of "Bunheads," a down on her luck showgirl, inherits an estate.

In many regards, "Mrs. Maisel" follows the same line of (not) thinking about money. Midge's problems, even a philandering husband, aren't real problems because her parents smooth them over. For much of the show, Midge's father is a Columbia University professor and her mother has significant inherited wealth. Continuing the single mom fantasy, Midge's rich ex is financially if not emotionally supportive. If the whole comedy thing doesn't work out, Midge is not going to end up on the street. At worst, she'll end up in Astoria. 

Even though Midge's drive to be taken seriously in a sexist, male-dominated field is urgent, her wealth can make the whole enterprise feel a little low-stakes. But Susie is different. Everything for Susie is high stakes.

She has much more worldly experience than Midge — and the world didn't treat her so great. Her mother was alcoholic, and her family life dysfunctional and difficult. Susie's relationship with her sister (Emily Bergl) and how they both can't stand the sister's alcoholic husband is one of the more real threads of the show.

Susie works at the Gaslight, the seedy club in the Village (based on a real one) where Midge performs, but her dream is to be a manager. And it takes a long time to come true, really true, longer than Midge's wish. Because of the way she looks, Susie has to fight constantly — and literally — to be allowed entry. When the butler of a future client asks to see "some form of identification," Susie calmly extends her middle finger.

She lives in a basement studio apartment that horrifies Midge when the wealthier woman finally sees it, telling Susie she needs to move out now. Just moving out is not something most people can afford to do, and even though Susie's situation improves somewhat as Midge starts to get gigs, some of them even paying, she stays in the same crappy place with a Murphy bed. She sublets the apartment, and, as is the way of folks with less money, maybe especially queer friends, ends up living there with two other people. 

Like Kimberly being slipped the credit card of her wealthy roommate for an expensive dinner with the parents on "The Sex Lives of College Girls," Susie is often at the mercy of her rich friend. Midge doesn't understand the degree of her own comfort, even after repeatedly being exposed to Susie's lack of it. Susie calls Midge's apartment Versailles, asking: "Who has cutlery for 30? . . . Where's your airplane? In the bathroom?"

Susie doesn't have a suitcase but packs her clothes in a grocery bag. Getting a phone is a big deal for her. So is getting business cards. She can only afford to print a few and when a potential colleague takes one, she asks for it back. Her car — her mother's old one — keeps breaking down.

Susie introduces Midge to aspects of the real world that her parents have sheltered her from, like long road trips with undependable transportation ("She's got, like, 40,000 hats, but no car," Susie says of Midge), sketchy hotel rooms and diner food. Midge, in turn, counsels Susie through her first plane ride. 

But despite her lack of experience in the world of the rich, Susie has hidden depths. She can play the piano really well (and tunes the baby grand at Midge's parents' apartment). She loves the flute. What could she have been, given the opportunities of Midge?

The true child of an alcoholic, Susie is a peacemaker, spending much of her time as a manager smoothing over the feathers Midge has carelessly and often needlessly ruffled. She endears herself to others as a way of self-protection. Her plumber ruse in the Catskills soon turns into Susie being the most loved employee on staff (even though she's not actually on staff). 

When she's kidnapped by some goons because she owes money, her kidnappers become her good friends by the end of the evening — and they're still, happily, in her life. "This is the best abduction I've ever had," Susie tells them. "I'm serious here." Everyone eventually falls in love with Susie, although Susie has yet to love anyone except Midge. 

And that, of course, is unrequited. 

Susie has trouble trusting, but once you're in with her, you're in — and she'll do anything for her friends, including pretending to have had an affair with Joel in order for Midge to be granted a divorce. That giving all you have, even if or until you have nothing, may be a consequence of how much she's struggled.

Experiencing poverty, which is a kind of trauma, rewires the brain in different ways. (My way is that I have trouble buying basic things for myself, agonizing over even minor expenses for a very long time.) Another way may be Susie's way, where she loses money as fast as she has it. Midge isn't good with money, either, because it's always been around her whole life; she's never had to worry about what things cost or how to make income. Susie has only had to worry about money, and the start of season 4 finds her struggling to keep what she has, confused by it and scarily careless.

Midge is desperately trying to hold on to her upper class lifestyle. Susie is desperately trying to hold onto Midge­­ — and just trying to survive. 

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The tension in the show about Midge's life in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," is, all things considered, pretty low. And her determination to prove herself as a female artist is wearing a little thin, after she basically outed a gay Black man on stage at the end of season 3 — an incident for which she has only expressed remorse as it pertains to her own career, not potentially ending someone's life in the closeted 1960s. 

One hopes that the coming season addresses why this action was so wrong. Otherwise, Midge's clueless rich white woman act is getting grating.

But even though Midge is the one on stage, Susie has always been the star. Early in the show, she pushes away Midge's comedy journal, mistaking it for the wealthy woman's diary, saying, "I don't want to read the word ponies over and over." 

Neither do we, and luckily the show seems to know that. Never mind the spotlight. The struggles of the show, and its true appeal, come from the back of the house, where Susie is watching in the darkness, in a cloud of smoke, waiting her turn. 

The first two episodes of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" season 4 are now streaming on Prime Video, with new episodes released on Fridays. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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