"Mrs. Maisel" and the myth of the sacrificial ex-husband

Joel would do anything for his ex-wife. But is that a fantasy of divorce, or a nightmare?

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published April 29, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Rachel Brosnahan (Miriam 'Midge' Maisel), Michael Zegen (Joel Maisel) (Philippe Antonello/Prime Video)
Rachel Brosnahan (Miriam 'Midge' Maisel), Michael Zegen (Joel Maisel) (Philippe Antonello/Prime Video)

The following contains spoilers for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 5, Episode 5 “The Pirate Queen”

Sexism is rough and rampant. Several characters are closeted, despite what would have been a popular Greenwich Village gay bar scene and growing activism. But in most regards, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" is a sherbet-colored fantasy with plucky cheer. Like "Leave it to Beaver" and "I Love Lucy," airing around the time the Prime Video show is set, everything always works out in "Mrs. Maisel." The dresses are pretty and plentiful, childcare issues are nonexistent, and the money continually comes through. The ex-husbands do as well.

In an Amy Sherman-Palladino show, divorces don't stick.

Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of "Mrs. Maisel," loves an ex-husband. In Midge's world, her ex Joel (Michael Zegen) was the catalyst for the launch of Midge's standup comedy career. He left her, with two very young children, after bombing himself onstage, and admitting to Midge he was having a months-long affair with his secretary. Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and Joel divorced early on in the series, but few events in "Maisel" land have lasting consequences. Joel hasn't and isn't going anywhere. And in the ultimate fantasy of an ex, he'd give up his freedom for her as well.   

"So you think this one will stick"? Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash says drunkenly (and jealously) to Reese Witherspoon's June in "Walk the Line," upon the news of his future wife's third marriage. In a Sherman-Palladino show, divorces don't stick. In "Gilmore Girls," ex Christopher (David Sutcliffe) performs the great disappearing, reappearing act. The mother of his child is stuck firmly in Stars Hollow, raising the girl, so Christopher can come and go on his dad motorcycle whenever he likes. He drops both in and out of his daughter's life (missing huge moments, like her high school graduation) and her mother Lorelai's (Lauren Graham) love life.

Sherman-Palladino's exes make out with each other a lot, accidentally sleep together again repeatedly, and even get married once or twice, impulsively and briefly, as Lorelai and Christopher do. Midge and Joel have done the whole marriage, divorce, re-marriage, re-divorce dance themselves.

The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Philippe Antonello/Prime Video)Having a child with someone ties you to them, at least for 18 years, and unlike Christopher, Joel of "Maisel" is an involved dad, likely more active than a typical father of the 1950s and '60s would be. But he's also atypical when it comes to how he views his ex and at times, how she views him as well. Joel does not want to let go. He refers to Midge as his wife long after she's not legally (or in any sense of the word) his wife, repeatedly in screaming matches with Susie, Midge's manager (Alex Borstein). His rageful jealously toward Susie flares up in ways that are out of line, at best, homophobic at worst. 

They are each other's safety school.  

Midge shares a co-dependency on Joel. She can count on him to pick up the kids — great! — or to boost her ego, flatter her and sleep with her when she's lonely (not so great). Both exes have had multiple new relationships, even engagements, but you have to feel sorry for their partners. These two are never going to move on. Rather than present this as the sadness it is, the show views it as another part of the glittering fantasy. It's idealized, that Joel will conceive with another woman but by the very next episode, he's back to making out with Midge on a fire escape (which also feels like a "Gilmore Girls" move). They are each other's safety school.   

The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Philippe Antonello/Prime Video)Joel began the series as a cheater, wounded by his then-wife's success. Soon he started to claim it as his own. Then, to be proud of it, proud of her and supportive of her career, flying to Vegas to watch her perform when her own parents wouldn't. But that support seems to have given him license to overstep, to continue to dominate the life of the woman he left. Joel is overprotective to the extent of control. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than with money, that issue that causes strife between so many couples. Joel controls the puppet strings or at least, the purse strings. "Maisel" excuses this as Midge being bad with money. She's so flighty — she'll spend everything on hats! Susie, with longtime experience of poverty, also struggles realistically with money. These irresponsible women! They have to put their trust — and their pennies — in Joel. And Midge can never truly strike out on her own as long as she must be dependent on her ex.  

The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Philippe Antonello/Prime Video)The show presents this as a noble sacrifice on micromanaging Joel's part and not what it is: more control. Joel is always looking out for Midge; she tells him, in one of the awkward flashforwards the show has gone all-in on in Season 5, he doesn't have to keep doing that — and Midge is in old age makeup at the time so that's been happening for a while. And Joel? He's in prison.

His ex-husband hackles have been up about Frank and Nicky's sketchy behavior and the degrading trash truck musical (which was actually pretty awesome) they made Midge perform in. He's done something rash, something bigger than punching a man in the face for Midge, which he has also done. This is the ultimate ex-husband myth: the ex who won't leave your side, until he takes a metaphorical bullet for you. 

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But is it a fantasy or a nightmare? Midge has started taking a patronizing tone with Joel, talking to him like another one of her kids with whom she has to be patient, placating. She's tired. We're tired. This is the final season of "Maisel" so the show has to pull out all the stops, and switch course on some character development, speeding it up. Joel's changed, OK? How to show that fast? Look what he did for her. But Midge may be more in debt, more dependent on Joel than Susie is on Frank and Nicky. How can you repay someone who possibly went to prison for you? You can't. How will you ever escape their long and looming shadow and move on? You won't. 

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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