Susie, the Underrated Hero Behind The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel returned for its final season last week, and while I’m looking forward to the final chapter, the character whose story I’m most interested in is Susie. Yes, the show is titled The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; yes, Miriam (aka Midge) is the star of the show and the star of her own comedy act on the show. And yes, most of the characters are likable, even lovable, but Susie, played pitch-perfectly by Alex Borstein, has a special place on the screen for me.

Maybe it’s because she can drop an f-bomb with aplomb. Seriously: she makes dropping a fuck an art form, whether she’s just been jostled awake or she’s running after Midge. Maybe it’s because her sexuality and gender identity seems a little fluid — Midge once commented her name should be something “more like I dunno, Greg” — and yet stubbornly mysterious: when Midge surprised her with a visit to a lesbian bar, the only thing Susie confirmed was that Midge had overstepped.

Or maybe I adore Susie so much because she’s a perfect foil to Midge. While the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sashays through a ritzy technicolor dream world of 50s New York, improbably rising to fame as a female comic, her manager Susie is behind the stage doing the dirty work. To wit: When Midge runs off on a family vacation at a fancy upstate resort, abandoning a slate of scheduled performances, Susie pretends to be a maintenance worker at the resort to keep access to her star — and ensure Miriam keeps her act sharp and keeps earning money. 

And speaking of money: Miriam seems endlessly awash in it, living at her parents’ Upper West Side apartment and leaving her two young kids to the maid. Susie, on the other hand, is broke (and has a gambling problem to boot). She lives in a tiny studio apartment with a roommate; the front door doesn’t open fully when the bed is pulled down. Susie seems not to have changed clothes throughout the entire series; Midge’s bright outfits come with matching hats.

So even though the show is ostensibly about a woman doing something transgressive and hard — it’s still not easy to be a woman in comedy today — I do get annoyed, sometimes, at how the show makes it look so easy for Midge. How, despite being separated from her husband, being a single mother comes with no discrimination or even babysitting fees. How her standup routine always sparkles, never falls flat, though we rarely see her rehearse. Her clothes never wrinkle (the dry cleaning must be yet another task the maid magically takes care of). Her hair nails never chip. She embodies that picture-perfect femininity and she is never exhausted by it; in fact, she appears to be perfectly cheery about it. 

This would be more than just mildly annoying if it weren’t for Susie, who embodies the reality check Midge’s upper-class family so badly needs — not that they’re the least bit bothered to learn that the ease with which they move through the world is a luxury most New Yorkers could never afford. 

As Midge dazzles in the spotlight, Susie hustles behind the scenes, often hilariously, dropping her fucks and grinding her teeth and making it all work out for Midge. Whenever Midge encounters a bit of a struggle, Susie is the reliable sidekick who props her up and gets her through. Susie is the reminder that no, making it in showbiz isn’t marvelous. It takes work. It takes heart. It takes integrity. It takes grit.

And you definitely have integrity and grit, if, say, you manage to dissuade two gangsters from drowning you in the Atlantic — scary, stoic gangsters sent by a rival manager. This season two episode was one of my favorites of the whole series; I don’t even remember what Midge was doing. I just know that half the time, Susie is more committed and believes more deeply in Midge’s career than Midge does herself; this is yet another luxury she doesn’t seem to know she has.

Don’t get me wrong: Midge is a perfectly charming character, and her comebacks and backbone often make me want to cheer. But it’s almost as if the showrunners know they can’t get too real about the reality of being a female comedian; if we saw her get physically harassed, saw her get too tired or saw her smarts truly fail her for once, maybe the technicolor dream bubble would pop — or maybe Midge would actually have to face the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia that every single person who tries to “make it” in showbiz encountered then, and encounters now. 

These are very ugly truths, and other shows have focused on them already. This show is about Midge’s marvelous little world, insulated by endless adoration and money, and it’s a lot of work to keep her bright bubble safe from the scary things outside. We get a glimpse of this darkness in the storyline of Susie, and I cheer even more for her tenacity, her pluck. Because showbiz is hard. Or as Susie would say: FUCK!


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