Pick any scene in the season two premiere of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—really, any scene—and it will show you just how brilliant Rachel Brosnahan is as stand-up comedian and Upper West Side divorcée Midge Maisel. (She didn’t win that Emmy for nothing…) But if I had to pick a scene that stayed with me long after the episode ended, it’d be that heartbreaking last one.
In the four-minute moment—stop reading now if you haven’t watched—Midge is swept up in emotion while she watches couples kiss in Paris. It’s romantic and gorgeous, but Midge is miserable. It serves as a reminder of what she used to have—or rather, what she thought she had. Out of loneliness and fear, Midge phones estranged husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), in New York to get back together. Yes, the same Joel who cheated on her with his secretary.
The moment could have been a disaster, but it ends up being a showcase of expert storytelling in the hands of co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. The scene somehow humanizes Joel, while still making your heart break for Midge. She wants to make their marriage work; Joel does, too, but he knows he can’t. After seeing his wife shine on stage—in a way he never could—he realized he’d be holding her back. The very thing Midge excels at, finding humor in the devastation she felt because of Joel, is the one obstacle he can’t get past. He doesn’t want her to stop performing, but he also can’t be with her because of it.
The scene is so good, it may come as a surprise that it was filmed in under two hours and without any formal rehearsal. It was also a big concern for Brosnahan and Zegen after they read the script. The phone call represents a big shift for the Maisel’s relationship, and Brosnahan wanted to make sure it stayed authentic to her character. “To be honest, I was so frustrated by that scene when I first read it,” she tells us. “We spent season one establishing that when Midge gets hurt she doesn’t cry, she gets funnier. This scene really broke that rule. I had a little bit of a hard time pushing past that, because when Joel left, Midge didn’t cry. She got on stage. Here it really breaks her.”
Zegen felt the same way. “I also had problems with it,” he says. “I didn’t really understand where Joel was coming from. He’s telling Midge that he can’t be with her, even though he tried to get back with her over and over again.” Plus, as Brosnahan notes, “They had all but gotten together immediately before that moment [in the season one finale], which is what Midge was saying.”
But, “The key thing Joel tells her is, ‘I can’t be a joke,'” Zegen says. “I think that really says a lot. [Her comedy] is completely embarrassing, not to mention emasculating, for him.”
Sherman-Palladino understood the actors’ concerns and walked them through the scene. “[She explained] that so much has changed for them over the course of the first season, and I think ultimately what breaks from this one is there’s something that feels even more permanent about this,” Brosnahan says. “No one cheated [this time] and no one walked out the door. They’re just at a crossroads, and in that moment they are both choosing to walk different ways. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this. It shows how much they have grown and evolved over the course of the first season.”
Once Brosnahan and Zegen hammered out the specifics of the scene, Brosnahan says she was really able to sink her teeth into the moment—especially when Joel says, “I love you too, honey, and you’re going to be OK.” Midge hangs up the phone and collapses in tears before walking away. “That moment was the one that felt the most clear to me of that whole scene,” Brosnahan says. “Amy just let me walk with it; in that moment, she and Joel have said everything they want to say and are both choosing to walk away. It breaks my heart because [the scene shows] you can love someone that much and know you’ll never be together.”
Brosnahan also hints that even if Midge and Joel do get back together, it may never stick. “Early on, before we even shot the pilot, I was asking Amy where Midge is [theoretically] headed,” Brosnahan says. “She told me—and this still breaks my heart—that Midge will go on to be wildly successful, live in a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue with 12 poodles, and will have everything she could have imagined this new dream to become. But, she’ll still remember the day before Joel left her as the happiest day of her life. So I think the moment [with the two of them on the phone] is the beginning of her journey toward that path. I do believe they’re soulmates, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be together.”
The second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is now streaming on Amazon Prime.