For a long time, I considered Nellie Oleson the worst person in the world.
I was raised on a regular “Little House on the Prairie” diet. During summer break when I was in college, I would watch an hour of the show at 10 a.m. when I got out of bed and then I would switch to another broadcast network where another whole hour of the historical drama was broadcast at 11 a.m.
The rich, bratty girl from “Little House,” Nellie Oleson was the perfect foil for the titular character. She had perfect blond curls, the finest clothes and often a smirking expression, her mouth down and her nose upturned. The actor who played Nellie, Alison Arngrim– although obviously a beautiful person in real life, one of the first celebrities to support AIDS charities and an advocate for abused children – found it difficult to escape her villainous role. Once someone threw a glass at his head when she was in a Christmas parade. Arngrim’s book about his time playing Nellie is titled “Confessions of a Prairie female dog: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.”
In recent years, a new character has emerged to dethrone Nellie, a contender for the title of the worst person on television, certainly the most mediocre: Joel Maisel.
Related: Susie’s Battle in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’
Amazon’s main show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” follows its main character, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a former housewife in New York City in the late 1950s, who struggles to establish a career as a stand-up comedy and to wrest control of his life. One of the reasons for her fight is her on-and-off husband, Joel (Michael Zegen).
In the very first episode of the series, Joel leaves Midge, seemingly out of nowhere, after bombing the stage at a village nightclub called Gaslight, attempting a comedy set, which Midge thought he was doing just for fun. Turns out Joel really does believe he can be a famous professional comedian (spoiler alert: he can’t). After the couple’s argument, he puts his clothes away in his suitcase and admits having an affair for months with his secretary.
A common trait of the mediocre guy? He always has someone on deck.
Entering its fourth season, the series finds the characters in completely different places in their lives. Midge had some success in her own fledgling acting career, which then crumbled after making a terrible mistake on stage. Joel has his own life, sort of. But while the two characters struggle, Joel is demonstrative less difficult. He passes by. He always has.
In 2021, The New York Times published an article titled ” ‘Mediocre’ men advance more easily in finance, according to women in the sector.” (They put mediocre in quotes, perhaps to scare anyone.) In the article, the women interviewed report that men “could survive more easily than women of comparable ability” in the world of finance. Men belong to clubs, after all. Men are “always around“while women lose years of work providing care.
With his ability to fall, Joel is the mediocre man par excellence. But his lack of attention and laid-back ease in life hide darker qualities, his ineffectiveness masking a toxic behavior that borders on abuse, especially towards the women in his life, whom he believes to be beneath him.
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Joel is not good at his job. Yes, professions in the plural. Beneficiary of nepotism, Joël begins the show employed by his uncle’s plastics company, perhaps after following the advice given to Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”. During a big and important meeting, Joel leaves this job in an emotional crisis. He then worked for his parents’ clothing company. His own father tries to send him away, hoping he will move on.
Joel is undecided and never satisfied. At first, Joel cheats on his wife with his secretary. Then he betrays his secretary with his wife. He dates a series of women, including models from his family’s garment factory. He has a one-night stand with Midge more than once. Midge discovers that he only lives with the secretary girlfriend when she drops the kids off, and sees that the layout of her apartment is almost identical to the one she and Joel shared (but with the cute new sofa, he has refused to buy it). A stereotypical estranged father, Joel slipped into the same life he had with his family, only with a younger woman.
Shortly after getting divorced, he drunkenly remarries Midge as he sees someone else at the time: Mei (Stephanie Hsu), who helps Joel navigate Chinatown. “This is my neighborhood now,” he says like a pioneer of gentrification. Joel and Midge are (re)divorcing (I think? very unclear). Meanwhile, Joel and Mei argue, break up, and then get back together.
In a move by Trump, Joel’s father gave him $60,000, and Joel opened a nightclub in Chinatown. This proximity of access – if I can’t be an actor, I will control who can be on stage – reminds me of the worst gatekeepers, those who seek power in part to restrict who else can have it. As Refinery29 puts it: “This is how he will deal with not being “Midge funny.” “
One wonders when Joel’s comedic dream began. Perhaps he first dreamed of being a famous poet. It may not be the particular art form, but delusions of grandeur, constantly believing that it is better than it is. “I thought my life was going to be something different,” he says as he leaves his wife. He says his dream is to be a comedian, but it’s a dream he doesn’t work on, instead stealing his act from Bob Newhart. Midge is the one who takes extensive notes on every show she attends, writes and revises jokes, perfects the craft: gets the job done.
When Midge takes the stage herself – and she’s really, really good at comedy, a natural – it’s the ultimate betrayal for a man like Joel. He views it as a personal affront to him, an extension of how he views the whole world as out to get him.
Constantly blaming others and viewing yourself as a victim (even though Joel is the one who left Midge and introduced her to acting in the first place) is a trait of a narcissist. The same goes for control.
Joel is furious when he first discovers that Midge is not wearing her wedding ring, even though he finds out about this fact at a restaurant where he is having dinner with his girlfriend at another table. He wants it both ways: the freedom to sleep with whoever he wants, and his ex-wife still attached to him, still dependent on him.
Financially, controlling Joel is a clear example of financial abuse. He doesn’t want Midge to work and try to buy an apartment for her and the kids – not out of the goodness of her heart, but because he wants her confined. Midge behaves without a clue about money – partly, no doubt, because of the restrictive gender roles of the time, but also partly because of Joel.
Such ignorance leads Midge to make terrible financial decisions at the start of the show’s fourth season: buying out an apartment she can’t afford, trying to buy groceries on credit that she can’t afford. a pas, and even stealing milk from the neighbours.
If Joel controls the purse strings, he controls his ex-wife.
Joel also seeks to control Midge’s manager, Susie (the wonderful Alex Borstein) by lending her money and also keeping her in debt to him. Susie, as someone who has lived her whole life in poverty, has her own money issues. “Don’t ever – I mean, ever – do anything fishy with my wife’s money again,” Joel intimidates him.
“Ex-wife,” Susie reminds him.
Joel feels threatened by Susie, the person Midge is probably closest to, who believes in her and actually works to make Midge’s dreams come true. Joel is also threatened by what Susie represents as a woman who wears pants, a woman who lives her life outside of the approval of men and who embodies the kind of struggling artist life he can only fantasize about.
He frequently explodes against her in a weird sort of panic. “What’s going on?” he says immediately when he sees Susie in her pajamas at Midge’s apartment in Season 4 Episode 3, after Susie has some particularly difficult personal news.
Unlike Nellie Oleson, who has a cult, gay icon status now – whose misbehavior still had a lovable delight at its heart, over-the-top campiness, Joel’s character is a sneaky villain. There’s nothing amusing or funny about his behavior, nor is he childish and immature like the show’s co-creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel’s other deadbeat dad character. Palladino, Christopher of “Gilmore Girls.”
On the contrary, it’s deliberate and insidious, how Joel’s charm hides, how he seeks to harm.
Joel is the latest character in a long line of mediocre and threatened men drawn to the power of capable and talented women, until he realizes that they are smarter than him, or more accomplished, or have more potential. His power comes from crushing the dreams of a woman like Midge’s — a woman like Mei’s — not supporting them, and I hope, though I doubt it, that this season shows both women leaving him definitely behind the scenes.
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