In Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) gets an incredible new love interest, Dr. Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi). I am unabashedly obsessed with this character. When his tall frame sauntered into Midge’s life, I couldn’t help but be a teensy bit jealous. He’s weird, he’s kind, he’s funny, he’s loves fine art, and he’s a successful surgeon — in other words, he’s everything my grandmother wants for me.
Spoilers ahead for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 2.
There’s only one thing wrong about Benjamin: he’s the rebound guy. Ah, yes. That doomed, archetypal feature of romantic comedies. Usually, the rebound guys are perfect in almost every way, or they bring out the best in our heroine, but the two characters won’t end up together because there is just no “chemistry.” After a brief dalliance with the rebound guy, our heroine will inevitably go on to reunite with her mediocre first love, which makes me want to vomit. For the record, I always root for the rebound guy. I was #TeamJacob, #TeamRafael, #TeamDamon, and #TeamJon (no, I don’t really care that Dany is his aunt and yes, I plan to do some deep reflection as to why it doesn’t bother me).
Because I both love the rebound guy and am well aware of his inevitable fate, I hate that Amy Sherman-Palladino made Benjamin the rebound guy. He’s perfect and, if Midge doesn’t want him, I’ll take him.
But if rebound guys almost never win, why do they keep putting them in movies and television? Why do we get attached to these characters, only to rejoice when our female character reunites with her lackluster first love?
These rebound guys exist to make us feel good about ourselves. In them, women find a sort of victory and validation. It confirms what we already know about ourselves: we’re fucking amazing and the schmuck who broke our hearts will be sick with regret.
Joel was so shitty to Midge throughout the series. He left her for another woman, the generic, “Protestant version” of his amazing and hilarious wife. His financial mistakes caused Midge to lose her home. Even when Midge decided to forgive him, Joel was too much of a man-baby to accept this forgiveness and be supportive of her career.
Unlike Joel, who is so threatened by Midge’s blossoming stand-up career that he refuses to get back together with her, Benjamin is actually into Stand-Up Comedy Midge. And not in a patronizing or creepily festishizing way. Benjamin admires Midge, and throughout the season he is nothing but respectful of her career ambitions. Isn’t he perfect?
Midge seems to think so. She has learned from her toxic marriage to Joel, and she lets her new beau see intimate parts of her life — like her comedian friends and her makeupless face. And when he proposes to her, Midge is genuinely happy and excited for a future with him.
This brings me to my second theory as to why we love rebound guys. If they ended up with the main characters, our heroine’s story would end.
If you’re an avid consumer of romantic movies, like I am, then you know that a successful marriage is as essential to this film genre as eating pastrami at the deli is to Midge and Susie’s friendship. Marriage —or at the very least, the attainment of a stable romantic relationship — is the culminating event that wraps up almost all romantic comedies. When we watch romantic comedies, we long to reach this ending, but we are also hyper-aware of the fact that it is, indeed, an ending.
The rebound guy often signals the possibility of the character finally getting the good things she deserves. But because we love and are inspired by our female character, we also want her adventures to continue. We don’t want her progress — whether it’s internal growth or career achievement — to stop just because she’s settled down.
And despite that white feminist, Lean In crock of shit that Sheryl Sandberg tried to sell us on, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a prime example of how women still don’t believe we can have it all. Midge seems to have internalized this ultimatum as well. At the end of the season, the show makes it seem that she believes she must choose between her career as a stand-up comedian or the opportunity to have a traditional family with Benjamin.
But Benjamin is supportive of Midge’s career. Zachary Levi even says of his character “…he’s kind of ahead of his time, in that that he is bored with the gender roles of the ’50s and wants to be challenged. He’s not married because he doesn’t like the idea of having some doting wife that has nothing to offer the conversation or challenge him in any way.”
Regardless of the fact that Benjamin is clearly different than the other, more controlling men of his era, the sheer terror on Midge’s face when her father finally agrees to let Benjamin marry her shows that she doesn’t fully believe she can have both of her dreams. It also shows us that she’s not quite ready to let go of her past with Joel.
When Midge realizes that her comedy career will likely leave her “all alone” and that she won’t end up with Benjamin, she goes to Joel’s place and makes out with him. Judging by the abrupt ending of the scene, this makeout session presumably leads to some makeup sex.
Rebound guys like Benjamin provide us with validation after our big love story goes awry, it’s true. But those first, big love stories seem to never truly end. Which is why our heroine leaves her perfect rebound guy to return to the arms of someone that she desperately wants things to work out with.
Why do we rarely let our female characters move on? Why do we set them up for happiness, only to have them return right back to the toxic situation that almost broke them the first time?
It’s really hard to leave the past behind, especially when we don’t think that we’ll find something like it again. It’s also hard for us to abandon the antiquated idea that women are only entitled to one great love story. That the first men we have sex with or marry somehow have a claim on our hearts and bodies. It’s bullshit, but it’s predictable, and I fully see it playing out in Midge’s return to Joel. Even Midge says, “For tonight, just for tonight, I need to be with someone who really loves me,” implying that Joel is the only man who will ever truly love her.
The story of Mrs. Maisel is one of transformation, of someone learning to make a new life amongst intensely uncomfortable circumstances. And I want Midge to keep growing — whether that means marrying Benjamin, or having a love affair with Lenny Bruce (seriously, though, isn’t their chemistry hot?), or romancing Shy Baldwin while she’s on tour with him. But because I’ve grown to love this character, I don’t want her to feel like she’s allowed only one great love story.
We women may not be able to have it all, but we damn well deserve it all.