[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2, mainly about Benjamin.]
When Zachary Levi wanders onto screen about midway through “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2, it’s a bit of a shock. After all, this is Chuck from “Chuck.” He’s Shazam from “Shazam!” (aka DC’s funny new superhero movie). He’s at least kind of a big deal, and even though his casting was announced in May, he wasn’t touted in the trailers or built up to in the story. He just sort of… shows up.
And then, just as abruptly, he’s gone. Despite the actor’s pedigree and the prominent amount of screen time Benjamin occupies in Amazon’s second season, he’s ditched as unceremoniously as he arrived. It’s not that Benjamin doesn’t matter; he’s perhaps the most integral aspect of a season that regularly drifts from Midge’s journey to stand-up stardom. Still: He’s not a fully-formed, well-rounded, highly nuanced character. As discussed on this week’s Very Good TV Podcast, Benjamin merely represents temptation and eventually serves as a sacrificial lamb, of sorts.
Levi plays the Catskills’ most eligible bachelor, Benjamin, who’s set up with a reluctant Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) as a means to please her parents. Their first fake date goes poorly, but the two stick in each other minds (and are forced together by circumstance) enough to form an attraction. Their stagnant courtship suddenly becomes a whirlwind, and before you know it, Benjamin is asking Abe (Tony Shaloub) for his daughter’s hand in marriage (even though he’s the one answering all the questions).
But what does the audience know about Benjamin? He’s a Jewish doctor — that much is quite clear — and a pretty good one, it seems. He’s unmarried, telling Midge he’s holding out for someone “weird,” but really he’s looking to be challenged. Benjamin is bored by the status quo, as illustrated by his obsession with obscure art, and he wants a wife who will push him, surprise him, and stand on her own two feet.
That’s Midge, from “M” to “E.” Literally everything viewers come to learn about Benjamin — including his good looks and hefty bank account — are in relation to what kind of partner he’d be for Midge. But even more important than who Benjamin is, is who he’s not: He’s decidedly not Joel (Michael Zegen). Benjamin isn’t threatened by Midge’s interest in stand-up comedy (what keeps Midge and Joel apart) so much as he’s hooked by it. Her passion exemplifies the kind of peculiar fortitude he’s looking for in a partner and motivates him to pop the question quickly.
So there’s no question of who’s a better choice for Midge. The only question is whether or not she should be choosing between men at all. Benjamin, after all, seems a little convenient for the current Mrs. Maisel. Suddenly, as if conjured from a Jewish mother’s dream journal, there’s a tall, dark, and handsome boychik who just happens to be an unmarried doctor and loves strong, progressive women? That’s unbelievable — almost as unbelievable as Midge giving him up to pursue stand-up.
That’s the point. Though it’s not clear at season’s end if Midge is walking away from Benjamin forever, she does turn to (and presumably sleeps with) Joel when looking to spend one night with someone who really loves her. She’s come to terms with the idea that becoming a comedy star could mean spending the rest of her life without a husband, without a family, without the traditional, 1950s barometers for successful womanhood. Leaving her dream man behind — and, arguably, turning to a guy who she knows she can’t be with long-term — shows how far Midge is willing to go for her actual dream.
So where’s that leave Benjamin? Narratively, it’s unclear, but thematically he’s nothing more than a symbol. He’s not meant to be a thoroughly defined character, just like the audience isn’t meant to know more about him than what matters to Midge. He’s defined by her gaze, her needs, and her story, just like so many women have been defined by the man’s narrative in other stories. He’s used up and kicked aside in favor of the lead’s arc, and since he’s been serving her all along, the audience shouldn’t feel all that short changed.
Now, Benjamin could still grow in Season 3. He could stick with Midge during her stand-up tour and get shaded in with wants and desires beyond not rowing a boat and wanting to buy a lot of art. But Midge is still who matters. After all, she’s the marvelous one.
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“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2 is streaming now on Amazon.