Out for a ride along the California coast, Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) and her pretty beau Monty (Guy Pearce) stop for gas. Framed by rusty pumps and a dilapidated station office looming behind them, the couple looks forward to the tryst to come, only briefly distracted by the sound of presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt on their car radio. Mildred warns her man not to “snicker” at her. “I’m voting for him,” she explains, as if to a child. “Because someone’s got to put an end to all this Hoover extravagance and balance this budget. And all of those people demanding help: you can’t tell me people couldn’t get along, even if there is a depression, if only they had a little gump.”
Mildred has more than a little gump.
In HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce, beginning on 27 March, she embodies the sort of ambition and resilience that might seem ideal during a depression—or even a great recession. That is, she’s a function of her time (the one first imagined for her by James M. Cain) as well as ours. She believes she will win out over hardships, that success and class status are signs of your moral strength or weakness. If she never quite learns a crucial lesson—that the order of the universe is cruelly random—she does learn other lessons, in particular what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.
Mildred’s education begins early in Todd Haynes’ mini-series. The camera peers in on her from outside her kitchen in Glendale, California as she’s baking a cake. Panning and zooming slowly, obstructed by glass and wooden frames, the view feels at once insistent and illicit. This is Mildred in her element, domestic and private. When her husband Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne) comes home, he’s unwelcome: not only is his real estate development company, Pierce Homes, failing (like most other businesses in 1931), but he’s also cheating on his wife. They argue, he leaves, they’re both relieved. “I just can’t take things lying down,” she tells her best friend Lucy (Melissa Leo). “I’ve got my own ideas and I can’t change the way I am.”
In addition to her “own ideas,” Mildred has a couple of daughters, of course. She tells herself that she’s devoted to them and determined to provide them with the opportunities she hasn’t had. But Mildred Pierce reveals as well that she’s also distracted by them, especially the dreadful Veda (Morgan Turner as a child, Evan Rachel Wood when she’s older). In this relationship, especially, Haynes’ version departs from the famous film by Michael Curtiz: where Joan Crawford’s Mildred seemed largely mystified by the sleek bad seed played by Anne Blyth, here Mildred is implicated in her monster’s creation. If she and everyone else in the family are soothed by the age-appropriate and mostly adorable antics of Veda’s younger sister Ray (Quinn McColgan), it’s plain enough from Veda’s first appearance that she and her mother are of a piece. At first angry that her father has left, Veda is soon commiserating with her mother, agreeing with her unspoken judgment, that his lover, the unseen Mrs. Beiderhof, is “distinctly middle class.”
In this worst thing they can think to say about her, Veda and Mildred demonstrate their similar self-images and mutual aspirations. They are distinctly not middle class, despite their current address in Glendale and Mildred’s subsequent employment as a waitress. She only takes the job, she tells herself, because she can’t find a more desirable position (“It just so happens at the moment,” the employment agency rep advises, “Receptionists are out”) and especially, because she can’t bring herself to be a maid. Sent on an interview with one Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis), Mildred is horrified by the power dynamic the job assumes. Instructed when to sit and when to speak to her prospective employer, Mildred balks. “I don’t think I’m quite the person you want,” she asserts, fighting back tears as she rushes from Mrs. Forrester’s sitting room.
The scene transitions to the restaurant where she will not only work, but also learn a business—the business that will make her wealthy—by way of her ride on a city bus. This Mildred Pierce offers repeated views of Mildred en route, on this bus, in Monty’s car, in her own car with or without a driver. Again and again, Mildred is headed somewhere, sometimes happily, sometimes miserably, but always resolute. Moved at least in part by the idea tat she deserves better than she’s got, she fixates on Veda to fulfill her expectations. “I do believe there’s something inside her,” Mildred declares when a piano teacher decides Veda lacks talent. “I don’t care what anybody says.”
As Mildred is increasingly unable to get past her “own ideas,” she’s alternately sucked in and rebuffed by Veda. As a child, Veda is distinctly creepy, Turner’s affect not so much stiff or distant as predatory: when she discovers her mother’s waitress uniform in the closet she’s not supposed to be “snooping” in, Veda makes clear she disapproves of Mildred’s secret means of supporting her and Ray, one rather below “middle class.” Veda’s reaction is perfectly ruthless: she instructs the family maid (here white instead of black, as in the 1945 film) to don the uniform, at once shaming and enraging Mildred, and leading to one of many showdowns between mother and daughter. “Aren’t the pies bad enough?” wails the girl, “Did you have to go degrade us by becoming a waitress?” Suddenly, seeking a way to appease her daughter, Mildred has a plan. Oh no, she’s not a waitress, she’s only learning how to run a restaurant, “a fine restaurant” that will make Veda proud. She presses on, thanking Veda for reminding her of who she is: “No matter what I say, no matter what anybody says,” she says. “Never give it up, that way you have of looking at things.”
Indeed, Veda won’t give it up. Instead, she refines and reinforces it, finding any number of ways to believe herself superior and to despise her mother. Even as her mother dotes on her—kissing her too tenderly, dressing her too finely, and urging her too often to want more—the series suggests their pathology is mutual, even finds a way to sympathize with Veda, not exactly struggling with her damage. “Everything that happens is on account of you,” whimpers Mildred, “If mother only had sense enough to know it.”
Mother Mildred’s willful blindness has her living through Veda and blaming her too. While she appoints herself according to her changing station—her outfits showing off her figure as she makes companions and business colleagues of men who can service her—Mildred models a sinister sense of purpose for her daughter. But she can’t see the effects she’s having, only imagines that her sacrifice is meaningful in itself, and that Veda will love her for it. Just so, Mildred is unable to comprehend the warning offered by the decidedly odd music conductor Carlo Treviso (Ronald Guttman), who has discovered Veda’s rare—and lucrative—coloratura soprano. “You go to the zoo, you see the snake from India,” he instructs, “It is the same with this Veda: you buy ticket, you look at the little snake, you do not take home.” Even if Mildred insists on trying to possess her daughter, he resists—oh so odiously. “Me, I want nothing to do with snakebite!” And with that, he gets into his own car and drives off.
Left behind, Mildred frowns and frets. What is she missing here? And why can’t she see that Monty isn’t nearly the man she wants him to be, a man with ambition and drive? “Don’t you ever want to actually do something?” she wonders. Actually, no. Mildred is framed by opposite types: on the one hand, her hard-working friend Lucy and the waitress Ida (Mare Winningham), on the other, Veda and Monty.
As she arrives at Monty’s polo club to pick up Veda, the camera keeps close on her face while the soundtrack offers up Roosevelt’s credos, from his 1933 inaugural address (“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly”) to his first fireside chat (“Let me make it clear that the banks will take care of all needs”). Her movement—from a green lawn populated with ladies in fine hats to the kitchen at Mildred’s, where her employees listen to the president with rapt attention—signals not Mildred’s awareness but the nuances and moral complexities she can’t see. Annoyed that she’s not sipping cocktails and instead making pies, Mildred resents her lot as much as Veda.
When Veda betrays her mother by sleeping with Monty, punishing her in a most elaborate way, she seems, for a moment exposed, quite literally. As Mildred watches in horror, she leaves Monty’s bed and waling, fully naked and slowly, to face a dressing table (Monty being at least as vain as either of his lovers). Her back turned to Mildred, Veda continues her show, posing with her toe pointed, her leg lean and brutally lovely. Mildred’s reaction—as grotesque and implacable as anything Veda has concocted—is at once startling and banal.