Article first published as Television Review: Mildred Pierce (2011) on Blogcritics.
The 5-part mini-series Mildred Pierce started Sunday on HBO, with the first two episodes airing back-to-back. The first episode and its star Kate Winslet start off quietly, but the tension and drama builds steadily. Winslet is strong and surprising as Mildred, a woman who has a core of iron that surprises everyone around her, sometimes including herself. She also has a blind spot — devotion to her older daughter Veda. She is in an unfulfilling marriage and it is clear that she is pouring all her unresolved hopes and dreams into her older daughter, as younger daughter ray is too young and possibly too much like her father to gain her focus.
Mildred's philandering husband Bert, played by Brían F. O'Byrne takes off, and she is left to support herself and their two daughters. Melissa Leo as a friendly neighbor with some not-so-savory advice suggests she might start marketing herself as a kept woman. When Wally (James LeGros), a business associate of her husband's, offers to take her out Lucy tells her to not let him buy her dinner but to cook for him, sleep with him, so he owes her. Mildred does just that — hard realty and Mildred's response to it was glossed over in the film noir Joan Crawford version. In fact this telling of the story, apart from the basic plot structure is so different in every way that if I had ever intended to compare the two versions that pretty much disappeared by the end of the first scene.
Director and co-writer Todd Haynes is always good at period (Far from Heaven). The colors in Mildred Pierce — muted pinks and greens and browns and yellows — can't hide all of the passion and frustration below the surface. Winslet is wonderful as the grass widow (a woman with an absent husband) who at first can't imagine becoming a waitress to support her daughters because she knows that they (read Veda) will be ashamed of her.
But as a woman in an employment office who is trying to help her get a job tells her, "Get over it." It's 1931, the height of the Depression. There are no jobs anywhere, but she can't bring herself to take the offered job as housekeeper to a rich woman who in their brief interview familiarly calls her Mildred when she insists on being addressed ad "Mrs. Pierce." Mildred has a crisis of conscious after refusing the job. When an opportunity presents itself while she is eating at a diner she offers herself up as a waitress and is hired on the spot. Waitress Ida (Mare Winningham) quickly sizes her up as unsuitable, but helps her get started. She is a tough broad, but she trains her well and you know they will become best buds soon enough.
In Part 2 errant husband Bert shows up again, delighting the kids and ticking-off Mildred, who takes the key to the car away from him. When he protests she tells him, "I got a job. Somebody had to." It's probably her first real feeling of power since he left.
We see her back at the diner, or "hash house" as Mildred calls it. She is already an old hand at the job. male customers try to pick her up and complain about the lousy pie, opening up an avenue for Mildred. She could bake pies for the diner. Of course her pies are a hit and with Ida's help she starts getting not only paid for her pies, but expands her modest "I sold 5 pies last week" to her neighbors to a production line of 35 pies a week for first her restaurant and then another.
But even with her working so hard and making money for piano and swim lessons for Veda her first-born shows herself to be a first-class bitch. Every kid snoops in their mother's stuff out of curiosity, but Veda has been spying on her mother with malicious intent for the purpose of humiliation. She discovers Mildred's uniform and has the housekeeper Mildred has hired to help out wear it and follow her around like a servant. As awful as her behavior is, Veda's snobbery may be the catalyst for Mildred to be brave enough to take the next step. She tells Veda she only took the job as a waitress so she can learn the restaurant business from the ground up. It may come to pass, but it felt like Mildred was improvising on the spot.
She tells Veda, "No matter what I say, no matter what anyone says, never give that up, your way of looking at things." Veda's response is "I can't Mother, It's how I am." Those two statements are the key to both of their characters and the whole story. Mildred does start to study her surroundings — the financial dealings of the owner, the waste of food. She continues to sleep with Wally, getting ready to call in her favor — an investment proposal for a restaurant. Wally does her one better and helps her find a property and get her a divorce.
On her last day as a waitress in walks dashing Monty Beragon to the diner and her life. Guy Pearce plays him with a sort of lazy Errol Flynn-like glamour. They make an instant connection and spend a sex-fueled weekend together, but Mildred's afterglow is cut short after arriving home when she is informed that Ray is in the hospital with a high fever.
[SPOILER ALERT — skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the episode yet.] Anyone familiar with the Joan Crawford film knows what's coming, but that doesn't make the death of younger daughter Ray any less affecting, or Mildred's co-dependent need to share her grief after coming home from the hospital after watching her youngest daughter die any less disturbing when she crawls into bed with sleeping daughter Veda. Mildred's problems and successes are just beginning and it is going to continue to be fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch.