The five-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 with 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. Lucy, (Melissa Leo) 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 and sleep with him, so that he owes her. Mildred does just that. Hard reality and Mildred’s response to it were glossed over in the 1945 film noir Joan Crawford version. 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 idea would have 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 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 trying to help her get a job tells her, “Get over it.” It’s 1931, the Great Depression. There are no jobs anywhere, but she refuses to take a job as housekeeper to a rich woman, who in their brief interview familiarly calls her Mildred when she insists on being addressed as “Mrs. Pierce.”
Mildred has a crisis of conscience after refusing the job. While she is eating at a diner trying to pull herself together an opportunity presents itself. Offering herself as a waitress, Mildred is hired on the spot. Although waitress Ida (Mare Winningham) quickly sizes her up as unsuitable, she helps Mildred get started anyway. Ida is a tough broad, but she trains Mildred 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 another avenue of possibilities. 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 five pies last week to the neighbors” to a production-line of 35 pies a week first for the diner, and then another restaurant.
Even as Mildred works hard to make 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, with the purpose of humiliation. She discovers Mildred’s uniform and has the housekeeper Mildred has hired to help out while she is at work 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 her next career step. She tells Veda she only took the job as a waitress so she can learn the restaurant business from the ground up. We know that it will come to pass, but it felt like Mildred was improvising on the spot to impress her harshest critic.
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 at her job — 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 — also Mildred’s co-dependent need to share her grief after coming home from the hospital after watching her youngest daughter die is more than a tad disturbing — she crawls into bed with sleeping daughter Veda, sobbing. Mildred’s problems and successes are just beginning and it is going to continue to be fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch.