After "Part Three" aired last Sunday, I lauded the extremes in which Todd Haynes was working: the mundane world of restaurant brigade organization on the one hand, and the melodrama of violent love on the other. Now as the series reaches its climax, the quotidian half of that equation all but disappears. With the exception of some business with duplicate books (the visual of Mildred slipping her private ledger into a desk drawer and turning the key comes to mind), "Parts Four and Five" seem to be pitched at a constant scream, at least in terms of plot. Blackmail, pregnancy scares, dramatic Italian conductors, arias, mansions, money, bankruptcy, infidelity, attempted filicide, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and full frontal nudity: Everything is over the top now.
So how are we to understand this astounding escalation? The conflicts that defined the first half of the series—pride vs. prejudice, credit vs. blame, principle vs. pragmatism—coalesce into one endlessly spiralling battle of Mildred vs. herself. This is a tragic story of unrequited love, not of boy for girl or vice versa, but of mother for daughter. Because of that maternal bond, we cannot ask Mildred to let go of Veda, no matter how venal the little diva over and over proves herself to be. (And that naked strut from Monty’s bed to the dressing table is the height of cruelty. Hannibal Lecter would blanch.) Yet Mildred’s rush back into Veda’s arms is her downfall. Monty is right, even though Mildred didn’t know it herself: From the moment she decides to move away from Glendale, everything she does is in hopes of luring Veda back into her life, a headlong sprint into blissful self-destruction.
If your criteria for this series include tastefulness or realism, you’re going to conclude that Mildred Pierce finally loses its way this week. Kate Winslet, in particular, edges toward self-parody with her constantly pained furrowed brow and exaggerated eyebrow-raising expressions of relief. Those eyebrows actually seem to get heavier and darker as the series goes along, which I suspect to be intentional; not only is Mildred trapped in a operatic final act that can only end in death, but Kate is turning into Joan Crawford, her predecessor in this role, with her large features and weird, seemingly involuntary intensity.
But the thing about melodrama is that it’s supposed to be simple, virtue and vice easy to recognize, clean lines so we can act as our own Greek chorus annotating the action. Veda may be evil, but what else is simple here? This is noir melodrama, where everybody is their own worst enemy. Mildred ignores the good business sense that built her chicken and pie empire to buy her daughter’s love. Wally senses weakness and switches sides, representing Mildred’s creditors against her; Ida agrees to a battlefield promotion, running the Mildred’s brand in receivership, both of them burning the bridges of friendship that Mildred had assumed bound them together. Even Bert gets back together with Mildred when she’s still jumping every time the doorbell rings, hoping Veda will waltz back into her life. Talk about delusion.
And then there’s Monty. In my opinion, Guy Pearce’s is the towering performance of Mildred Pierce, and not just because of that bare ass in "Part Three." He resists all stereotypes associated with his character’s outline. Monty loves Mildred in his way, there’s no doubt; when he gives her what her heart most desires—Veda—he takes undiluted pleasure in her happiness. He does his best to convince Mildred where her true value lies: in the hard work that built her business, in the details that are hers alone, the ones that she rejected when she cleansed her Glendale living room of Bert’s Pierce Homes mementos. He even tells her not to buy his bargain white elephant of a house, advice she ignores. He can’t resist her need (that little angry movement where he abruptly rejects Mildred’s caressing of his hand, just moments before kissing her, speaks volumes about his inner conflict), but he knows his destiny is to be both used and despised. And he resents it. Is there a sadder moment in tonight’s pair of episodes than Monty asserting that he’s fallen in love with Veda? He has, and so he’s a bigger dupe than Mildred. At least as Veda’s mother she has no choice in the matter.
The final lines of the miniseries are going to echo in my head for weeks. Mildred has done a couple of things right, finally; she’s back with Bert, who has learned to his rueful shame that Maggie Biederhof’s husband is still alive and now has the attraction of oil money, and she’s moved back to the Glendale house that was the one thing nobody could take away from her, thanks to Bert’s generosity during the divorce. But Veda still pulls the strings, provoking Mildred to make a spectacle of herself chasing a cab down the street yelling “I don’t need you either!” Gradually Mildred has become completely unhinged on the subject of her daughter, and here, she proves that the return of good sense in one part of her life hasn’t cured her of that fatal insanity. Bert finds her hiding inside the dining room of the original Mildred’s Chicken and Waffle Dinners and insists that she doesn’t need Veda anymore, now that she has him. “To hell with her,” he says, and finally she assents: “To hell with her.” But it’s less a liberation than a suicide; all that the two of them have left to do is “get stinko.”
You’ve got to admire Mildred’s guts, even as you can’t forgive her fatal flaw. In the end, how you feel about her aggravating weaknesses shouldn’t dictate your appraisal of her story. She is unable to make herself into her own life’s protagonist, unlike Veda who demands—and gets—all eyes on her. (“It’s time you got it through your head that I and not you are the main player in this situation, as you call it,” she states baldly during her pregnancy deception.) And as Mildred loses control, it’s the way she sends other people spinning in anger, pity, and frustration into their own orbits that ultimately determines the richness of Mildred Pierce as a dramatic achievement.
- Haynes provides several mesmerizing scenes of extended observation in these two episodes: Think the slow push-in to the radio, sitting at Mildred and Bert’s table like a mechanical dinner guest and the lengthy, breathless gaze at Veda singing alone on that huge Philharmonic stage. For another tiny moment of perfectly observed detail, check out Monty lending Mildred the opera glasses, which she manages to train on Veda’s face just in time for the song to end and the spell to be broken.
- Mildred gets some serious style between the end of "Part Three" and the beginning of "Part Four." Out with the blousy flowered dresses; in with the tailored cream suits and softly waved hair. Meanwhile, Veda’s style is suspect, as signalled by the veil she wears to her piano teacher’s funeral (remember Lucy advising Mildred against a veil for Ray’s service?) and by that hideous multi-part outfit she commissions for her Philharmonic debut, complete with parasol (“I can’t come out looking like both Gish sisters,” she laughs, but damned if she doesn’t).
- Like all teenagers, Veda monopolizes the phone, which suggests that Mildred’s being pushed to the wings of her own story isn’t so much a matter of Veda’s villainy but simply the sad reality of parenthood.
- A nice conjunction: Mildred pointedly calls Hope Davis’s character “Mrs. Forrester” (harkening back to the last time they met at Mildred’s lowest economic ebb) before correcting herself, to point up the newly christened Mrs. Linhart’s brazen social climbing, and later, Mildred’s own assistant slips up and calls her “Mrs. Pierce” after she’s become Mrs. Baragon.
- Mo Levinson, shyster agent, briefly appears to be the only person who knows how to control Veda when he nixes her plan to go to New York with Consolidated Foods by dangling the Philharmonic over her head. But the moment Monty claps the Consolidated Foods guy on the back and commiserates over his loss, we can see the outline of her scheme to use Monty to get out from that unfamiliar situation of powerlessness and humiliation.
- Similarly, the moment Monty wanders away from the fireplace to sleep in the tack room, ostensibly because he has to work early the next day (!), it’s clear the marriage is doomed.
- Lucy on the flower arrangements at the Laguna Beach Mildred’s location: “For some reason I don’t understand, a guy with an old fashioned on his table likes to listen to the bumblebees.”
- “Sponsored by Snak-O-Ham, the snack of ham that smacks of goodness!”
- Most squirm-inducing line of the night: Monty interrupting Veda’s tale of being groped by Treviso to assess her vocal abilities with “He went for the dairy?!”
- “Is snake. Is bitch. Is coloratura.”