In its central hour, Mildred Pierce goes all-in at both extremes of its aesthetic. On the one hand, we are immersed in the details of running a Southern California chicken and waffle restaurant in the middle of the Great Depression. On the other, we watch melodramatic argument after melodramatic argument, punctuated with tears and rough sex. In one of the most striking lines of the night, after Mildred and Monty have a screaming match in what’s left of Monty’s mansion during a torrential downpour, he mutters, “Hell, what this needs is the crime of rape,” before assaulting Mildred in a now-familiar fashion.
If all that mundanity and floridity leave you cold—or confused—I don’t blame you. On both ends of the tone continuum, director Todd Haynes has raised the stakes to astronomical levels. But if you’re grooving with what Haynes is laying down, the twin escalations are nothing short of brilliant. We begin right where "Part Two" left off, with Mildred awakening the morning after Ray’s death and gripping Veda tighter upon realizing her plight. And everything that comes after is the result of her crushing doubts about how to respond to her world, a world without the framework of innocent child and breadwinning husband to anchor it.
So as she sets up Mildred’s Chicken and Waffles to avoid the mistakes other restaurants make, to run logically and consistently, she attempts to apply the talents she has to the world she never made. Efficiency, problem-solving, empathy. Thinking about what others want and what will make them happy. She doesn’t get everything straight on opening night, and for one terrifying moment, it looks as if the restaurant dream will slip out of her reach as irretrievably as her family dreams—until Ida from the hash-house comes bustling into the kitchen, ties on an apron, and whips Mildred’s motley collection of servers into shape. “Eighty-five cents!” Mildred calls after Ida. “Everything’s eighty-five cents!”
Simplicity, you see, is the key to Mildred’s post-Bert approach to life. Not that her plans are simple, but that they attack problems and proposed solutions squarely, paring down the options and eliminating pitfalls. If only the same approach worked with the relationships she’s fallen into or gotten stuck with. Nothing is simple there, not for Mildred, not for us. Just when we’ve gotten ourselves worked up with righteous indignation over that cad Monty putting champagne dreams into Veda’s head, he comes back swinging with some choice observations about how Mildred’s been disgusted with Monty—and by extension, with herself—ever since he started taking her money. Just when we think Veda is an incurable brat bursting into tears at being criticized by her new piano teacher, we find out she is crying with relief that he’s accepted her.
Just when Mildred thinks she has a handle on her victimhood—namely, everyone despises her although she does nothing but support them—they undercut her righteous anger by complicating the relationship. And how you feel about what Mildred does when thus confused may color your response to the whole series. Is she a sap for getting weak in the knees whenever Monty nuzzles her neck? Does she spoil Veda by sinking all her restaurant profits into outfitting her for the polo club? Does she have the right to get huffy when Monty accepts her proffered bills, or compliments her as a piece of tail rather than a whole person, or drags his feet on getting a job? Is she a fool for being ashamed of her house, of Glendale, of herself?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But the story doesn’t end with those answers. They’re just the tracks left by a character who refuses to be either hero or anti-hero, a woman in whom the contradictions of womanhood, motherhood, class envy, pride, prejudice, praise, blame, principle, and pragmatism are at war. Worst of all, that Gordian knot of conflict occurs just when she’s trying to make it simple so she can make it work. And where we end up tonight—Mildred rescued from a flooded road, escorted home in a blanket by police, barking at Veda “Tomorrow you’ll get your piano”—is right in the midst of that hopeless tangle. We can’t resolve it by pulling on either the doggedly instructional or the hysterically melodramatic ends, but we might get hypnotized trying to follow their intertwining.
- Another tangle: Bert, whose philandering marked him as a first-class heel in "Part One," but who redeems himself with generosity and regret in "Part Two." In "Part Three" he grieves touchingly with Mildred (“She’s gotta be in heaven”), supports the restaurant, and even—with Wally—gets so charmed by Monty that he doesn’t seem to resent the courtship.
- While Mildred is waiting for customers on opening night, looking out the kitchen window at the parking area, behind her we can see the air crinkle and flutter from the heat rising off the oil-filled frying pan. That’s some beautiful attention to detail right there.
- How sweet is it, too, on that gratifying open night, when Mildred stops by the table of her first customers to say “Don’t forget, there are homemade pies to take home,” and as she moves off, we can hear the father exclaiming, “Oh, I think we should!”
- How do you know if Veda Pierce is in your restaurant? She won’t order off the menu but demands tomato juice with celery.
- A lot of politics in "Part Three," with the radio on and presidential speeches playing in the background of several scenes. For her part, Mildred thinks the government is being extravagant with its relief efforts, and that people would get along just fine if they had a little gump.
- Another aspect of Mildred’s mix of prudishness and liberation: She hesitates to let Lucy open up a bar post-Prohibition because she’s afraid of ruining the family tone of her joint.
- “Never take the mistress if you can get the maid,” Veda quotes Monty as claiming. Yet we certainly can’t accuse Monty of snobbery; he apparently is quite happy to be seen socially with Mildred on his arm, as we learn when he notes that she goes with him to parties but refuses to invite people over to her house.
- Speaking of that house, the ungrateful Veda (after her Christmas let-down) condemns it with a shockingly crude, “Christ, what a dump.”
- “You’re swell,” Mildred coos against Monty’s shoulder. “You bet I am,” he purrs back.