You’d Think Everything Just Happens By Itself

Kate Winslet in MILDRED PIERCE | HBO Films
HBO Films

Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes’ 2011 HBO miniseries (adapted from the 1941 novel by James M. Cain) is a lot of things: a wrenching exploration of maternal responsibility, an opulent serving dish for Kate Winslet’s finest performance, a classicist rebuke of the far-less-faithful 1945 Joan Crawford film. More than anything, though, it’s a story about our borderline-pathological faith in a hard day’s work.

Or, I should say, Mildred Pierce’s faith in it.

Haynes has built a sturdy career on observing cultural currents. From his 2002 Douglas Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven to 2015’s dust-colored Carol, he’s developed a reputation for reinvigorating classic Hollywood “women’s pictures” with contemporary social concerns—race in Far From Heaven, queerness in both. Despite their narrative intimacy, they’re political films, as much about the culture as their characters.

Mildred Pierce is political too, with its focus on class and sex, but its social conflicts don’t feel flown in from the future the way Far From Heaven’s do. Something about the scale of the storytelling discourages you from extrapolating too much. Haynes keeps the focus tight—Winslet is in every scene—and only a handful of conversations in the series’ five-plus hour runtime hint at life beyond Southern California. By zeroing in like this, Haynes creates one of the most powerful pieces in his already-estimable repertoire: an intimate story about the fundamental tragedy of climbing uphill.

Spanning the brunt of the Great Depression, the action picks up in 1931 in Glendale, California. After a restrained title sequence that heavily echoes ‘40s studio pictures—Haynes is a fastidious aesthete whose stylistic modes change from project to project, but you can always identify the tradition he’s working in within about 30 seconds—we open on Mildred’s hands. They’re hard at work: kneading dough, pinching crust, and wrenching frosting from a DIY dispenser. Haynes is sure to focus on Winslet’s control, her sweat, the steely concentration in her eyes, so there’s no question as to whether she “tried hard enough”  when the subject turns to her husband’s (Brían O’Byrne) affair with neighbor Maggie Biederhof. It’s here that Mildred Pierce’s tragic möbius strip starts to spin.

Mildred starts an argument with her unfaithful husband that ends with her calling him lazy and kicking him out on the street. She barely bats an eye before throwing together breakfast for her daughters and explaining their new circumstance—all, conspicuously, in an apron. The message seems clear: Mildred prays at the altar of hard work, has no patience for people who don’t, and this tenacity will carry her through any impending turbulence.

Quickly, however, that message gets complicated.  

With her husband gone and the Depression in full swing, the threat of starvation looms. Mildred needs a job, and baking alone won’t cut it. After a few days of hesitation, she winds up waitressing at a hash house a few towns over. All would be well enough if it weren’t for her oldest daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood as an adult, Morgan Turner as a young teenager), a venomous wunderkind who looks down her exquisitely-powdered nose at any job that requires a uniform. After Veda calls their maid a peasant, Mildred asks her if she knows what that word means. Veda replies, “An ill-bred person.” Terrified that she might lose her daughter’s respect if she spends too much time slinging hash, Mildred leverages her skills as a waitress to open her own franchise of chicken restaurants. This both alleviates and complicates her troubles.

A variety of passions and tragedies flare up over the course of the series, but Mildred and Veda’s relationship remains at the center. It’s not so much the story’s beating heart as its combustion engine, propelling the action ever-forward without much regard for the health or safety of anyone in the vicinity. Everything Mildred does, all of her work, is ultimately in pursuit and then defense of her daughter’s affection. Through it all, Veda remains perfectly monstrous, seemingly graced with supernatural elegance that her mother can’t replicate. It’s like the warped inverse of an old cliché: talent beats hard work, no matter how hard hard work works.

By asking every parent’s least-favorite question—what if you do everything right and your kid just…sucks?—Haynes explores the reasons we devote untold resources to knowingly-doomed situations.

One of the story’s smartest tricks is showing us how often hard work leads to short-term success. Again and again, Mildred’s work results in immediate economic and romantic triumph. But again and again, that work—domestic, maternal, commercial—is undercut either by sordid human impulse or simple acts of nature. Veda’s bone-deep classism is the most potent, but it’s fortified by other forces that seem to spring from nothing and thwart Mildred’s best efforts: sexual appetites, unpreventable illness, a competing restaurant’s thirst for profits. The harder these forces push on her, the harder Mildred pushes back in a futile attempt to harness fate.

After Bert leaves, Mildred falls for Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), a conventionally dashing polo player-slash-womanizer with a soul-stirring hair flip. Monty seduces Mildred during her final waitressing shift, and the two steal away to Santa Barbara together on a whim. For a moment, their affair looks like it might be a sunny spell-breaker: when they run down the jetty-laden California shore, Haynes frames them through Monty’s window and they shift from curious strangers to a blissed-out Norman Rockwell in bathing suits.

Then Mildred returns home. With hardly a minute to process her impromptu vacation, a neighbor informs Mildred that her younger daughter has been rushed to the hospital with a flu. After a brief and devastating runaround, the girl dies, swiftly shattering any sun-soaked afterglow from Mildred’s weekend in Santa Barbara. The agony evoked by losing a child is largely unimaginable (which makes Winslet’s phone call to Maggie Biederhof—“Will you tell [Bert] that Ray died a few minutes ago, at the hospital?”—all the more jaw-dropping). It’s hard to make heads or tails of a tragedy like that, but Mildred ends up learning the altogether wrong lesson: She sees Ray’s death as a reflection of her own laziness. She took a few days off from the business of motherhood to frolic with a playboy in his beach house, and in her absence, her daughter passed away. Rather than accept the episode for what it is—senseless—she tightens her grip.

Before long, economic pressures splinter Mildred and Monty’s relationship. Thanks in part to the New Deal, Monty’s family fruit enterprise falls on hard times, and Mildred winds up supporting him with revenue from her restaurant. Resentment simmers. The eventual dissolution of their relationship is best left undiscussed, as it’s one of the series’ great operatic surprises, but suffice it to say that once again, the incalculable effects of human nature swoop in to topple Mildred’s meticulous house of cards. Monty becomes both a casualty and catalyst in Mildred’s quest for Veda.

And then there’s Veda herself. Speaking like a wine-obsessed Francophile from the moment we meet her, she feels dropped into Mildred’s life from a hostile foreign planet. She radiates wealth, donning the sorts of extravagant ensembles that doubtlessly helped secure the show’s “eye-popping” bonafides with critics when it originally aired. When we first see her and Mildred converse, we get the instant sense that Mildred is out of her depths in a way that transcends (and thus underlines) common parental anxiety.

Haynes constantly reinforces the idea that Mildred is her daughter’s subordinate. When Veda is rebuked by a prospective piano instructor, she flies into a rage and locks herself in her room. Though the family has a maid, Mildred carries Veda’s breakfast into the room herself. Later, the two carry out a conversation in the living room; Veda sprawls with a magazine on their red velvet couch while Mildred tidies up. They’re separated by a glass door that fragments Mildred, making it impossible to locate her, while Veda sits just outside of its reach, hardly bothering to look in her mother’s direction. Through it all, Veda constantly eludes her mother’s grasp. No matter how much elbow grease Mildred throws into the mix, domestic and otherwise, we get visual cues separating her from her daughter on an almost-elemental level.

When, years later, Mildred moves into a mansion and prepares Veda for a headlining concert at the LA Philharmonic, Haynes returns to this image. Veda luxuriates on a chaise lounge, tossing off notes about stage design and musical arrangements. Mildred sits next to her, trying and failing to mask her enthusiasm, and breathlessly scribbles down Veda’s every word. This time, there’s no glass door to refract Mildred’s likeness—she’s all there, clear as her daughter. By this point, Mildred’s restaurants have made her a small fortune and Veda has become a successful classical singer. The women have found themselves in the same social stratosphere, but Haynes never lets us lose sight of how much extra work it takes for Mildred to stay there. As ever, Veda has the ideas and Mildred wields the pen.

Mildred does, eventually, learn her lesson, and it doesn’t feel particularly true to the core of that lesson to speculate about whether she learns it “too late.” She’s sold her restaurant and remarried her husband, who proves to be exceptionally decent for all his transgressions. A tree has grown in front of the roadside sign at her first restaurant, and she hardly seems to care. By the end of the series, she’s accepted nature’s primacy over profession.

When Veda returns to visit Mildred after years without speaking to her, the once-doting mother finally stands up for herself. “Don’t you ever come back!” she shrieks to her daughter through a cab window, and Haynes inverts his typical framing. For the first time, we see Mildred in full focus and Veda in shadow. Only when she takes off the uniform, Haynes seems to say, can she really be seen.

If you could only watch 10 minutes of Mildred Pierce, I’d point you to minutes 40-50 of the final installment. Start when Mildred, in a sensible gown, berates Monty for sitting around while she prepares Veda for her upcoming concert. Monty sits still, drink in hand, while Mildred creates a flurry of motion, picking up stray newspapers and straightening books.

“Look at you,” she spits, “You’d think nothing was happening around here in four days time.” She raises her voices on her way out of the room: “You’d think everything just happens by itself!” Monty, in an effortlessly chic black turtleneck, toasts her as she goes. Instantly, we realize which side of the Veda/Mildred divide he lives in.

Then, at minute 48, after we’ve seen the first act of Veda’s Philharmonic concert, she emerges from behind the proscenium and announces that she’ll be performing an encore. She launches into “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” a 1917 Harry Carroll tune made famous by Judy Garland, which Haynes has snaked throughout the earlier action like a warning siren. It’s on the radio. Mildred’s daughters hum it while they play.

The song is built around a straightforward refrain “I’m always chasing rainbows/Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.” Work, in all its forms, is Mildred’s rainbow. She’s an unrepentant capitalist, throwing her faith in the individual’s power to overthrow nature with the proper amount of spirit. At one point, she says of the Depression, “You can’t tell me people couldn’t get along, even if there is a Depression, if they only had a little gump.”

But as she learns, that gump can only stretch so far. The final hour ends with Mildred and Bert alone at the bar in Mildred’s first restaurant. In reference to Veda, Bert says, “To Hell with her. Let’s get stinko.” Their hands are intertwined. Mildred hesitates for a moment, then gives. “Let’s get stinko,” she says, finally giving into the ignoble forces that have stood in her way for years. Mildred may not believe that everything happens by itself, but she’s finally ready to take the apron off once in a while.