Mildred Pierce, Part 3: Fight or fight
If part of the frustration with "Mildred Pierce" is that it's too slow, it may be that we've been strangely conditioned for story arcs to take place in a certain window of time. To regular viewers, a two-hour helping often means a complete meal: appetizer, main course, dessert. Instead, HBO gives us this big portion as only an opener: The two hours of a five-hour miniseries feel like a round of drinks, and appetizer and some bread, but the meal itself is a long time coming.
Forgive the overstretched food metaphor. Part 3 of Mildred Pierce is just so restaurant-y.
In this, we get to see Mildred (Kate Winslet) take charge of her chicken-and-waffles (or veggies) restaurant, with pies. She is the kind of restaurateur Alice Waters would be proud of, running from chicken farm to produce mart, shelling her own peas in the kitchen rather than buying canned. In the kitchen, she is bossy and efficient, and despite a few stumbles, it takes off. It's clear that her business will be a respite from her grief.
As anyone who saw Parts 1 and 2 knows, we left off as Mildred's younger daughter suddenly died.
Show Tracker commenters weighed in on the low ratings of Mildred Pierce's premiere with one possible reason: It was kind of a bummer. It was kind of a bummer -- just like the Depression, when it is set. And Mildred's marriage was awful, and if the divorce was good news, it didn't help solve the problem of being broke with two daughters to support. Then, once she got that licked, well, her younger daughter died. Which is, certainly, kind of a bummer.
Whether things pick up in Part 3 depends on your point of view: Are you with Mildred, trying to find even footing through one crisis after another, or are you with her elder daughter, Veda? There's no reason you should be with Veda -- a scornful, affected girl -- except that the camera implies you're with her, watching.
Watching what? That would be the (steamy) spoiler, after the jump.
That's right, they're on the couch again, Mildred and Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). In the 1930s, couches were less big and plushy and more condusive to the kind of sultry lovemaking one's adolescent daughter might glimpse through the diaphanously curtained French doors after being sent off to bed.
We don't actually see Veda spying, but we cut from being in the room with Monty and Mildred to watching them from behind the curtain, tracking slowly, to Veda pounding away on the piano, chord, chord, chord! You know what that means.
Monty, it turns out, is the polo-playing scion of a Pasadena family, something that Veda and her friends (improbably) pay attention to. He shows up at the restaurant for opening night, bearing a long flower box and an apology for not knowing about her dead daughter. With some class, he pulls the card off the box, muttering that it's no time for humor. What with the fancy car and fantastic looks and natural charm, it's hard not to like Monty.
Except that he is a little on the slick side.
There's a nice scene as the three men in Mildred's life all wind up in the kitchen on opening night. They are: a) her ex-husband (Brian F. O'Byrne), shaking his head in good-hearted, flaccid wonder that he let her go; b) Wally Burgan (James LeGros), a genuinely helpful business partner who cheated her husband in a real estate deal and does the deed with Mildred from time to time; and c) Monty, who is handsome and winning and appearing, to all involved, like the perfect man.
Hey, Mildred? Let him pay for his own gas.
Just as in our previous installment, Mildred and Monty take a drive up the coast in his fancy car. This time, they talk about Veda. Monty -- who is the only one who can talk to her -- thinks she should get piano lessons from a true coach. And Mildred helps set it up -- the piano coach thinks Veda's technique is awful but is convinced she has something in her head. Veda takes his criticisms predictably well -- by fleeing and weeping.
We see Veda -- still quite young -- hanging out with Monty at the polo grounds. Mildred stands on the margins, in dowdy clothes, and observes the wealthy people being waited upon by their impeccably uniformed servants. On the soundtrack: Veda playing Rachmaninoff and Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressing the nation about the Depression.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Gesser (Melissa Leo) wants Mildred to add a fully stocked bar to her restaurant: Prohibition will soon be over. As well as she's doing, though, Mildred thinks she can't swing the investment. She's saving for a new piano for Veda, and she's paying off loans and -- there's Monty.
"The truth is, his business went bust," she admits to Mrs. Gesser. "I'm helping out. It's only temporary; he'll land on his feet."
The good news: She opens the bar. The bad news: She and Monty are bickering. Cut to the bedroom, and he's on the bed, making semi-snide comments about the restaurant -- the "pie wagon," he calls it -- as she's got her back to him, brushing her teeth, having one of those incredibly boring conversations about who's going to shuttle the kid around the next day. No wonder they do their grappling on the couch -- this bedroom is about as sexy as a midday San Fernando Valley parking lot.
Ew, ick, a horrible fight. An "I'm a gigolo" joke leads to a "is that all I am to you" reply and the "piece of tail" complement doesn't fix it, then a "get out" reply and the wan "oh you want the 'I love you' scene" non-apology, moving through the house drinking and arguing and then they're in the living room and hey man it's like Barry White is playing in there at full volume because the arguing stops and the robes drop off and they've found something they can agree on.
It's Christmas and Mildred can't do much right. She gives bonuses to her staff, but from the front of the house they're too noisy, so she races back in and hollers at them -- only to return to the front of the restaurant, door swinging behind her, trapped between the workers and the diners, trapped between classes. At home, she gives Veda a lovely watch, not the piano that the girl had clearly been expecting, and what comes next is, as Veda would say, a horrible row.
Veda's gestures toward maturity -- too much makeup, over-curled hair, pulling out a cigarette and smoking -- would be creepy, but they're overshadowed by the even-creepier argument. Veda knows way too much about what Monty sees in her mother, and Mildred gets so angry that she tells Veda her own set of ugly truths, about money and how it's more important to Monty than either of them.
Dressed to the nines -- it's New Year's Eve -- Mildred shows up at Monty's, for a party that's not happening. She's angry, ready to fight and he's -- well, he's casually charming. He's in a plaid flannel, leads her through the mostly shuttered mansion to his quarters, which are cozy yet modest. And yet -- they fight, and it ratchets up just like before.
And his charm abates when he says, "You know what this needs is the crime of rape." This is partly a metaphor for their emotional engagement mapped out in the tenor of their lovemaking -- from seduction to violence. It's partly a come-on that's welcomed by Mildred, not really rape at all. But it's also exactly what he says it is.
Yeah, bummer. I get that.
Mildred tears herself away, flings herself back into the storm, plunges her car into a flooded ditch and eventually makes it home. No more custom-made shoes for Monty; Veda will get her piano.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon) and Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce) in a scene from the HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce." Credit: Andrew Schwartz / HBO