Now that they’ve conquered the 1920’s with Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s decided to move on to the ‘30’s, and they made the rather gutsy decision to do Mildred Pierce, a novel that already has a classic movie version starring Joan Crawford, who won an Academy Award for the role. HBO countered that by bringing their own Oscar winner—Kate Winslet, and stuffing the rest of the cast with other highly respected actors (including recent winner Melissa Leo, who plays one of my favorite characters). It’s early days yet, so it’s hard to tell if this version treats the source material better than the 1945 film. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Moody music plays against an art-deco background that looks a bit like stylized sunbeams. Interestingly, the supporting players are all introduced before Winslet and the title. They come at the very end of the credits, in big, bold letters.
The music turns jitterbuggy as the camera pans over scenes of a woman baking—rolling out pie dough, separating eggs, whisking away. Through the wavy glass of a window, we can see a man in a sleeveless undershirt mowing the grass. Inside, the woman puts the finishing touches on a lemon meringue pie. Great, now I want pie.
The baker is of course, our leading lady, Mildred Pierce herself. The man, her husband, Bert, comes in, buttons on a shirt, and tells her he’s done all the yard work he can find, so he may take a walk down the street. Mildred asks him if he’s going to be home for supper, which turns out to be a passive-aggressive way of asking if he’s going to be off with Maggie Biederhoff, his presumed mistress. Naturally, the discussion quickly devolves into a fight over his persistent unemployment and inability to properly water the grass. As their voices rise, the camera switches to another room, where it lingers over a promotional poster for Pierce Homes, some blueprints, and then family photos of Bert’s and Mildred’s wedding (in the 20’s, it looks like), and their two girls. In her photo, the older one looks freakishly like a young Emma Watson. The fight concludes with Mildred telling Bert to just pack up and get out. So, he does, tossing a suitcase into the car and driving away.
A neighbor lady observes him driving offf and looks puzzled for a second before letting herself into the Pierce home through the back door. Mildred grouses about Bert taking the car and tells her friend, Lucy, that he’s left her. Lucy’s all Team Mildred, but she’s practical too and asks Mildred what she plans to do now. Mildred has no idea. Lucy drops off some chicken she just cooked up and admires the awesome chocolate cake Mildred’s working on. And now I want cake. Damn this movie.
Lucy shows herself out as the elder of Mildred’s two daughters, Veda, comes in fresh from her piano lesson, and shows her attitude right away by ordering her mother to repeat the name of the Chopin piece she’s working on, just so she can roll her eyes at her mother’s lack of French pronunciation. Mildred rewards her nasty behavior by setting a cupcake in front of her, which Veda pronounces “darling”. Mildred calls for her younger daughter, Rae, to come in and wonders aloud how she’s going to deliver the cake without a car. Veda suggests she use their car and Mildred lies that their father’s out with it. See how long that fib tides you over.
Rae, a regular little ball of energy, comes racing in and shows off the skates she managed to rather cleverly mend. She pretends to stick a finger in the cake, then starts dancing around wildly, giggling, until Mildred gets her to calm down. Peace restored, she listens to Rae talk about her day as Veda reappears in the doorway and asks where all their father’s clothes are. Mildred finally admits that Bert’s gone and she doesn’t know if he’ll be back. She reassures them, and, I think, herself, that everything will be fine. She tells him that he loves them but didn’t say goodbye because he didn’t want to worry them. Nice of her to cover for him like that. Veda reveals she knows all about Mrs. B, and declares the woman “distinctly middle class.” What do you think you are, young lady, the Duchess of York? Mildred laughs and hugs her girls.
That night, Mildred pulls a nice dress out of her closet, then goes and stands in front of a mirror with it, checking out her legs and no doubt reviewing her assets. She sighs, already looking like she feels defeated.
She heads to an employment office, where she sits on a bench with other hopeful people trying to ride out this hopeless time (it’s 1931, California, by the way). An elderly man emerges from the office, hysterically talking about how he just wants to work, and he’s been working since he was six. Yay lack of child labor laws!
Mildred goes in next and the world-weary woman across the desk reads on Mildred’s card that she’s interested in a receptionist position. She immediately tells Mildred nobody uses receptionists anymore. Mildred desperately says there are other things she can do, she’s a great cook, for instance. The woman doesn’t think there’s much for her, because there are a ton of well-trained women out there looking for jobs, some of whom have PhDs. Nobody wants to hire a housewife when they have that kind of highly skilled labor pool to pull from. The woman tells Mildred she doesn’t have a chance. I don’t think it would kill you to sugar coat it a little bit, lady.
Mildred heads to the grocery store, where she sadly realizes the change in her pocket won’t cover the hot dogs she grabbed, so back they go. Imagine being so hard up you have to choose between milk and hot dogs.
She arrives home, where she finds her in-laws preparing to take the kids to their house for dinner and a sleepover. Grandpa’s nice about it, explaining they thought it would be nice, what with everything Mildred has on her plate. Rae begs, so Mildred says yes and tells the girls to be good as they load into their grandparents’ car.
She goes into the very quiet, empty house and is just about to start crying in frustration when someone knocks on the door. It’s Wally, her husband’s portly friend/former business partner. He brusquely tells Mildred there’s some Pierce Homes business that he needs Bert for, so Mildred invites him in and informs him Bert’s not living there anymore. Wally’s surprised to hear it, but sees an opportunity to start hitting on his buddy’s pretty wife, and you can be sure he takes that opportunity readily. The scene is thankfully devoid of the creepy, rapey undertones of the Crawford film, but also lacks the quick-witted, lighting-fast repartee between Crawford and Jack Carson that gave that scene so much energy. This scene has no energy at all. In fact, I feel like so far this miniseries doesn’t have much energy. Stretching the story out to five hours hasn’t contributed a lot so far, it’s just slowed everything down, but it’s early yet, maybe things’ll get more interesting soon. I hope so.
Mildred tells Lucy that Wally asked her out, which cracks Lucy up. Lucy’s been around the block a few times, I guess, and knows that men see a separated woman as prime pickings. I guess Mildred didn’t consider that, because she actually agreed to go out with Wally the next night. Lucy tells her to make him dinner at home, and she even provides Mildred with some decent bootleg liquor, and California wine. Man, she’s the best neighbor ever.
Lucy takes a minute to lay out some truths: if Wally takes her out to dinner and pays for it, then Mildred’s a bit beholden to him, and if they hook up, it’s a sin, but if Mildred cooks him a dinner all housewife-like and something happens, that’s just nature, and then Wally’ll owe her. She goes on to say that, if Mildred plays her cards right, soon enough Wally’ll have her out shopping for a divorce.
Wally arrives at the house and Mildred serves him a lovely meal, ending with some awesome pie. Wally compliments it, and the great booze. Mildred collects the plates and tells him she’s going to go put on a warmer dress, which just provides a nice opening for him to volunteer to help her. She puts him off in a slightly flirty way, but of course he follows her upstairs and catches her in her slip. He admires what he sees as he starts putting the moves on her. Mildred looks uncertain for a bit, but I guess she hasn’t gotten laid in a while, because after a few seconds she’s helping him strip down. This scene is incredibly awkward and unsexy, which is the point.
Afterward, he’s sitting in the bed, smoking, the ashtray balanced on his big, round belly. He admits he’s thinking about Bert and feeling a little bad, because Bert’s a good friend. She reminds him Bert wasn’t such a good friend Wally wasn’t willing to screw him out of Pierce Homes. She calls him a double crosser and Wally blusters, trying to defend himself. She accuses him of having brought up Bert so he could duck out, having gotten what he came for. She yells at him for using her, but then calms down and apologizes, saying she’s been a bit upset lately. He says he understands.
The next day, Mildred runs into Lucy, who knowingly asks how it went. Mildred tells her she’s “on the town” and Lucy chuckles.
Mildred gets back on the job hunt, taking the bus into the city with the want ads clutched in one hand. By the time she gets to her destination, though, they’re removing the “Help Wanted” sign from the window. She walks and walks, past jobless men selling apples. I always wondered why it was apples—were they just that easy to get? Why not citrus fruits? It is California, after all. Every place she stops in turns her away. She finally finds herself outside a department store, just as a man hangs a sign saying a girl’s wanted in the tea room. Mildred goes inside and heads up to the tea room, where she hovers outside, momentarily meeting the eyes of a waitress. For some reason, that makes her panic, and when the manager comes over to ask if she’s there about the job, she tells him no and takes off. Oh, Mildred. Swallow your pride, honey.
Back home, Mildred makes a rather sad breakfast for the girls while working the phone, trying to drum up cake and pie orders. Veda tells her not to worry, because things will just work out. Proving her right, the phone rings. It’s the lady from the employment agency calling about a job. Mildred promises to come in right away. “You see?” Veda says condescendingly.
At the employment agency, the woman tells Mildred this one’s off the books. She was talking to a woman who’s about to marry a big-time director who needs a housekeeper. Remembering how Mildred said she’s good at all things domestic, she told the woman about her. Mildred starts to tell her how she came across a similar job recently—as a waitress. “And you turned it down?” the woman says incredulously. Amen, sister. Mildred, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the country’s in a depression. Plenty of people are out of work, you saw them all over the street. Now, I waitressed once upon a time, and I hated it. Really hated it. But if it was a choice between doing that and not having food for my kids or a home, you can be sure I’d slap on a smile and grab a tray faster than you can say, “would you like fries with that?”
Mildred appeals to middle-class sensibilities, pearl clutching over how she just couldn’t do something as low-class as serve food, and she can’t imagine being a housekeeper either. Employment lady wonders how Mildred will feel facing her kids when there’s no food to give them and Mildred firmly says that’ll never be the case. Because she has a magic wand, I guess. Mildred says she’ll go talk to this woman as a courtesy, but employment lady says she’s being an idiot, and that she spent her whole life setting the table and keeping the house, and now that’s all she’s good for, so she needs to get over herself. I want this woman to have a scene with Lucy. I’ll bet seeing the two of them get a little drunk together would be awesome.
Mildred goes to the house, where she naturally knocks on the front door and is promptly sent around the back. From there, she’s led into a living room, where she seats herself on a brocade sofa. Hope Davis, playing Mrs. Forester, comes floating in and introduces herself, then tells Mildred that it’s customary for servants to sit on the mistress’s invitation, not her own initiative. Mildred shoots right up and Mrs. Forester tells her it’s ok, she just felt it was best, since Mildred’s inexperienced, to cover all the bases. She invites Mildred to sit, and for some reason, Mildred decides to be difficult and says she’ll stand. Mrs. Forester tells her to sit down already, so Mildred does. That settled, Mrs. Forester starts to go over the details of the job, which include private quarters where Mildred and her daughters can live. It’s actually pretty generous of her to let the kids come and stay—that kind of thing wasn’t common. Mrs. Forester mentions she has two kids of her own, although fraternization between the children would not be permitted. Oh, I’m calling it now * Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the 1945 movie:* Mrs. F’s son is going to be the poor sap Veda marries and shakes down in a few years. Seems like a waste of Hope Davis otherwise.
Somewhere in there, Mildred decides this job simply isn’t for her, and she tells Mrs. F as much, getting up and heading for the door. Mrs. F tries to say that it’s the mistress who terminates the interview, but Mildred just leaves and stalks off down the street in frustration. Mildred, sorry to have to tell you this, but you can’t eat pride. You know that, right?
She gets off the crowded bus in the city and makes her way to a diner, where she sits down and orders a ham sandwich with a glass of milk. While she’s waiting for it, two of the waitresses start arguing loudly, one accusing the other (rightly) of stealing tips. All the customers, Mildred included, stare at them as first the head waitress, and then the owner come out and try to break it up. The owner has no patience for this and fires both the waitresses. They run into the back to continue the argument, and Mildred rises and slowly follows them back to the kitchen, almost dreamily. The waitresses notice her standing here and complain about the idea of someone off the street taking their jobs, but the owner puts his foot down, keeps the waitress who was being robbed, and hires Mildred. So housekeeper wasn’t good enough, tea room wasn’t good enough, but diner’s fine? Ok, whatever.
The head waitress, Ida, takes Mildred to a dressing room to find her a uniform and give her a quick rundown of the rules of the place. Out on the floor, Ida starts showing her the ropes, talking fast. They’re in the middle of a lunch rush, so she has no time to mollycoddle the new girl. She throws Mildred in head first and sends her to a table of two bitchy women who complain about the slow service. Mildred, still getting her feet under her, apologizes and takes their orders, recommending the roast chicken. Mildred puts in the order back in the kitchen, and Ida corrects her ordering lingo and sends her to pick up salads and soups for the table. Out at the table, the two bitchy ladies laugh at Mildred for no reason, which I find so uncalled for. I’ve never laughed at a waitress or waiter, no matter how badly they’ve screwed up. You never laugh at someone who handles your food.
Mildred stumbles through her day, startled by a handsy customer, struggling to hold multiple plates as ably as the others. The owner comes out and watches her bumble, shaking his head. At one point, the cashier tells her she’s short on a table, and Mildred pays the difference from her tips. At the end of her shift, Ida tells her she doesn’t think Mildred’s suited for the job, but the chef likes her, and that’s really what matters. Mildred thanks them for the trial, but she looks tired and defeated. Ida asks her what the problem is and Mildred just pleads exhaustion.
She heads home, where the girls are sitting on the porch, playing. Lucy joins Mildred in the kitchen for a gossip and Mildred confesses to taking a job as a waitress, sounding ashamed. Awesomely, Lucy doesn’t care at all and says she’d been wondering why Mildred didn’t try that kind of work earlier. Mildred starts to look pale, and then gets up and runs into the bathroom, where she starts throwing up. Oh, God, please don’t let her be pregnant with Wally’s baby. Lucy follows her in and comforts her as Mildred gasps that she can’t do this awful, degrading job. Lucy, ever practical, asks what it pays and when she finds out she tells Mildred she’s crazy to give up the job, since the pay and the tips will bring in plenty of money a week and she really needs it. Mildred sighs that she knows she has to keep this job, and she swears Lucy to secrecy, because she’s terrified of the kids finding out what she does for a living, Veda in particular. Lucy promises not to say anything, but she does mention that Veda’s kind of a jerk who doesn’t deserve everything Mildred does for her. And with that, part one ends.