Television Series Review: “Mildred Pierce”

I just finished watching “Mildred Pierce” (HBO’s 2011 mini-series, featuring Kate Winslet), and have to give it a big thumbs down ๐Ÿ‘Ž๐Ÿป.

The acting is not to blame (Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, in particular, gave stunning performances), the writing is.

The series is based on the titular 1941 novel by James M. Cain; and I have to believe that there was a substantial amount of backstory that Todd Hanes and Jonathan Raymond (the authors responsible for the teleplay) chose to leave out.

Spoiler Alert (Just in case you’re as behind the streaming times as I am)

Some of the most pivotal scenes, particularly the one where Mildred loses her youngest daughter — Ray — were too flat to evoke even the slightest hint of emotion. Add to that the fact that I wasn’t vested in the characters (and therefore, didn’t give a rat’s ass about what happened to them) and you’ve created a recipe for a disastrous viewing experience.

Tension was nowhere to be found across the five one-hour episodes that comprise the series; but you could sense where it was missing — namely, well… everywhere.

It Just Didn’t Make Sense

Mildred is supposedly a prideful woman; but if that hadn’t been literally explained in the dialogue you wouldn’t have any reason to believe her unapproachable. Mildred seemed practical and capable to me, not prideful. (Though I suppose for a woman to accomplish as much in the 1930s, a man — like the author of the book — might have thought she had to be.)

Her daughter Veda, however, is extremely arrogant; and the only explanation given for her massive ego, and condescending manner of speaking, is an offhand remark that she inherited it from her mother (who does not speak like her daughter, nor does Veda’s father). If you consider that Veda would have gone to school with other children from her working-class neighborhood, you’re left wondering where in the hell she picked up her hoity-toity attitude.

I get that mothers and daughters have complicated relationships, but I had no understanding of the vitriolic hate that Veda displayed towards her mother. I surmised that she might have been angry over the fact that her father abandoned them; but given how vocal (and goddam whiney) her character is, I suspect she would have lobbed the blame at Mildred if that were the case. And she didn’t.

She was clearly upset by the fact that Mildred was out of town when her baby sister was hospitalized; but her mother arrived on the scene eventually, and was at Ray’s side when she died. Considering that Mildred couldn’t have changed the situation by arriving earlier, there’s not much weight in that as a catalyst either.

When Monty (played by Guy Pearce) — Mildred’s inexplicably wealthy boyfriend — is introduced to an eleven-year-old Veda, it’s obvious that the young girl is smitten with him; but she has already shown abject disdain for her mother before this man’s appearance… so even that doesn’t lay plain the reason for Veda’s ugly bitterness.

The only character-driven emotion I did feel while watching the series was loathing towards the girl. I kept hoping that she was destined for a grisly death, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

On a More Personal Note

I’ll admit that I experienced an uneasy stirring of regret while watching the last half of the series — painful memories of my own lying, scheming and manipulation rose like wraiths in the back of my mind. When Mildred experienced the pain and backlash of her daughter’s spiteful actions, all I could think about was the effect my nasty mistakes must have had on my own mother. (Egad! Perhaps I hated Veda because she was a reflection of who I used to be. ๐Ÿค”)

It’s easy (and fairly customary where I come from) for young adults to blame their parents for everything — and with daughters, that blame usually falls on their mothers, rather than their fathers. I blame the “Electra Complex” (i.e. a girl’s sense of endless competition with her mama for the attention of her daddy).

My father was an Air Force career-man. As such, he was often absent; and anyone that grew up with a truant parental figure knows that it’s the parent who isn’t missing that takes all the heat. Yes, there is irony in idolizing the one who has left us; but it’s far easier to be a hero when there’s no one around to witness your faults and misgivings.

As an adult, I am able to see that Mama was the truer hero in my life. She was the one who stood by us. The one who greeted us in the morning, and brushed and dried my hair at night. (Ah! For those of you who were wondering where my hair dryer obsession comes from, there it is. A small comfort from my childhood that summons the serenity and safety of being with my mother.)

In the evenings, Mama read to us until she fell asleep mid-sentence, beyond exhausted from running around a hospital all damn day. She woke to three lil’ hooligans giggling at her, and still found the strength to wrangle us up before tucking us in.

So… good memories with the bad.

The Similarities, and the Series, End There (Thank God!)

In the end, Veda obtains (through deceit and exploitation) a ticket to New York City. Her wish to be free of California is realized; and Mildred and her husband (played by Brian F. O’Byrne) — clearly realizing that they have lost the game Veda is playing — relinquish their claim on their daughter. Tired of her hurtful antics, they retreat to the bar, exclaiming, “To hell with her!” Mildred and Bert wash their hands of the whole damn thing and vow to get drunk as skunks. And that’s where their story ends.

In contrast, Mama has never abandoned me. I can say with absolute certainty that she would never cry out, “To hell with my batshit crazy daughter! I’ve had enough!” The woman has endured more than any mother should, and is — to this day — a lighthouse in the raging storms of my mental afflictions.

If only this series had been as spectacular as Mama… but then again, nothing could ever compare.

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