Part 3 of Mildred Pierce opens with a close up of a child’s doll. The camera then tracks over to a set of feet on a bed. The camera makes its way up the sleeping body and we see that this is Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet), huddled in bed with her oldest daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner), who is also asleep. Mildred wakes with a start, momentarily forgetting why she is in bed with Veda. Then she glances over at the second, empty bed across the room and remembers that her youngest is dead. As the full weight of this memory begins to register, her face crumples and she squeezes Veda once more. Losing a child is unthinkable. But to momentarily forget this loss, and to remember it anew each morning, is a particular form of torture.
But, Mildred does not dwell on her youngest daughter’s untimely death for too long. We see her select the clothing that her daughter will be buried in (a ballerina costume and pink socks), we see the tiny coffin being carried from the hearse to the cemetery, and we see Mildred take her black dress and place it, decisively, in the back of her closet. This final act signals Mildred’s ability to compartmentalize her life. After all, she has a restaurant to open and Veda’s new grand piano isn’t going to pay for itself! So in the very next scene Mildred is haggling over chickens at the poultry farm, buying produce, and taking money out of her bank account. While in many ways the impending opening of the restaurant is poorly timed, it is probably exactly what Mildred needed to distract her from her daughter’s death. It is much easier to work hard than it is to mourn.
The preparations for Mildred’s opening night appear in a montage of furious cooking: Mildred butchers chickens, shells peas, and chops vegetables. She instructs her waitstaff on how meals should be ordered and prepared (chicken and waffles or chicken and vegetables, everyone gets biscuits). When customers begin pouring in (Wally launched an effective direct mail campaign), Mildred realizes that she is understaffed. Once again, Ida (Mare Winningham) and Lucy (Melissa Leo) come to the rescue, expediting the service and clearing tables. Once again, the miniseries makes clear that while Mildred can depend on some men like Wally (James LeGros), it is the women in her life who are her true safety net.
After closing up for the night, the entire waitstaff, plus Veda, Monty (Guy Pearce), Wally, Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne), Ida, and Lucy gather outside to toast the new restaurant’s success (they made 47 dollars!). Veda even hugs her mother in a rare moment of public affection. But almost immediately the entire group falls silent, aware that their joy is an affront. Nobody mentions Ray by name, but her ghost is there, an absent presence.
But that’s pretty much the last we’ll hear of Ray in this episode. The remainder of Part 3 works to establish the increasingly frustrating, increasingly dysfunctional relationship between Mildred and Monty. I spent a lot of this installment yelling at Monty and his silly Hitler mustache: “No Monty, Mildred does not want to have sex with you tonight! Her daughter just died!” But then, Monty does something totally creepy involving his toe and Mildred’s matronly underthings, and boom, they’re screwing. This happens a lot in Part 3. Mildred is angry or annoyed, Monty drops trou, and then it’s sexytime.
Mildred is no fool: she knows that Monty is a snob and that he looks down on her for being a working woman. Even worse, Monty is financially dependent on Mildred — he is above working but dependent on those who work. At one point he derisively refers to Mildred’s, the restaurant that is keeping him in handmade shoes and polo club memberships, as “the Pie Wagon.” But I think Monty sticks around for more than just the money. I think he also likes the idea of “slumming it” with Mildred and her shapely, working class legs. As he tells young Veda: “The best legs are found in kitchens, not drawing rooms.”
But why does Mildred keep Monty around? First, she’s flattered. Remember that Mildred is also a snob. Although she knows that she lacks the pedigree her daughter craves and that Monty claims to have, she still loves the idea of old money. Monty may be broke, but the dude is classy. Have you seen those white turtlenecks? And Monty exploits Mildred’s insecurities about her social standing. When Mildred visits Monty’s cold, empty family estate in order to end their relationship, she berates him for taking her money and disdaining her at the same time. But Monty knows what buttons to push. He actually makes Mildred feel low class for caring about money. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he sniffs, “You never were a lady” (or something like that). The scene culminates with Mildred tossing a crumpled up 10 dollar bill in Monty’s face (to prove that she doesn’t care about money either) and Monty saying (I kid you not) “All this needs is the crime of rape.” Yes, that is Monty’s version of foreplay. And this is the second reason why Mildred is around. She likes the sex. Especially when the sex involves class-based humiliation and Guy Pearce’s naked behind. Mildred, you are a dirty, dirty birdie.
Part 3 also devotes time to Mildred’s increasing estrangement from her remaining daughter. As Mildred works away in her restaurant, she relies on Monty to entertain her daughter. The last thing a budding snob needs is a bigger snob as her mentor. Indeed, by the end of Part 3, Veda has completely transformed into the venomous bitch that HBO’s previews promised us. Towards the end of the episode, we see Veda opening her Christmas presents. She is still in her pajamas, but she wears a red bow, rouge and red lipstick, all in attempt to look more “mature.” But the make up only highlights how she is still very much a little girl, especially when she begins to smoke a cigarette. Mildred tells her to put it out, but Veda refuses. What Veda won’t articulate (remember, this is a melodrama, and no one says what they really mean) is that she is angry that her mother did not buy her a new grand piano. Mildred had planned to do this, but had to spend the money she saved up on a bar for her restaurant instead (no more Prohibition! Wheee!). Veda wasn’t supposed to know about any of this, but of course, good old Monty spilled the beans because that’s what rich people in tight white turtlenecks do. The fight culminates with Mildred slapping Veda in the face and Veda responding with a slap of her own. Recall that in Part 2, Mildred disciplines Veda with a good, old fashioned spanking. Veda is too old to be spanked , of course, but she sure does deserve it! And she took it. But in Part 3 Veda retaliates, a small taste of what is to come. Now, bring on Evan Rachel Wood!
So what did you think of Part 3? Overall, I found it to be less satisfying than the first two, but maybe I was too distracted by Monty’s Hitler mustache?