[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
For me, the moment when “Mildred Pierce” really comes alive is when Mildred, after a shift as a waitress, takes stock of the kitchen. Changed back into her regular clothes, she surveys the pantry and the supply area, taking surreptitious notes on what it takes to put together a place where people want to eat.
Todd Haynes’ five-part HBO limited series is certainly about more than food. With Kate Winslet shining in the title role, there’s plenty of threaded ideas about obligations to family, the limits of trust, and the nature of being independent. Here, though, the kitchen becomes a stronghold, a place where Mildred can reclaim the parts of her life that are slipping away or have tragically disappeared altogether.
It starts with the pies. From the opening shot, as big band music bounces in the background, there’s Mildred kneading dough and tending to some carefully crafted merengue. Longtime Haynes collaborator Ed Lachman has the camera gliding across the countertop and catching people through the distorted glass of living room windows. All you need to know about where this woman’s life stands is wrapped up in how she’s introduced.
The later scenes in the diner, where she turns to for a job after the dissolution of her marriage, have the hum of a lunch hour rush. Winslet is so precise with how she plays Mildred’s first day on the job, both green and competent. Watching her practice carrying full plates and hearing the change in her demeanor as she calls orders is a blissfully great execution of Haynes and Jon Raymond’s James M. Cain-adapting script.
When she gets the chance to run her own neighborhood chicken stop, Mildred’s exacting explanations of her business model and menu approach can’t help but spill over into how the food’s presented, too. As she takes a cleaver to whole chickens, you can see the determination lining up with the hard work she’s funneling into the one part of her life she can control.
That confidence to bet on herself (and those piping hot dishes of wings and veggies) makes it all the easier to buy that she’d have friends ready to drop everything and help her. The Mildred’s grand opening sequence, with customers piling in and a handful of old friends whipping the kitchen into a well-oiled machine, is just intoxicating. At each turn, this show has the momentum to match the moment, including when Mildred’s culinary successes continue to grow.
It’s fitting then, that “Mildred Pierce” itself should be a collection of simple ingredients that all work together in surprising harmony. Mildred’s contentious relationship with her daughter is an emotional high-wire act. It’s also no surprise that so many revelations that Mildred has about Veda happen at one of her restaurants. The men in Mildred’s life find their way to her table, whether it’s at the beginning of a fling (as with Guy Pearce’s devilish Monty Beragon) or at the end of a chapter. Again, no surprise that her estranged husband Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne, tapping into some tangible Karl Malden energy) fully realizes what he’s given up on the night her restaurant opens.
So, over a decade after it first aired, “Mildred Pierce” remains a saga about finding purpose amidst the chaos, of trying to find a recipe you can repeat again and again. As many across the country settle in for a week of pies and enigmatic/strained relationships, this is a story that understands the connections between food and family better than just about any other.