You mean you just loaf?
It was hard to decide which image to go with to frame Part II – the dashing loafer, Monty Beragan (as I clearly did), the vapid conniver Veda (of whom I had a hard time finding a good image), or sweet, loveable Ray, who is with us no more. I can’t wait to hear what you thought coming to the story with fresh eyes, but Part II definitely picked up for me. It accomplished an enormous amount in an hour. Mildred is no longer an ashamed working girl but the ecstatic owner of an about to open business, with her name in shining neon. She is no longer the kept woman of awkward, slobbish Wally, but the lover of stylish, swaggering Monty Beragan. And perhaps most significantly, she is no longer the mother of two daughters, but left with just the one who belittles and berates her.
I really want to hear what you thought of Ray’s demise. I was deeply moved by it, but it is hard for me to gauge the effectiveness of such things because scenes and stories of children in danger put me in paroxysms of anxiety that have noting to do, most of the time, with their narrative or aesthetic merit. It was also impossible for me to separate what I knew of the internal life of Mildred from reading the novel. There was one detail that was incredibly important for me in the book that was alluded to, but not clearly spelled out, on the screen: the origin of Ray’s name. In the book you are told that Mildred’s flighty, astrology-loving mother helped name both girls – Veda and Moire. However, neither Mildred, her mother, nor Burt knew how to pronounce this Irish version of Mary, and thought it was a French name pronounced “Maw-ray”, hence shortened to Ray. When the priest reads Moire’s name at the funeral, Mildred bitterly reflects that only in her death is her daughter called by her real name. That little detail haunted me throughout the rest of the novel.
It also helps explain where Veda gets her overblown pretensions. Burt and Mildred do not share them and they are flabbergasted by them, and yet, they are not completely immune to them. Even in choosing unusual names for their daughters and assigning them “French” origins, they participate in the same spirit of trying to distinguish themselves from the ordinary circumstances of suburban life in Glendale. One of the things I found most compelling about Mildred is her alternating struggle to embrace this glimmer of pride that she values so much in Veda and her struggle against it. I thought the showdown/spanking scene with Veda was very effective in this regard – she is horrified at Veda’s snobbishness, humiliated by her, and ashamed. And yet she is fiercely proud of having such a proud daughter. And spurred on by Veda’s pride she takes the step toward her own business in a way we know she never intended when she first took the waitressing job.
We see this same struggle in her relationship with Monty. She is clearly charmed by him and enamored of his easy, worldly, stylish ways. And yet there is a look of mild shock and disapproval when she learns he does not really work. You picked up on this emerging tension in Mildred’s character in Part I. How is it that she lived two years into the Depression and could still hold such elitist views about the working class? But now that she is a working girl, she is starting to embrace the ethic of hard work and the good old American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideology. It is what empowers her to take the car from Burt and to hold her own with Wally and to frivolously take the day off with a strange man in her restaurant. She is no longer alienated by her labor, but sees the sweat of her brow turning into clear and real manifestations of independence and self-determination. The director apparently chose this story because of its resonances with our current economic moment. I wonder what connections he will see and emphasize? What is the economic moral of the story that might relate to us? What about when hard work doesn’t pay off? Or there is no work to be had? What can we learn from Mildred’s embrace of entrepreneurship and the clear signs that her weaknesses do not lie in business sense or economic structures but in whatever personal decisions she might make?
Even knowing what will come next, I am more excited for next week. What about you? Did Part II hook you yet?
I did enjoy the second installment more than the first – I can feel the stories all drawing me in, now. And the arrival of Monty only intensifies this. I love what you write about Mildred’s struggles with his loafing ways! It’s dead on – it seems that a man of means without work would have been right up her alley before she herself had worked. Running away to the beach house for the day was the closest thing to the aristocratic life we’ve seen Mildred do and, I would wager, that we are to imagine she has ever done. But the more she enjoyed it, the more I sensed it would have to come with some loss.
I’m glad you were moved by Ray’s dying scenes. To be honest, I wasn’t really – and that might be because I don’t have kids so I perhaps don’t have the emotional investment in such a scene that those who do would have. Not that I’m indifferent to the deaths of children – it just felt so obvious as soon as the neighbour showed up on Mildred’s doorstep that there was going to be the death of a child that the will she/won’t she die moves that led to that 4th syringe felt a little dragged out to me. I wanted more – I wanted to actually hear something from Ray…be reminded in the moment of what we were losing…feel a bit more of the drama.
But that’s only how I felt in the moment. Now, reflecting on the experience of watching it, the death feels right in the midst of the story. If her day at the beach with Monty brings her closest to who Veda wants her to be and, in that, closest to that part of Veda that she wishes she was, then it makes sense we’d need to lose Ray to solidify that bond. I found the scene where Mildred crawled into bed with Veda to sob absolutely terrifying, or horrifying – it was like watching a mother passing whatever trauma made her the broken person she is onto her daughter in the most bodily way. Her grief actually felt like an assault in that moment. And it revealed just how strange the relationship between Veda and Mildred is.
There’s a way in which Mildred comes across as your regular, bumbling divorcee, but then in this moments with her daughter, you realize there’s something much deeper going on with the brokenness of who she is. I liked what you said in our last post about Cain not giving his reader all the motivations and insights into the why of why Mildred does things – something you sensed was lost in the first episode as Winslet rounded out the character too much, almost making her make sense. I think these moments with Veda capture that mystery.
The scene I may have found most compelling though happened between Mildred and Burt as they decided to divorce. It’s difficult to imagine how taboo divorce really was – that it could be more socially acceptable to shack up with a woman down the street while still married than it was to divorce boggles my mind. This was compounded by them lightly noting that they’ll need to pretend he abused her to even get a legal divorce – and this too seems less terrible than the divorce itself. But what really gets me in this storyline is the depth of friendship Mildred and Burt appear to have. That was a surprise. They were really sweet with each other – right down to him wanting to give her more than was required of him…even if that more seems like a pittance to me!
There’s much more to say – I’ve been thinking about Mad Men a lot while watching this show. Obviously both deal with gender issues, but in such different ways. The women on Mad Men have gone through some form of self-empowering revolution. Mildred is utterly dependent on Burt – sure, she has her store, but his apparent kindness is what gives her the house and car that makes that possible. The rights won by the women on Mad Men leave them in this in between space where they don’t have enough, but they also don’t have the kindness that can come from dependence. I’m not calling for a return to Mildred’s lot, by any means – but I do wonder what a world could look like where we’ve transcended both models. We certainly don’t live in that world, but I’m not sure yet how to characterize the one we do inhabit.
I’ll sign off there – but yes, I suppose I’m hooked. I don’t have overwhelming enthusiasm about the show, and I’m not dying to know what comes next. But its images and ideas have stuck with me throughout the week in a sort of low lying but constant way – and I’m curious to know where it’s going. It’s a more subtle form of engagement. I even wonder how intentionally the creators are in their calling for such a response from their viewers.