The American tradition of a night out at the movies is slowly coming to an end. Like the captains of the music and publishing industries before them, movie producers and studio executives alike are coming to terms with the destructive force of technological instant gratification.
When your audience has on-demand access to hundreds of movies in their pocket, how on Earth can one possibly expect them to make the effort to visit their local theater?
Searching for Something More
Consider the latest offerings from the first quarter of 2011: Sucker Punch, Battle: Los Angeles, Arthur, The Green Hornet, Rango, No Strings Attached–not exactly must-see cinema. Ignoring Of Gods and Men (which it seems many did), movie studios offer little reason for audiences to leave their homes.
Digital 3D presentations and theaters that serve you popcorn on a silver tray are simply panicked stop-gap procedures for covering up the true malignancy at hand: rancid storytelling. Constructing narratives based on paper-thin notions of story structure and stuffing them full of pointless reversals and reactions to last minute audience screenings only widens the pool of ambivalence. The Audience’s trust and goodwill long since gone.
The only safe harbor for fans of meaningful fiction lies within cable and in particular, HBO. Nowhere is this more obvious than with their presentation of the miniseries Mildred Pierce. Offering a methodical journey into the classic psychological drama of the mid-20th century, this latest gem confidently delivers the respect audiences both crave and deserve.
Five Parts, One Complete Story
Mildred’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it tells a complete story. While split into five separate episodes, the story’s exploration of a mother coming to terms with her daughter’s true nature maintains a definite structure that persists up to, and including, its final meaningful ending.
Mildred (Kate Winslet) sits at the center of the narrative and functions as the Audience’s “in” to the story. Recently appointed a “grass widow” by virtue of her husband leaving her, the abandoned single mom takes up position as a waitress–an occupation well below her middle-class status. Mildred’s precocious daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood), offers the alternative point-of-view that kicks Mildred’s emotional growth into high gear. Headstrong and opinionated about everything–including the class differential between Glendale and Pasadena and the status of her pregnancy (“Right now, it’s a matter of opinion”)–the young ingenue pushes Mildred’s buttons with ruthless precision.
Together, the two characters form the heart of the story with their contentious mother/daughter relationship. Central to this exploration of the story’s problem is the understanding between them that Veda has something that Mildred once had, but eventually lost. Maintaining that spark, that uniqueness, becomes all consuming for Mildred, driving her to take action as Protagonist in the larger story.
It is here that the other characters work their way into the story’s problem. Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), Ida (Mare Winningham), and even supposed confidant Wally Burgan (James LeGros) play a part in Mildred’s efforts to bring Veda closer to her. The problem is that Mildred is not the only one with a plan. Monty, Ida, Wally, and even Veda play into her game, but only insomuch as it serves their own devious schemes.
And it is here that one can begin to see the central problem at hand.
The Thoughtless and the Thoughtful
As with the titular character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Mildred suffers from “enormous, intellectual activity” (Coleridge, 1818). In other words, she thinks too much. But while the Danish king’s affliction led to a paralysis of action, Mildred’s excess of thought drives her to take actions that only make her situation worse. Taking up as a waitress and hiding the fact from her daughter, walking out in the middle of an interview because she believes an upper-class lady thinks less of her–these are problems caused by someone who is overly concerned with what people think of her.
But this isn’t all Mildred’s problem. It spreads and affects everyone in the story. Embezzling from her own company and treating her boyfriend/husband like the help are but a few examples of what Mildred is willing to do to keep Veda happy and thinking well of her. In the final, dastardly reveal Monty challenges her:
MONTY: What did you think Mildred? That you could pay for all this stuff and she’d come running back to the teat?
That is what she thought and why it is so painful for her to hear. Blind to it until the bitter end, this problem metastasizes itself throughout the rest of the cast.
Ida believing that Mildred had all but given up on her business, the shareholders thinking that Mildred is trying to put one over on her, Wally always thinking of how to work himself into the successes of others–both Pierce Homes and Mildred’s–even the doctor thinking that the young Ray needs a risky blood transfusion, these are all illustrations of the problems created when people think too much and too little.
What does this mean for the story’s structure?
As an Audience member we get too see how this problem works out objectively amongst all the characters. Subjectively, and more personally, we get to feel what it is like to have this problem by experiencing the story’s events through Mildred herself. Objective and subjective views. It is this simultaneous reality that elevates Mildred Pierce and showcases The Real Magic Behind Great Stories.
Ending the Way It Should
In addition to their similarities in regards to the story’s central problem, both Mildred Pierce and Hamlet share the same outcome. They both end in Tragedy. As covered in the article How to Write a Tragedy, stories that end this way show a Protagonist who fails to achieve the story’s central goal and a Main Character who becomes emotionally crushed by failing to resolve their own personal angst.
Objectively, failure abounds. The loss of the business to Ida, the end of the friendship with Wally, the dissolution of the marriage with Monty, and the collapse of a family life with Veda all point to a Protagonist who has lost. In fact Veda is the only one who wins. Snaking her way out of the contract, seducing Monty and securing a life of status in New York are proof that she is the story’s only winner. As the Antagonist in a Tragedy, it follows proper story structure and gives the Audience the satisfaction they’re looking for in a well-told story. Twisted, but satisfying.
Subjectively, Mildred closes the story in agony. Faced with no other choice but to accept the knowledge that her only daughter is, in fact, a bad person is not how she had hoped things would work out. Throughout the story, Veda accurately points out how similar the two are. If her only daughter is capable of deceiving and manipulating others, treating those she comes into contact with as worthless pawns, what does that say about Mildred? Declaring “To Hell with Veda” is simply an acceptance of an unavoidable and unfortunate reality. Maybe those of a lower class (of character, not station) aren’t born that way…perhaps they’re simply a victim of their upbringing.
The greatest thing about this final outcome is that it is exactly how the story should have ended. Mildred Pierce was trying to argue a point-of-view on the poisonous effects of worrying about what someone thinks of you to the exclusion of all else. If the producers and writers had somehow tacked on a “happy ending” because of low numbers in early screenings, they would have broken the story’s argument and turned this miniseries into a meaningless disaster.
Meaning Is the Thing
The miniseries is often compared to the novel, and for good reason. When a filmmaker has more than two hours to effectively explore their characters and the thematic issues they face, the end result can feel as if it has the breadth of illumination and insight of character that comes with well-written words on hundreds of pages. But the success of these miniseries and the obvious superiority they maintain over their cousins at the cinema lies in the soundness of their story structures rather than simply the pleasure of time they have.
Mildred Pierce may have felt slow at times, but the end result is an experience that was worth the time. How often can one say that for recent movies that are often less than an hour and a half?
Perhaps it is only the season. The King’s Speech and The Black Swan are two examples of solid story structures from last year that began their life at the cinema. But it does seem as though these films are becoming the exception rather than the rule they were in decades past.
Writers are flocking to cable because television offers the chance to tell stories that mean something, that offer something more than grandiose spectacle. Stories can have both–one doesn’t exist to the exclusion of the other–they simply ask that those who make these stories become aware of the choices they are making and the effect those decisions have on the final product and the argument within.
HBO’s Mildred Pierce would be a good starting point for those interested in better storytelling.
Advanced Story Theory for This Article
The general consensus is that if you have a Main Character who is also the Protagonist, you want avoid making the Impact Character the Antagonist. Carrying both the logistical and emotional arguments of a story within the same two characters can often lead to confusion over the thematics explored. It can also lead to a story feeling a bit “light”.
Mildred Pierce took this approach, but did so elegantly.
The usual technique to combat this emaciated situation is to carry the Impact Character role/Subjective Story relationship into another character. As with the hand-off between the Joker and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Mildred Pierce hands off the Impact Character role from Veda to Monty and back to Veda again. This is why Veda can be absent for a majority of the earlier episodes without causing the story to suffer. Monty fills in for her, maintaining that thematic thread, then steps aside in the later years. The result is a seamless story that feels at once whole, and emotionally complete.
Interesting too is the overall Negative Feeling Mildred Pierce has. Because her Growth of Character is Start (based on the MC Domain of Situation and the OS Domain of Psychology), Mildred will be moving towards something she lacks. This, in combination with the Story Judgment of Bad creates a story where the Main Character is growing towards something detrimental, or “bad.” It also can give a film a certain “Heavy” feeling as explained in Thinking of Your Audience First. This Audience Appreciation, known as Essence in Dramatica, may account for the dark, twisted feeling the film has and why many turned away from it.