39 WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER
The people who have seen both Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad are in a minority, and few will have been tempted to compare. 70 years separate the black and white Hollywood glamour of Mildred Pierce from the post-Tarantino modernisms of Breaking Bad. Times have changed, and attitudes are different. The moral compass that steers the complicated tale of Breaking Bad exists within irresponsible drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. In the Hollywood movie we realise that the business success of Mildred has led to her moral decline when we see her drink neat whisky in the daytime and smoke a cigarette.
Both the movie and TV show plot the rise and fall of a person whose excessive zeal and ambition are precipitated by an unexpected disaster. Mildred is a housewife with two children who is abandoned by her husband, and Walt is a schoolteacher that discovers he has cancer. Without a husband to support the family Mildred needs to become economically self-sufficient. Walt is seriously ill and has to pay for excessive medical bills. Mildred responds by finding a job as a waitress and making enough progress to own a chain of successful restaurants. Walt makes crystal meth in a battered recreational vehicle and, despite indignant objections from rivals, he becomes a millionaire gangster. The two tales are wildly improbable, and initial reaction from the critics to Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad was unenthusiastic. But thanks to an awful lot of skill in the two creative processes both audiences and critics soon suspended disbelief. Mildred Pierce is in the American Film Institute list of the top 100 USA movies. Breaking Bad has had similar critical acclaim and sufficient popularity for creator Vince Gilligan and star Bryan Cranston to become rich men.
In both instances individual elements were important. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan recruited fine talents. What could have been mundane scenes were redeemed by impressive photography, slick editing, an original soundtrack and memorable acting performances. The great Michael Curtiz was hired to direct Mildred Pierce. Warner Brothers also hired a capable cast and collected gifted technicians. Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad look and sound marvellous. Some of it is to do with money and some of it is about finding the right people at the right time.
The rest is about two characters that leave us curious and interested. Mildred and Walt believe they are dedicated to their families but it is complicated. Mildred says she is desperate for the approval of her daughter, the attractive but venal snob called Veda. Even the name sounds like a snake ready to leave poison. No mother deserves a daughter like Veda but Mildred also has her dark desires. The determination of Veda to have upper class privilege reflects the guilt laden and trophy hunting attempts of Mildred to create a perfect daughter. Walt Junior, the son of Walter White, is also unusual. He is not beautiful like Veda but disabled. Walt worries about the economic future of his son and wife and talks much about the importance of family. Apart from breakfast, though, there appears to be little Walt wants to share with them. Within his family the educated Walt is the remote intellectual. Both Walt and Mildred will fight for their financial success yet the amount of money they have is not important. Once he dominates the crystal meth market Walt has no idea how much he owns. With little concern about the amounts involved Mildred writes cheques for her sponging second husband and the woman with whom he commits adultery, the venal snob and traitorous Veda. Mildred is not as evil as Walter White but like him she wants vengeance. It is this desire that defeats them both.
Walt dies knowing he has proved something to himself. Mildred survives but she has to return to the underachieving ex-husband and very different economic expectations. In the final shot of the movie Mildred and her ex-husband pass two cleaners scrubbing the floor. Mildred has been given the chance to return to humanity. But the successful Mildred, the alternative identity that was created after the unexpected disaster, is finished. Well before that, Mildred had talked about her second husband, recently purchased to share her empty and economically successful life. ‘We understand each other,’ she says, Even before the poignant ending we knew the remark was ironical.
When they first appeared, both Breaking Bad and Mildred Pierce were revelatory. Breaking Bad combined a drama of a suburban family with an epic crime saga. Mildred Pierce added a dash of film noir to what was viewed in the 40s as a ‘woman’s picture’. Walt kills a lot of people because he needs to be eminent as a drug dealer. Mildred pretends that she has murdered her second husband. The real killer is the monster Veda. Crime is not just important to the formats of Breaking Bad and Mildred Pierce it facilitated in both the movie and TV show dual and distinctive styles. Domestic drama dominates Mildred Pierce and is filmed in shadow free and bright black and white. The murder of Monty Berrigan and the response from the police are loaded with noir shadows and atmosphere. The Kafkaesque scenes in the police station are the highlight of Mildred Pierce. Something similar happens in Breaking Bad. The cinematic style is reserved for criminal activity, a lot of which takes place outside suburbia. The domestic dramas of the White and Schrader families are filmed in a plain and uncomplicated manner. Both films utilise iconic locations. Breaking Bad has the desert outside Albuquerque, and Mildred Pierce includes the Californian coastline.
Dean Martin once said everybody loves somebody. If he had been less sentimental, he might have said everyone needs someone. Mildred and Walt may dominate their dramas but other characters are important. Despite the criminal executions ordered by Walt the death that affects him the most is that of Jane. She is the girl that he could have saved but let die because she was a threat to Jesse his business partner. Kay is the younger daughter of Mildred. The decline in the health of Kay is not noticed by ambitious Mildred, and the condition of Kay becomes serious while Mildred is being seduced by the worthless Monty Berrigan. Kay dies from pneumonia. Walt and Mildred are ruthless but they also feel guilt.
Neither Mildred nor Walt are as self-sufficient as they would like to be. Mildred needs the help of smart operator Wally Fay, and Walt White has to utilise the legal and criminal expertise of Saul Goodman. Both Wally and Saul are useful. They have technical expertise and experience. Fast talking, they always have an answer and know how to deceive people. Neither man, though, is what he seems. Wally Fay is a strong masculine force but he is also one of the girls. Although lecherous he refers to himself as Uncle Wally. He has no male friends and in one scene he is put in an apron as if he rather than Mildred should have been the waitress. The name Fay signals his feminine contradictions. Saul Goodman has a Jewish name but is of Irish descent. The name is false. The people who think Saul is a crook underestimate his legal skills, and those who rate him as a lawyer fail to recognise his criminality.
Bruce Bennett is the actor who appears as the first husband of Mildred. He has accusatory eyes that are perfect for the part of the fiercest critic of Mildred. The same eyes must have secured him the part of the suspicious prospector in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. In that film he accuses the other prospectors of lying. The equivalent of Bennett in Breaking Bad is actor Jonathan Banks. His cold fish eyes are used to express contempt for Walter White. The goading of brother-in-law Hank at a birthday party tempts Walt to believing illegal drugs might have economic possibilities. Other decisive action from Hank also shapes the fate of Walt. The relentless demands of venal snob Veda drive mother Mildred to be successful but also help bankrupt the chain of restaurants.
Neither Mildred Pierce nor Breaking Bad will earn approval for being racially sensitive. Both the movie and the TV show use members of a non-white race for comedy and exotica. In Mildred Pierce the Afro-American waitress has a silly high voice to emphasise her supposed naivety. The Mexicans in Breaking Bad are mainly degenerate and criminal. In certain teasers they evoke an alien underworld outside society.
The teasers that begin each episode of Breaking Bad also add interesting time shifts to the narrative of the exploits of Walt and others. They make us curious about what will follow and are sometimes used to mislead the viewer. In Mildred Pierce good old-fashioned flashbacks not only distort and interrupt chronological narrative but emphasise the power of fate. On a more schematic level the flashbacks divert attention away from the real murderer and help us to be surprised by the future behaviour of key characters.
Both Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad prevailed because of their roots. Gilligan began with a great idea. A schoolteacher becomes a Scarface equivalent. Mildred Pierce was based on a novel by the great James M Cain. The novel was hardboiled soap opera. The film was not as blue collar or as edgy as the book but the noir elements were adequate compensation. And Mildred Pierce had the input of the technically accomplished. Like a great football team, every position was occupied by the skilled. Breaking Bad had the same strengths, and in 70 years we might look at Walt and his era with the same feelings and belief as when today we watch Mildred struggle in 40s California.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.