Mildred Pierce and The Bad Seed

April 11, 2011

My wife Lauren and I were riveted again last night as we watched the last 2 episodes of HBO’s brilliant Mildred Pierce miniseries. Once again, HBO has delivered a first class, engrossing, adult drama to those of us who so appreciate what we have come to call Old Hollywood film making. Mildred Pierce delivers on every level of our hopes and expectations. The script by Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond is brilliant as it develops fully realized, 3 dimensional characters; Todd Haynes’ direction is utterly masterful in every way; and the cast, led by the incomparable Kate Winslet is a joy to behold.

As I have said often, HBO seems almost single-handedly committed to producing and distributing high quality adult drama on a regular basis. Mildred Pierce certainly takes its place now among the great HBO landmarks such as the John Adams miniseries, The Sopranos, and so many others. Come Emmy time, Mildred Pierce will be at the front of the line.

While Mildred Pierce succeeds as thought-provoking drama on many levels, I was struck throughout by its bold and rare glimpse into what once was known as The Bad Seed syndrome. We are painfully familiar with the tragic consequences that occur when good kids are burdened with dreadful parents. Young lives are often ruined before they even begin or, at best, children are faced with the gargantuan task of overcoming the self-esteem issues that lie deep within them as a result of abusive parents.

Mildred Pierce, on the other hand, takes a road much less traveled as it illustrates another phenomenon:  parents who do love their children, and do the best they can to exhibit that love to them, and yet never overcome the….bad seed.The Bad Seed (1956) was a shocking and hugely controversial film that centered around a loving mother (Nancy Walker) who nevertheless became convinced that her teenage daughter (child star Patty McCormack)  had actually become a murderer.

In Mildred Pierce, Kate Winslet plays a newly divorced single mother with 2 young daughters in the 1930s. She takes a job to support her daughters but nothing she does is ever good enough for her oldest daughter Vida who confronts and disrespects her mother at every opportunity. As the miniseries unfolds, Vida’s vituperative attitude towards her mother deepens and broadens despite Mildred’s attempts to at every turn to help her daughter. In fact, the 2 actresses who play Vida (Morgan Turner as a girl and Evan Rachel Wood as an adult) give such poisonously brilliant performances that we found ourselves rooting for Mildred to walk away rather than subject herself to the constant hatred of her daughter who, by the way, acts in a venal manner toward everyone else she encounters. But how truly difficult, if not bordering on impossible, it must be for a mother not to continue to try to connect with her daughter.

We also even found ourselves losing some respect for Mildred as she continued to pursue her daughter’s approval despite Vida’s increasing nastiness. In retrospect today, I am so appreciative of the boldness with which Mildred Pierce dug so deeply into a mother’s anguish at seeing her daughter truly become a monster. One can only imagine how crushing must it be for a mother to have to come to grips with the reality of a child who, no matter what the parents tried to do, was, at her core, a bad seed.

As I write this blog, I am aware that some may take issue with the very notion of a bad seed, perhaps arguing that there is no such thing at all, only bad parents. While I respect that point of view, and welcome your comments, I have seen the bad seed syndrome firsthand in the lives of some close friends.

More than any film in recent memory, Mildred Pierce shines a very bright light on this controversial subject matter and for that, and countless other reasons, I salute and thank the filmmakers and HBO for a fascinating and deeply emotional journey.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Asha Hawkesworth April 11, 2011 at 10:48 am

I eagerly await “Mildred Pierce” on DVD, since we don’t get HBO, but with regard to the Bad Seed Syndrome, there is something to that. What you’re describing is narcissistic/sociopathic (they lie on the same spectrum) behavior, and of course the question is: are narcissists and sociopaths made or are they born? I have plenty of experience with narcissism in my own family, so I have to say it may be some of both. I think there is a genetic component, because there are several in the family, and everyone in the family is profoundly affected by these toxic people, with the result that many members exhibit traits themselves–the environmental impact of living in close proximity with narcissists.

The poor mother in this series is an enabler of the narcissist, and that is common enough in itself. People become comfortable with their own discomfort, even when it means they get treated like dirt. I don’t think it’s fair at all to blame the parents for the fact that the child has a mental illness–which is what this is. These are complex illnesses, and I don’t think you can point to a single “cause” for what is. The parents (or children) of people with these disorders deserve compassion, as do the people who have the disorders. They are basically untreatable, and the people who have them actually suffer quite a bit–and they make everybody around them suffer as well. It’s a hard thing.


Stephen Simon April 11, 2011 at 10:58 am

As always, thanks so much Asha for a truly personal and moving comment. I think you’ll be fascinated by Mildred Pierce and, after reading about your experiences with this kind of challenge, I’d love to hear your response after you see the miniseries. Thanks again for your continued participation and contributions.


lauren April 12, 2011 at 11:58 am

Great Blog Stephen! Great response Asha:)
This was a powerful read for me because Parents can be bad seeds as well. I read a fabulous book that could relate to any narcissist, “Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up’s Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents” Or anyone for that matter.
The book begins by describing Destructive Narcissistic Parents and explains how being raised by them affected you, and gives very unique techniques for diffusing their ability to hurt you. This would work with anyone in your life. It is very powerful and freeing.


Rhoda Penmark April 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Do you work for HBO? That was the worst production from the network I’ve ever seen. There is such a thing as a movie being too faithful to a book, and this Mildred Pierce miniseries is proof of that–the result is a plodding, flabby film only compounded by East Coast location shooting, on grey days yet. And I think Cain would laugh out loud at the story being read in psychological terms.


Stephen Simon April 14, 2011 at 6:42 am

Hi Rhonda….No, I don’t work for HBO in any way but I certainly understand why you would ask…I am a huge fan of HBO; however, my reaction to MILDRED PIERCE was solely as a viewer….in any case, thank you so much for your comment….I know that we all respond differently to films…..I welcome your opinion and look forward to your continued participation here…thanks again and welcome!….Stephen Simon


Rosie September 2, 2011 at 11:38 am

Was Veda a bad seed? Yes. But Mildred was not entirely innocent. She was partially responsible for the creation of Veda. So was Burt. Veda did the rest on her own.


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