At first, Mare of Easttown looks familiar.
The HBO restricted series follows an attempt to solve the murder of a young woman and the potentially related disappearances of 2 other people, a plot that is performed on television more times than can be counted. Its protagonist is a traumatized police detective that pushes boundaries to get to the bottom of the scenario, a kind that is figured into such crime stories since virtually indefinitely. The show is set in a little Pennsylvania town whose small brick houses, lined up in neat rows, chimney after chimney, are among the first images that appear in episode one, that starts in the azure light of a winter as the sun slowly rises. Instantly, you feel the sense of melancholy embedded in the cellular makeup of this close-knit, working-class hamlet. That disposition, combined with all those other components, evokes a number of recent and semi-recent series, including Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, Sharp Objects, and Clarice.
But Mare of Easttown, written and created by Brad Ingelsby (Our Friend, The Way Back), distinguishes itself with strong characters that will grow on audiences with every hour-long setup they consume. HBO sent five of the seven episodes into critics, and by episode three, I was completely spent in Mare Sheehan, played by a thoroughly dedicated Kate Winslet, and the lives of everybody connected to her in this place she is known for her entire life.
It turns out Mare of Easttown, which debuts April 18, is not strictly a crime play. I meanit surely is that, to an extent. A lot of the storytelling facilities on the murder of Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), a teenaged and mother of a baby son who is found dead from the conclusion of episode one under circumstances which could possibly be linked to an unsolved missing-person case between the daughter of an old high-school buddy of Mare’s. We witness Mare doing plenty of police work, especially in concert with Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), a county detective who is called in to help her and to whom she does not warm up straight away. (Spoiler alert: Mare Sheehan does not warm up to most people straight away.) Our suspicions have been raised, lowered, then increased again toward a range of local supposes in Erin’s homicide. Ingelsby and manager Craig Zobel, who presided over several episodes of The Leftovers and last year’s The Hunt, throw these red flags without being gimmicky about it. Mare of Easttown invites us to see things the way that Mare does: with sufficient attention to catch the smallest change in a facial expression which may signal in a lie and with sufficient cynicism to think it is possible that people you’ve known forever could be capable of unspeakable behavior.
There are valid reasons for Mare to become cynical. She has missing a grown son to suicide; eventually become divorced from her husband (David Denman), who’s now engaged to another woman; and she’s trying to raise the grandson her son left behind. When Mare of Easttown delves into these matters, it pivots from crime play to character study and exploration of despair. The thought that everybody you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about permeates this series, in which Mare is hardly the only person struggling. A lot of television shows have portrayed working-class people in one-dimensional techniques reek of Hollywood elite acting like they know what regular men and women are like. But Mare of Easttown brings even its most flawed Easttowners with an awareness of humanity and sophistication, both aided by the fact that Inglesby is in the area and the production was shot there too.
In addition to serving as a crime drama and a pure drama, Mare of Easttown has a great sitcom embedded within it. This sitcom stars Kate Winslet and Jean Smart as Mare’s mother Helen, who lives with Mare and, in the grand tradition of moms and daughters, has a flair for stomping around Mare’s last nerve. In one episode where Helen has an injury at home, Mare notes that her injuries look fairly small, to which her mum drily responds:”I’m sorry I’m not more maimed for you.” If sarcasm and deadpan comments could be transformed into pieces of visual artwork, just about what Jean Smart says on this show would be on display at the Guggenheim.
But the hardest role in the series belongs to Winslet, not just because Mare is in virtually every frame but because the component requires a breadth of emotion and subtlety, in addition to the not-insignificant barrier of convincing us this very British actress was born and raised in Pennsylvania. The first time Winslet states”wooter” instead of water and pronounces an O together with all the roundness of a Philadelphia-area native, the spine stiffens in anticipation of an actorly performance. But once you settle in the show and Winslet demonstrates how completely embedded she is in this obstinate, perpetually vaping lady’s skin, these preconceptions melt off. Winslet coats Mare in such a thick, tough shell that any moment she strokes a small bit, it is a revelation.
One of Mare of Easttowns‘s best assets is its thorough attention to detail, but sometimes that also functions to its detriment. The series puts significance on numerous story lines and sidebars that some inevitably get pushed to the side without being satisfyingly solved. Richard (Guy Pearce), a writer and professor that Mare starts communicating, also isn’t quite as well developed as some of the additional characters. But the series is immersive and well-done in different ways that its flaws don’t detract from the experience.
Even if it had been just a basic crime drama, Mare of Easttown would be pretty good. The fifth episode comes with a tense sequence that makes masterful use of AC/DC’s”Thunderstruck” and escalates into a point that actually caused me to loudly gasp. But this seven-episode saga is over only a gasp-inducer. Whatever may trigger a sense of shock, transfer you to a different town, and make you cackle (again: Jean Smart for president) is the kind of television that’s worth your time.
Mare of Easttown Is More Than It Appears to Be