One Good Thing: Mare of Easttown is my new favorite murder story
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown. | HBOThe Kate Winslet-starring HBO miniseries ponders the double horror of peaking in high school and homicide. “So Kate Winslet is a mayor?”
That’s one of the questions I occasionally get asked these days. It’s my fault. I mumble sometimes, which means I really need to enunciate when raving about Kate Winslet in the seven-episode HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown — one of my favorite new TV shows — so as not to give the wrong impression.
Alas, Kate Winslet is not a mayor.
Winslet is Mare Sheehan, a former high school basketball star turned bristly detective grandma of Easttown, Pennsylvania. Winslet, who spouts off a Delaware County (suburban Philadelphia) accent that turns “water” into wudur and “home” into hewam, is putting in a masterful performance as brittle and prickly Mare that’s reason enough to tune in.
But Mare isn’t just a Winslet acting exhibition, nor is it ever in danger of becoming a hollow A-list actor offensive like HBO’s last buzzy drama, The Undoing, was. It’s a riveting and messy family drama — bolstered by great performances from Jean Smart and Angourie Rice — that’s wrapped in a chewy and thrilling murder mystery. Setting it in blue collar, semi-rural Philadelphia heightens the mood, the fear, and even the show’s rare comedic moments. And that’s part of what makes it the most riveting show on television at the moment.
Mare of Easttown is a murder mystery that unlocks a story about another woman’s troubled history
Don’t lie to Kate Winslet, I mean, Mare of Easttown.What makes Mare of Easttown work is how different it is from HBO’s glamorous, prestige murder story offerings of late like The Undoing and Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman starred in both. But the shows also had more in common that just Kidman. They were both about the glamorous lives of very beautiful, very rich women beleaguered by sociopaths, awful marriages, and homicide. Their privileged lives complete with plush homes, beautiful coats, and perfect handbags were part of the shows’ appeal; the women’s well-appointed kitchens, gorgeous fashion, and lives full of surreal opulence matched their degree of emotional terror and turmoil.
Mare has plenty of terror and turmoil; not so much of the rest.
Mare herself peaked in high school and lives with her mother (Smart), daughter (Rice), and grandson. Her house isn’t terribly handsome, and seems a little drafty — her mom usually has a blanket nearby. Her coat is more sack than clothing, barely enough to keep her warm in what seems to be an interminable, gloomy winter in Easttown. Her job as the town’s detective is the best thing she has going for her because it’s her one way to escape the more humdrum truths of her existence. Detective-ing is one of the few things she enjoys doing and one of the few things that lets her have some power and control in Easttown.
Everyone knows everyone in Easttown, which makes Mare captivating as its central protagonist. The people who ask her for help are friends of friends. The people doing crimes are also friends of friends. So Mare, by virtue of growing up in Easttown, already has an opinion about who seems suspicious. And even in spite of protecting her friends and the town she grew up in, she sometimes struggles to see people’s humanity beyond the scope of the law.
She knows how to use small-town gossip and politics in her favor. At one point, she embarrasses one of the town’s kids by arresting her at her waitressing job, knowing full well it’ll cause reverberations and rumors throughout the town.
The problem for Mare, though, is that her approach works both ways. Everyone in town knows Mare’s backstory, too.
When Mare of Easttown begins, someone’s murdered a local young woman named Erin McMenamin. Mare is on the case, and the longer it goes unsolved the more it dredges up the biggest question mark of Mare’s career to date: the abduction of Katie Bailey a year ago.
Mare never found Katie or her kidnapper, and everyone in Easttown knows it. The longer Mare’s investigation into Erin’s death goes on, the more people bring up that Mare couldn’t find Katie, and the more Mare feels like a failure. And Mare often seems more concerned about her ego and reputation than she is with Katie’s well-being. (“We’re never gonna find her. Never. She’s a needle in a thousand fucking haystacks,” Mare coldly tells a friend after said friend diplomatically explains that Katie’s mom has cancer and that when people mention the case, it’s not really about Katie going missing or animosity about Mare.)
Though the show could prove me wrong and become splashy and twisty in its final episodes (I’ve seen five of seven episodes, which were sent to critics to screen; three have aired so far) it doesn’t feel like Mare is particularly concerned with the depravity of its villain or villains, or like it’s gearing up to reveal an evil resident in Easttown’s midst. It could easily be that Katie’s and Erin’s cases were perpe
May 3, 2021 - VOX
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown. | HBOThe Kate Winslet-starring HBO miniseries ponders the double horror of peaking in high school and homicide. “So Kate Winslet is a mayor?” That’s one of the questions I occasionally get asked these days. It’s my fault. I mumble sometimes, which means I really need to enunciate when raving about Kate Winslet in the seven-episode HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown — one of my favorite new TV shows — so as not to give the wrong impression. Alas, Kate Winslet is not..