Tragedy stalks the streets of Easttown. It is a small town in Delaware County, Pennsylvania marked by drug abuse, suicides, considerable grief, familial strife, missing/kidnapped women, and now: murder. Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) has been found stripped and killed by the creek. The list of suspects is long and one that Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) must traverse. Mare grew up in this town, was once a celebrated high school basketball star, and is now the embattled Detective. The case of the missing Katie Bailey has haunted the town and Mare for the past year with little in the way of leads. Now add in Erin’s murder and her already full plate continues to grow. At home, the weight on her shoulders is never lifted. The suicide of her son Kevin continues to weigh on her mind, her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) lives next door with his fiance, her mother Helen (Jean Smart) lives with her and the pair have a tenuous relationship, and her teenage daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) is caught up in her own grief. This is the world of Mare of Easttown, a small town tragedy where every home on the block tells a story all its own.
Mare of Easttown is a subtly ambitious and sprawling show that painstakingly lays out the entirety of this town’s demons. Director Craig Zobel and writer Brad Inglesby may have, ostensibly, created a murder mystery, but it is so much more. Mare of Easttown is a show about the generational trauma and guilt within the Sheehan family. It is about the trauma at the Ross family home after Erin’s death. The drug crisis takes focus at times with Mare helping an acquaintance and her addicted brother as well as coping with her deceased son’s girlfriend Carrie (Sosie Bacon) and her continued battle for sobriety. While partially a character study of Mare herself and focused on themes regarding her coming to terms with Kevin’s death, forgiving herself, and finding healthy ways to cope, Mare of Easttown is also a show that tries to examine the brutality of this quintessential small-town. No matter what secrets lie behind each door, all roads lead to the town itself. It is as though it is a large jail cell, trapping its inhabitants within its boundaries and inflicting upon them a curse of sorrow, heartbreak, and isolation. Even passersby, such as Detective Zabel (Evan Peters) who is called in by the County to help Mare with Erin’s case, are touched by this as the evil lurking within Easttown reaches out and destroys them. Where Zobel and Inglesby excel is in demonstrating the cyclical and generational pain that living in a town such as this creates. Those who dare to break the cycle are the only ones who could possibly be free. Brutal and bleak, Mare of Easttown functions akin to the best of noir, turning the town itself into a character with a malevolent energy that leads its characters into a nightmarish series of events.
Inglesby’s ability to build out and center this film on the women at the heart of its story is what makes Mare of Easttown so exceptional. This is a great mystery with many angles and possible answers that encourage the viewer to play at home, trying to piece together all of the clues. While Inglesby remains fully in control of those elements, as well as the red herrings, and pieces them together more than capably in the end, it is the women who are the lifeblood of this show. One could argue it is more family drama than mystery, merely using the death of Erin as an entry point to examine Mare, Helen, Siobhan, Lori (Julianne Nicholson), Carrie, and the many other women who cross Mare’s path. The bond they share through their collective trauma, the struggles they face, and the growth or suffering they experience in the series is incredibly powerful. Inglesby works them into multi-dimensional characters, no matter how small their role is and ensures each lands with considerable grace and depth. Small character moments, such as Helen’s smart mouth, are a great representation of the small moments that populate Mare of Easttown. In many cases, they are the highlights and, often, the focus. It takes snippets of their lives, adding them to the tapestry of this town and enables its characters to just exist, bringing this town to life in every facet.
The strength of the supporting cast – especially a magnificent Julianne Nicholson who shines in the finale – is crucial to Mare of Easttown’s success, but it ultimately comes down to Kate Winslet, who is at her very best. Mare is not a woman who wears her emotions on her sleeves. She has followed in the footsteps of her father and grandfather in becoming a cop, has experienced the loss of a son (and all of the accompanying trauma that entailed beforehand), had a rough childhood, and now has a strained relationship with her daughter. In essence, she is going through everything at once, not to mention her high-stress job. Winslet excels in capturing Mare’s rugged, sturdy exterior while subtly expressing the pain she is going through. The scenes with her therapist bring it out more, but the look in her eye in the show’s final scene as she stares her greatest fear in the eye, the hesitation in her voice before mentioning Kevin, or her trepidation in embarking on a relationship with Richard (Guy Pearce) all say things that words never could. Winslet delivers an incredibly subtle and nuanced performance, truly embodying Mare in not just accent, but in feeling and mannerism. While she may not always say how she feels, her expressiveness says more than words ever could. In Mare’s arc, Inglesby’s writing ability shines the best with his handling of grief particularly impressive. Recognizing ways of coping, the hurdles in one’s mind that create barriers to coming to terms with what has happened, and the triggers that bring one back to that feeling are all found in Mare’s story, never manipulatively introduced and ultimately incredibly empowering. Forgiveness is a theme coursing through the Sheehan’s, particularly in Helen and Mare’s relationship as well as in Mare’s relationship with herself. Together with handling grief, it is where Smart and Winslet are able to shine the most and where Inglesby’s tender touch and understanding excel.
Mare of Easttown is not only a character drama. As a thriller, it more than delivers. Not only are the gut punches of its finale ‘Sacrament’ quite the ride, but the events of episode five, ‘Illusions’, loom large in the show’s arc. It is perhaps the most outwardly thrilling episode of the show, confronting the reality behind the missing women in Easttown and their connection to Erin. A nervy score, tight corners in a dingy and creepy attic, and the frantic pace of action once Mare and Zabel enter this unnerving building in town are enough to leave one on the edge of their seat. It is one of those episodes that leaves viewers desperately wanting to know what comes next, hanging onto the emotional trauma of the climax while longing for the episode to be five hours long. Though stretched out over seven hours, Mare of Easttown retains a strong pace. It is never tight, indulging those aforementioned narrative diversions to build out each character, but it never slips into being tedious either. Zobel and the team of editors keep the action moving, blending each scene with the next with an eye toward the show’s overarching ideas. When it comes time for a shootout or shocking revelation, the emotional involvement is always there while DP Ben Richardson’s tight framing or use of space adds to the suspense. In drama, tears are at the ready with the show easily basking in the raw emotion of the moment. Craig Zobel’s control of mood and atmosphere is crucial to Mare of Easttown, keeping the show gripping at every turn no matter what it attempts.
Mare of Easttown is an incredible journey. As a murder mystery, it has more than enough to keep fans of the genre satisfied. Red herrings and clues abound, while the list of suspects grows with a satisfying and logical conclusion. Some plot holes or inconsistencies may exist, but fade into the background with the overall ride being enthralling enough to make an impact. Yet, it is in its tragedy, family drama, and examination of grief and forgiveness that Mare of Easttown steps beyond being merely a great crime drama into being a truly exceptional work. Handled with care and understanding, this sprawling look at Easttown, Pennsylvania, and the characters – especially the women – inhabiting it has a depth and a lived-in quality that it is hard to shake.