A good murder mystery isn’t merely about finding out who committed one particular crime. The deepest and most compelling stories probe many secrets along the way, and uncover difficult truths and disturbing findings in the search for a culprit. At a point, it almost becomes irrelevant, if not merely less important, who the killer is as what the circumstances were that allowed a murder to take place and remain unsolved for some period of time. Mare of Easttown makes excellent use of that approach, unraveling a web of lies and complicated relationships wrapped up in the hunt for the unknown killer of a young woman.
HBO’s new drama takes place in a small Pennsylvania town where everyone knows each other and has history. Mare (Kate Winslet) is a hardened detective who is divorced from Frank (David Denman), mother to Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and grandmother to Drew (Izzy King), the young child of Mare’s son, who took his own life. Mare lives with her own mother, Helen (Jean Smart), and is drawn in to a complicated case when a young girl, Erin (Cailee Spaeny), mother to a young child she shares with her ex-boyfriend Dylan (Jack Mulhern), is found dead after being insulted and beaten by a group of unkind teenagers.
Everything on this show is intensely insular, starting with the fact that Siobhan is spotted in the crowd in a video taken of Erin from the night she died, and only continuing from there. There is also the specter of an unsolved case, the disappearance of a local girl whose unknown fate has weakened confidence in local law enforcement. The arrival of a county detective, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), isn’t seen as some imposing takeover or a much-needed allocation of resources, but instead merely adds another layer to this puzzle as the affable and respectful Zabel must chip away at the icy exterior Mare projects.
One frame of reference to better understand this show might be True Detective, another dark HBO drama where innocent people meet miserable fates and disgruntled police get sucked into a seemingly endless hole looking for those responsible. Easttown offers Mare a more grounding community that the protagonists on that show did not have, though it comes with its complications and relationships she would probably rather not exist. Her one true escape comes from a budding romance with a visiting author (Guy Pearce), who doesn’t know her history and isn’t privy to the messy intergenerational bond between her family and a place that she’ll never leave.
Another clue to this show’s content can be found in Justified, a series that emphasized lawlessness in the land of the lawman, in which the separation between cops and criminals is difficult to discern. That’s not to say that all of the residents are bad people getting away with misdeeds because Mare knows and likes them too much, but rather that it’s never apparent if anyone is completely innocent since everyone appears to be hiding something. Not all of it will pan out, of course, but each player being under suspicion forces Mare to tread carefully so as not to offend – a mode she isn’t quite capable of doing given her determination and lack of concern with being liked – or let loose something problematic that might have been bottled up and controlled for decades.
This show does not match in any way the tone of two recent film releases written by series creator Brad Ingelsby, The Way Back and Our Friend. There is plentiful humor to be found amid a dark web of untruths and cruelty, and those moments of levity are what make it bearable. Peters is a particularly strong member of the cast in that respect, underplaying his character so that his out-of-towner sticks out for, in essence, behaving normally. Smart, who is headlining another new series premiering this week, HBO Max’s Hacks, also masterfully handles what little material she’s given to ensure that Mare’s mother is heard and not ignored. The ensemble also includes the always terrific Julianne Nicholson as a close friend of Mare’s and Sosie Bacon as the mother of Mare’s grandson, who is also a recovering addict.
Winslet is an Oscar-winning actress who hasn’t done much TV, last appearing as a regular in the award-winning miniseries Mildred Pierce, also for HBO and also opposite Guy Pearce. She has the right deflated disposition for the role here, even if her accent isn’t entirely on point. The weight she brings to the part, capturing Mare’s life experience and how she perseveres only because she must and not because she wants to, is effective and helps to carry a show that, if not for her sardonic wit and take-no-prisoners attitude, likely wouldn’t work as well as it does.
New episodes of Mare of Easttown premiere on HBO Sunday nights at 10pm and also available to stream on HBO Max.
Here’s the trailer of the series.