Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is the only detective in the provincial community of Easttown, Pennsylvania. She’s haunted by the case of a missing girl who was never found, by the death of her own son and the divorce that resulted, and now her life’s thrown into even greater turmoil by the murder of a young mother. In a community this close, every suspect is someone else’s brother, father, best friend, or colleague. The community has already been rocked by the murder, so the revelation of who the killer is could shatter it.
A weather-beaten detective dealing with a fractious home life and the consequences of an unsolved case, now investigating a new murder that shocks a tight-knit community. There’s a suspicious priest. Therapy sessions. A new relationship that could offer a glimmer of hope if only they pursued it. Suspects close to home. Shocking photographs. Victim’s journals. Someone preying on prostitutes. Stop me if you’ve heard it all before! It’s true that Mare of Easttown covers ground that’s not only been done to death but reversed back over again just to make sure. And yet, Mare of Easttown has one, huge, monumental difference: it does everything better. So much better. You’ve probably already heard people raving about Mare of Easttown, and I’m here to tell you the praise and awards are justified.
Every television show starts with a screenplay, so let’s start there. Brad Inglesby has gone back to the well of small-town tragedy that he’s already dredged for Out of the Furnace (2013), American Woman (2018), and The Way Back (2020), so it’s clearly a milieu he’s comfortable in. Every character is convincing. Every interaction, conversation, and decision-making is believable. He’s also clearly a fan of the crime genre and manages to squeeze many of its most popular formulas into Mare’s seven episodes: the cold case, the small-town murder, the homegrown old-timer paired with the plucky young gun, and the seemingly innocuous pieces of evidence that crack the case wide open.
With some “worthy” crime dramas you get the sense the writer and director aren’t too interested in the crime part. They want to tell a small-town drama about family, and the desperate lengths humans will go to to protect themselves, and they know that making it a police procedural is really just a means to get it financed. But that’s not the case here, it’s not just the “drama” that Inglesby does well, it’s the crime too. It’s a properly gripping mystery, and I was convinced I knew who the killer was at least four times, only to find out I was always wrong. And crucially, every development is convincing. Sure, there’s always a little bit of contrivance to get so many people involved and to have quite so many red herrings, but then if it was just a routine crime, the story wouldn’t be worth telling.
Ingleby’s script also manages to make all these clichés feel fresh again because they’re all earned. Clichés are often used as shortcuts to emotion or atmosphere, but in Mare of Easttown they’re arrived at naturally. When we arrive at the point that she has to talk about her emotions in a therapy session, or has to surrender her badge and gun, they’re the logical conclusion of the decisions we have seen her make, and those decisions are themselves the believable product of the strains the plot has put her under. It’s an amazing feat, it’s only when you try to explain the plot to someone that you realise how generic it sounds.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the show’s quality is that I was fooled into thinking the mystery was solved at the end of episode 5 (of 7) and I was perfectly happy to have two more episodes spent resolving Mare’s personal and family issues. Mare’s son died a year before the series starts, and she is currently fighting a custody battle over her grandson. Her mother lives at home, her daughter is still reeling from the loss of her brother in desperate need of her mother’s love. Meanwhile, from her kitchen window Mare can see her ex-husband’s happy new family playing and laughing, somehow enjoying the love and stability she’s lost. Once again, the setup sounds cliché, but it’s how it does it that makes it so great.
Director Craig Zobel (The Hunt) is appropriately restrained, which is a credit, not a criticism, as you never once think about the director’s hand guiding the show’s visuals. The rest of the technical team do similarly understated but effective work, but especially cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), production designer Keith P. Cunningham (The Way Back), and costume designer Meghan Kasperlik (Watchmen). All their work is invisible, but that’s why it’s so great. Once again, the keyword throughout is “convincing”. The decision to shoot mostly on location in Pennsylvania also removes most of the obstacles that remind you this is a TV show. The only, only mistake is too much noticeable greenscreen through car windows, which is a shame.
Kate Winslet is, as one would expect, flawless. She’s one of the best actors of her generation and there’s plenty in this drama for her to get her chops into. But this isn’t one of those performances full of fiery monologues and tears, as it’s all about her physicality. Mare has a particular way of walking as a hunched figure, as though she’s physically carrying a weight of expectation and burden of responsibility, not just from her job, but from her fragile family life. And there’s that specific Pennsylvania accent. Winslet has no big Emmy-winning moment here, which is why it is wonderful that she won anyway. The only other “big name” actor in the cast is Guy Pearce, who shows up for around five minutes each episode. As a once feted author who recently moved to Easttown as a visiting professor, it makes sense that he’s the only other movie star, even if it’s weird to see Pearce in such a small role.
Beyond them, the cast contains some recognisable faces from television and film: Jean Smart as Mare’s live-at-home mum, Angourie Rice as her daughter, Evan Peters as a young pup detective, and David Denman as her ex-husband. All deliver good performances, but the great ones come from less-recognisable faces: Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s best friend and the victim’s aunt, and James McCardle as a priest dogged by accusations. Both give performances of such naturalism, even when they’re crying or shouting. Nicholson does get herself an Emmy-winning moment, and she rises to the occasion… so it’s no surprise she won too.
Mare of Easttown has been described as a show about grief, but that’s being unfairly, or even lazily, reductive. I’ve often argued that television doesn’t offer creatives anything other than extra length, and added length only offers the opportunity for more detail, not depth. After all, who could argue that a TV show is deeper than The Godfather (1972) just because it’s longer? Quite often, extra time in television shows is just bloat. But Mare is one of those rare examples where all seven hours are used to their fullest extent. I’m not saying I wanted it to be longer, but I also did not want it to be shorter. I wouldn’t lose a single minute, and that’s the first time I can ever remember saying that about a TV drama.
Believe the hype. Mare of Easttown is every bit as good as people said. And the last time I can remember thinking that about a television show it was The Wire (2002-08).
USA | 2021 | 7 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Invitation to the Set. A short featurette, presumably one that HBO broadcast between other shows, designed for people who haven’t watched the show yet. Nothing of interest besides some behind-the-scenes footage.
- Mare of Easttown: A Closer Look.
- Welcome to Easttown.
- Making Mare of Easttown. An eight-minutes long featurette, this time with some actual talk about the plot, etc. Clearly this is the one for people who have actually watched the show. That said, there’s nothing to learn beyond the fact that everyone loved the script and Kate Winslet is great to work with.
Cast & Crew
writer: Brad Ingelsby
director: Craig Zobel.
starring: Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, David Denman, Neal Huff, Guy Pearce, Cailee Spaeny, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Tippett, Evan Peters, Sosie Bacon & James McArdle.