Mare of Easttown Review: A Criminally Successful Exploration of Grief
Brad Ingelsby's limited series works as both a powerful study of deeply flawed grief-stricken characters and a riveting detective show.
Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) lumbers into the kitchen dressed in a slightly oversized drab sweater, messy ponytail, hand in pocket, visible fret on her face and orders her daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) to join her in a “family meeting,” to which her daughter replies with a candidly confused “a what?.” Mare then proceeds to give her grandson an iPad in an attempt to distract him, sends him to her room, and requests her mother’s presence in the meeting. The mother is baffled.
Sitting down, Mare distressingly yet calmly confesses about a major professional transgression in her work as a local police detective that left both her mother and daughter gaping. Her mother slowly disrupts the silence:
“God Marianne…I don’t know what to say. Oh wait, it just came to me. That was stupid!”
Mare, foraging for words to reply to her mother’s inundating insults, comes up with: “Thanks mom.”
This brief beautiful scene is a masterclass of character dynamics put onscreen: An interplay of four intergenerational characters that not only well defines the relationship tying them together, but also uses information revelation as an opportunity to further develop their viewpoint toward one another….and toward themselves.
It is certainly not easy to sustain such delicate dynamics for the full length of a show, so how does Mare of Easttown pull it off for seven consecutive near-one-hour episodes? With grace, intensity, and a thrilling central mystery.
The HBO limited seven-parter series centers on the murder of local teenage single mother Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) and the ramifications her death entails in Easttown, Philadelphia.
In Easttown, everybody is somebody’s cousin, school friend, neighbor, or ex-lover and in the same vein, everybody knows Mare, the best detective this small suburban town has. Nicknamed Ladyhawk for her successful basketball high school career, Mare has grown to be a great policewoman and a massive mess: Divorced, failing at parenting her daughter, mother to a dead son, aggressively fighting for her grandson’s custody against her former daughter-in-law, and just plain antisocial. If it weren’t for her conflicted close friend Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson), Mare would be completely isolated from her surroundings.
Now solving Erin’s murder rests on her shoulder although it comes on the heels of a previous unsolved mystery that left her at odds with Easttown’s people. Will she succeed or will she infuse her detective work with a taste of her derailing life?
With solid and focused directing by Craig Zobel, lush yet sober cinematography by Ben Richardson and a solid cast with the likes of TV queen Jean Smart as the matriarch and a great Evan Peters as Mare’s colleague Colin Zabel - a radiant character in a gloomy town -, the series offers a rich palette of fascinating sides to pick from.
But what truly holds the whole show together is one stunning performance by Kate Winslet, playing Mare with an inexorable and unrelenting revelatory honesty that shatters many character conventions viewers have come to know and expect in crime dramas.
Mare is, for lack of a better term, a paragon of contradictions, a dichotomy of unadulterated weakness and tenacious strength that propels her forward no matter the circumstances, albeit this propelling occurring only on the professional level hence leaving her vulnerable and exposed in her personal life. The candidness of Mare’s vulnerability is spelled in the smallest gestures and acts whether it’s scolding Zabel for bringing her coffee, feeling disappointed for not being immediately noticed by her date or even her obsessive vaping habit.
Yet, on the other hand, the steadfastness of her work as a detective, her acute attention to the smallest details and her case-cracking-oriented mindset makes her the town’s only hope in solving the murder. Mare Sheehan is a hero, or rather must remain the hero she was during high school, in order not to disappoint, but she’s already done plenty of that.
She is as good-hearted and loving on the inside as she is brutish and callous on the outside, never seeming to realize the pathways to create a healthy balance between the personal and the professional. Winslet fulfills the seemingly impossible task of portraying both clashing sides simultaneously when required.
Though if asked about why Mare’s behavior appears so abrasive on the outside, one could relate it to one theme which encapsulates the show’s intentions: Dealing with grief.
Easttown is a grief-stricken town, where seasonal changes do not occur, ever stuck in a looping winter that parallels the pain felt within the residents: Mare’s son died by suicide as revealed early on, ruining her marriage and leaving her stuck in the loss she suffered years ago. Her daughter cannot move on from her dead brother’s looming shadow, a mother, Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), cannot confirm if her 1-year-now missing daughter is either dead or alive, and the murder casts a glooming shadow of sorrow over the entirety of the town. In Easttown, you do not have to lose a loved one to the grim reaper to drown in angst, abrupt deceptions from your closest generate similar feelings.
The centricity of exploring grief does not dwarf other elements and themes in the show, as show creator and writer Brad Ingelsby keeps the story progressing on multiple levels simultaneously without ever losing control of the levelheaded pace he has established; the narrative never pauses character development in favor of revealing the threads of the mystery but rather uses it as a vessel to further push them.
In one shot leading up to a crucial event, Mare's face is front and center of the frame and it says everything the show attempts to say without disrupting the scene with a monologue or tirade. A display of one the finest "show don't tell" moments witnessed on TV in a long time, Winslet's face says it all.
Ingelsby, a Philadelphia native who drew from his life to cement the show in a tangible sense of realism, punctuated the script with comedic and slightly sitcomesque undertones in every episode or so to break the overriding smothering tension and depression throughout the six hours + of the series. This decision serves two purposes, the first being to relieve the viewers from the crescendo distress one might experience when racking in all the traumas present at the heart of the show, the second being to showcase the full range of emotions and reactions governing the lives of the townspeople. One could even point out an inaudible laugh track accompanying these alleviating scenes. For some, it might feel like a disruption of the overtly self-conscious narrative, but for others, it offers a much-needed stress relief.
Furthermore, Ingelsby’s realistic depiction of his native city seeps into the finest details, as it was shot in its entirety in a Philadelphian suburb, with the characters displaying a particular fondness for local Wawa convenience stores as is common there. The commitment goes as far as having the actors use the “Delco accent,” one of the thickest and most complicated American accents to pull off. Yet Winslet, a British actress, does it so seamlessly that if it weren’t for her being an international Oscar-winning star, one would confuse her for a Philly native.
Overall, as compelling as the show’s mystery is, the central narrative’s burden is borne by the characters and not cheap plot devices thus rendering Mare of Easttown one of the most freshening, most humane, and truest series one could experience this year.
It is no surprise then that all three main actors, Winslet, Nicholson, and Peters, won in their respective Emmy categories.