Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review
There’s a strong argument to be made that Television has overtaken film as the premiere visual art form. Granted, cinema still has the power to deliver unmatched spectacle, but TV is where we now go to get powerful stories. Cinema definitely can still give us artistically important narratives, but studios rarely give major films that allowance these days. Therefore, all the best actors, writers and directors have slowly migrated to the small screen. In a way, the stories being told on TV are similar to novels, in that they’re emotionally sprawling tales which move us and make us think. Even before this current age of great TV was in full swing, HBO was already delivering high quality content. With that in mind, it’s always exciting when they drop a new series on us. Their latest offering is Mare of Easttown (2021), a new miniseries by Brad Ingelsby.
Set in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the story follows Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), a local detective who’s life has fallen apart ever since her son Kevin’s suicide. Her ex-husband is remarrying, her daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) can’t stand her, and she and her mother Helen (Jean Smart) are left to raise Kevin’s infant son Drew (Izzy King). Mare isn’t finding happiness in her work either, as she is haunted by a year old case she hasn’t been able to solve: the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Katie Bailey. To make matters even more complicated, a single teenage mother named Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) has been found dead, putting nearly everyone in the town in Mare’s cross hairs. To help with the investigation, a younger detective named Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is assigned to be Mare’s new partner.
Being a murder mystery, It’s kind of a given that viewers will be combing through every little detail trying to guess the solution ahead of time. Naturally, there’s a series of witness testimonies, odd clues and strange dead ends, but don’t expect it all to come together in a traditional fashion. For instance, it’s quite common for mystery stories to have all the red herrings still connected to the main plot somehow, which is something Mare of Easttown smartly subverts. It can be very irritating whenever all the disparate threads magically connect in some way, as it makes the world feel unnaturally small. In reality, not every horrible occurrence is linked to one another, so it can be shortsighted to neatly tie every chilling subplot together. Mare of Easttown may be set in small town America, but it’s smart and honest enough to let the various threads exist in their own corners.
With that in mind, having this kind of story removed from the big city gives it a sense of humanity, as well as an extra layer of realism. Murder mysteries are often relegated to massive metropolitan cesspools, thus suggesting that nothing bad ever happens to people from more humble parts of the world. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and Mare of Easttown makes that very clear. This may be a small town filled with homely working class people, but the show doesn’t pretend that they’ve never experienced loss, heartbreak or tragedy. In fact, these characters have arguably experienced more sorrow than you normally get to see. For some viewers it may be a little too much, but the show delicately avoids being emotionally exploitative due to how down to earth it is.
While this may sound like the show is nothing but a stumble down a depressed rabbit hole, Mare of Easttown actually has a very optimistic point of view. Granted, the show is definitely a tragedy and the events are incredibly harrowing, but none of that stops it from having a generally positive opinion of people in general. Most stories of this type have a very nihilistic perspective, yet it’s clear that Brad Ingelsby has a very different outlook. This may be hard to spot considering how dark the show is (and how downbeat the conclusion is), but Mare of Easttown constantly presents us with typically seedy archetypes only to reveal the genuinely empathetic nature behind it all. There’s no celebration or catharsis when the culprit is caught, as it just makes you feel for the ‘villain’ as yet another victim worthy of your sympathy. These characters all have their flaws, but you are endeared to their genuine goodness.
None of that would’ve been possible without a strong cast of actors, and rest assured Mare of Easttown has a stellar ensemble of talented performers. With a roster which includes Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, David Denman, Neal Huff, Guy Pearce, Cailee Spaeny, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Tippett, Evan Peters, Sosie Bacon and James McArdle, Mare of Easttown might have one of the greatest collections of respected character actors on TV right now. Of course, the star who steals the show is Mare herself, Kate Winslet. We don’t often get to see Winslet in the role of a hardboiled and disturbed detective, but her work here makes you completely forget her usual character type. She effortlessly becomes Mare, embodying her intelligence, her existentialism and her rough edges. Winslet has already been recognised as one of the best actors of her generation, but with Mare of Easttown she may have delivered a career best performance.
If there are any flaws to be found in this fairly tight narrative, it’s the limited number of episodes. 7 episodes is a fine length for such a contained miniseries, but the character development, thematic power and narrative pacing could’ve used at least one more episode to smooth out some of the kinks. For instance, we rightfully spend quite a lot of time developing the story and characters, resulting in the script needing to take some quick shortcuts whenever the plot needs to progress. Important story points, clues and reveals occur exactly when needed, yet it’s not entirely clear why these moments couldn’t have occurred earlier. It’s almost as if the characters with all the important information had read the script ahead of time and knew not to give up the reveals until episode five. Whenever this happens, it’s as if the scripting template becomes completely visible to the viewer.
Even with the minor defects, Mare of Easttown is an incredible achievement which continues to prove television’s superiority over film (as far as narrative is concerned). Most stories like this manage to be powerful, heartbreaking and thought provoking, but few can do all that and still make you hopeful. This is what sets Mare of Easttown apart and what arguably elevates it above its peers.
Best way to watch it: While hugging a pillow.