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Review: Mare of Easttown Is a Rending Study of Personal and Societal Fatalism

The series leaves no police procedural cliché untouched but ultimately transcends its familiarity.

Mare of Easttown
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

In Mare of Easttown’s first episode, the body of a teen mom is found in the woods with a grisly gash on her brow. Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is investigating the apparent murder, just a year after the disappearance of another teenager, Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan), who she’s failed to track down. Both cases predictably force Mare to reckon with her demons, as well as the ills plaguing the close community of sleepy Easttown, Pennsylvania—a dynamic that transcends its familiarity to fuel a thoughtful and rending exploration of personal and societal cataclysm.

Easttown’s citizens are caught in cycles of poverty, drug addiction, and abuse. Mare’s deep roots there earn her near-universal trust and respect among the townsfolk, but her reputation comes into question when Katie’s mother, Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), publicly hounds the local police department about its lagging search for her daughter. The cold case is reinvigorated by the arrival of the spritely Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), who is sent by the county to assist and also helps Mare solve the murder.

Created and written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Craig Zobel, Mare of Easttown leaves no police procedural cliché untouched. Mare is a headstrong cop with a chip on her shoulder and Colin is the unwelcome out-of-towner. Mare flexes her talents by educating the eager Colin, most compellingly when wielding the Socratic method at a crime scene. The series regularly introduces suspects and leads—from the short-tempered dad to the shady priest to secret journals—indulging the allure of armchair crime-solving while resisting neat resolutions.

But the detective work is merely scaffolding for the show’s beguiling dive into Easttown’s psyche. The community is filled with long bloodlines and tangled familial webs, as everyone is someone’s cousin or uncle or mistress. Intrigue flows from these connections in enticing abundance, often stemming from Mare’s many relationships, both fractured and budding. Even the smallest of conversations seems to subtly or explosively elucidate the characters’ pasts and personalities—especially Mare’s interactions with Dawn, ex-husband Frank Sheehan (David Denman), and Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), the charming writer she begins to date.

We learn the most about Mare by watching her with her family. Nothing skips a generation in Easttown, so Mare is rivaled in her obstinance by her endearingly feisty mother, Helen (Jean Smart), and her self-reliant daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice). Mare and Helen’s arguments amount to barrages of crass insults and ego-smashing jabs, materializing and dissipating with equal swiftness. The writing sometimes stumbles when reaching for whimsy, the ostentatious playfulness of certain sequences chafing against the grave backdrop of Easttown.

The show’s driving undercurrent is Mare’s concern for her grandson, Drew (Izzy King). (Drew’s parentage remains unclear for a while, amplifying the poignancy of his closeness to Mare.) Drew’s development of physical tics sets Mare on high alert: She previously saw similar issues in a loved one as his mental health deteriorated, so she scrambles to figure out what’s wrong. The passage of genetics—the pattern of mental illness that streaks through Mare’s family—feels inevitable, but Mare hopes against hope that her grandson can outrun it. Her dogged pursuit of answers proves exceptionally shattering; like her search for lost girls and her hunt for justice, it’s a rejection of inevitability, of the sweeping crush of history’s course.

Eventually, Mare commits a startling abuse of power in what she considers an effort to protect Drew. The series rightly frames the act as reprehensible, only to let Mare off with a slap on the wrist. The moment is symptomatic of Mare of Easttown’s muddled politics, as Mare is framed at times as a paragon of community policing and at others as an embodiment of her institution’s terrible might. Given the show’s broader propensity for piercing contemplation, one might expect it to grapple substantively with the anti-cop sentiment that has been on the rise in the U.S. since the murder of George Floyd last year. But the series has little to say about policing save that it’s complicated—which is to say that it says nothing at all.

For what it’s worth, Mare’s transgression backfires, as the victim emerges largely unharmed and Mare’s police chief (John Douglas Thompson) orders her to attend grief counseling. The mandated therapy produces one of Mare of Easttown’s most devastating scenes. Mare’s first session is less revelatory than expositional; she teases out the knots in her psyche, tracing a direct line from the agonies of her youth to the specters that haunt her. Winslet, with her slight head tilts and avoidance of eye contact, masterfully conveys Mare’s vulnerability. The camera tends to linger on Mare’s face, zooming in at a crawl as she unspools, with aching logic, what she rarely says aloud. Mare, like the series as a whole, is pained but unsentimental, all but numb to the horrors surrounding and within her.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, Evan Peters, Guy Pearce, Julianne Nicholson, David Denman, Enid Graham, Jack Mulhern, Cailee Spaeny, Joe Tippett, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Kiah McKirnan, John Douglas Thompson, Patrick Murney, James McArdle, Sosie Bacon, Neal Huff, Phyllis Somerville, Mackenzie Lansing, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley Network: HBO Buy: Amazon

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