Everybody knows everybody in Easttown. The small Pennsylvania setting of the new HBO limited series Mare of Easttown is downright incestuous – everyone is a cousin of a cousin; everyone is on a first-name basis. The people who live there live there for life – there is seemingly no escaping Easttown. Nestled in the center of this cold, hard place is Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), a detective who is still remembered for her glory days on the high school basketball team. 25 years ago, when Mare was a teenager, she scored a big shot during a big game, and while such a moment would be lost to oblivion in any other locale, in Easttown, it’s still a seminal moment. It seemed to set Mare up for great things.
But now, all these years later, that greatness hasn’t come. Time has merely roughened her up; removed any smooth edges her personality once had and replaced them with jagged, harsh crags.
You might think a place as small as Easttown would be uneventful, but it’s anything but. A year ago, the daughter of one of Mare’s high school friends vanished without a trace, and Mare carries around the weight of being unable to crack the case. She insists she did everything she could, but when she says those words, we get the sense that she doesn’t entirely believe them. She did her job, sure – but maybe that wasn’t enough. Maybe she should’ve gone further, worked harder. But now it feels like it’s too late. While she would never admit this to the general public, Mare has no problem confiding in her lifelong best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) that she thinks the missing girl is long dead.
The missing person’s case will be only the tip of the iceberg, though. Another local teen girl – the sad, isolated single mom Erin (Cailee Spaeny) – turns up murdered one morning, her body stripped and sprawled out in a creekbed like some sort of ghoulish Renaissance fresco. The townsfolk immediately assume the missing girl case is connected to Erin’s murder, and all eyes are on Mare. If she had just solved the missing person’s case maybe – just maybe – this murder wouldn’t have happened. To restore faith in the community, a county detective named Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is brought in to assist Mare with the case, much to Mare’s disdain.
Thus the stage is set for a mystery that has seemingly all of Easttown wrapped up in it. Every new lead Mare uncovers leads her back to someone she knows, be it her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) or her cousin, a local priest (Neal Huff). In the midst of all of this, Mare’s life feels like it’s spiraling out of control. She’s haunted by the death of her son, and by the prospect of losing custody of her grandchild, born to that deceased son and a recovering drug addict who isn’t on the best terms with Mare. Mare’s daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) still lives at home but tends to gravitate towards her father. And Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart) is on hand to provide words of wisdom that appear to fall on deaf ears. To complicate things further, Mare enters into a clumsy relationship with a newcomer – a college professor, played by Guy Pearce – while also falling into something resembling flirtation with the eager-to-please Zabel.
Like Mare, nearly all of these characters here feel broken. A pervasive melancholy blankets Mare of Easttown, to the point where it feels like everyone in town – and by extension, everyone on the show – is one wrong word away from a full-blown fistfight. The residents of Easttown have spent their whole lives knowing nothing more than their small-town mentality. They don’t have town pride, exactly – they just don’t know any better. There is no world outside of the harsh confines of Easttown. Modern H0llywood doesn’t have the best track record portraying working-class folks, but Mare of Easttown nails that way of life down. This isn’t misery porn, nor is a condemnation nor glamorization of a certain way of living. Instead, the day-to-day life of the folks of Easttown simply feels genuine. We buy into the people’s fractured, messy lives because they feel entirely realistic. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a small community can tell you how closed-off and separate it feels. There’s the world you know and the world beyond – a world that feels so alien it might as well be happening on a completely different planet.
There are a lot of fractured characters to keep track of here, but Winslet is the lynchpin. Everyone is doing good work – Peters is particularly enjoyable as the young cop who just wants to help – but this is Winslet’s show. At this point, it’s starting to feel almost cliche to point out what a great actor Winslet is, but this very well might be the best work of her career. She excels at Mare’s harsh weariness, and it’s a narrow tightrope to walk. In less-skilled hands, Mare might have come across as too cruel – someone we wouldn’t want to spend a few minutes with let alone seven episodes of TV. But Winslet knows exactly how to make Mare both standoffish and sympathetic – yes, she can be a cutting, cold presence, but we understand why. And we understand that if we were in the same situation we might act the same way. Someone who spends their entire life being bruised will eventually spread that hurt around. It doesn’t make that okay or acceptable – it just makes it understandable. Winslet also aces the Philadelphia-by-way-of-Pennsylvania accent for the character – when she says wooder in place of water, it sounds real, not like she’s putting on a show.
Mare of Easttown makes for absorbing television, but there are times where it feels like series creator and writer Brad Ingelsby hasn’t quite broken the story. There are diversions and subplots that come across as entirely extraneous – a storyline involving Siobhan’s college love life mixed with a rather lackluster documentary she’s making feels utterly pointless, and the burgeoning relationship between Mare and Pearce’s college professor comes across as unfinished and poorly thought through, almost as if it could’ve been cut from the show entirely. If Mare of Easttown were meant to be an ongoing series these subplots would be acceptable because they could be followed up on in subsequent seasons, but for now, Mare is meant to be a one-and-done limited series, and to divert our attention away to these seemingly empty plotlines hinders things.
But these flaws thankfully don’t capsize Mare of Easttown. Whenever the series comes close to losing the thread it wisely pulls us back in, hooking us with both its central mystery and with the raw, bleak emotions at play. The desolation baked into the narrative might be too harsh for some, but for the residents of Easttown, it’s a way of life that can’t be ignored. But there’s always a glimmer of hope lurking out there, even if it’s hard to accept. “I know you’re worth saving,” a character tells Mare at one of her lowest points. We should all be lucky enough to have someone say those words to us someday.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
Mare of Easttown premieres on HBO on April 18.
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