Kate Winslet. Kate freaking Winslet. If that’s not enough to hook you on Mare of Easttown before even knowing anything about the premise, then I don’t know what else to say. Kate Winslet has always been a powerhouse of a performer (see: Revolutionary Road and The Reader, both of which came out in 2008, as examples), but she reaches new heights with the limited, seven-episode series from HBO.
The show follows Winslet’s character, Mare, who is a small town detective trying to both solve the year-old disappearance of a girl, as well as the fresh murder of another girl, and all the while, her own world is a grief-laden massacre. That grief primarily manifests in the form of her son, Kevin, who killed himself two years prior to the events of the show. She’s divorced. She’s trying to raise her dead son’s kid, Drew (and prevent the real mother, who has a drug problem, from re-entering the picture to gain custody). And she’s territorial about another detective from the county coming down to help her solve these crimes, Colin Zabel.
Winslet holds all over that in her face. All of it. Even without saying anything, it’s all there in her face. It’s quite a remarkable feat of acting to watch. Every second Winslet is on screen, you can’t your eyes off of her face for that reason.
But, of course, the whodunnit aspect of all of this is fascinating, too. Who wanted to kill Erin McMenamin, a single-mother? How does the disappearance of two other girls factor in, if at all?
I think early on, I discounted Erin’s ex, and presumably, the father of her baby (we later learn, nope), Dylan. That’s too obvious. That said, I couldn’t stand Dylan, a hot-head jerk, who watched his current girlfriend catfish and beat up Erin. He even seems to bully his dang parents! It’s ridiculous. The entire series he’s this jerk, and even bullies Jess, Erin’s best friend, by pointing a gun at her and threatening to kill her. I’m still not clear on what was going on with him, Jess, and some other unnamed guy with Dylan. They go to Erin’s house and burn her diaries. Why? Jess said it was to ostensibly hide the fact of of DJ not being Dylan’s kid, but that seems sketchy. Despite all of that hot-headedness, Dylan does the right thing at the end and gives money he obtained for DJ’s ear infection issues. It seemed sort of out of nowhere that he suddenly found his heart.
I also discounted Deacon Mark Burton of St. Michael’s church because, well, pinning it on a Catholic priest also seemed too obvious. That said, I wasn’t entirely sure his role since we do see that shot of him dumping Erin’s bicycle in the river. As it turns out, he was just trying to help Erin and then freaked out that the police might think it was him given prior accusations at another parish.
Therefore, early on, I was figuring it was Kenny McMenamin, Erin’s father. There was no other real, viable suspects at that point, and he was also a hot-head toward her. Maybe he was at the end of his rope in helping to “provide” for DJ? But then after Erin’s murder, he tries to murder Dylan, and fails. Dylan survives. The only other thought I had was it was someone we hadn’t been introduced to yet or perhaps someone on the peripheral we hadn’t noticed.
But that’s when everything starts unraveling. First, Dawn, whose daughter Katie has been missing for a year, gets a phone call that her daughter will be returned to her if she pays $5,000. Immediately, I knew that was a scam. Dawn’s best friend, Beth, had a brother, Freddie, who was addicted to opioids. I figured it was Freddie, who knew enough about Katie to convince Dawn, trying to scam her. Because, after all, a kidnapper asking for a paltry sum of $5,000 didn’t make much sense, but an addict? Yeah, $5,000 seems about right.
That ended up being the case. Then through detective work of using a partial license plate and the make of a van from an escort, Mare and Zabel, figured out who had kidnapped Katie and another girl. However, in the ensuing chaos, Zabel gets shot in the head and Mare gets shot in the hand//wrist area. That was a wild, wild episode. It shocked me to see them kill off the county detective, especially when he and Mare were forming a relationship. Which is also notable in that, you don’t typically see that in Hollywood, where a younger man and an older woman get together. Typically, it’s the reverse.
In any event, that kidnapper, was not related to the murder of Erin. As it turns out, Mare begins suspecting Billy, the uncle to Erin, who seemed to have an inappropriate relationship with Erin at some family reunion. And it turns out, Billy came home the night of her murder with bloody clothes, and even admits to it! However, instead of turning him in, his brother, John Ross (who is already on the “outs” with Lori Ross, Mare’s best friend, for presumably resuming an affair with another woman), suggests they go fishing one last time.
At that point in the series, my thinking was, Billy had shot Erin, causing her thumb to fly off, but not kill her. Then it was John who finished the job, but he’s going to kill Billy to let him take the fall. Mare interrupts all of this in a helluva scene, where Billy and John are both begging Mare to kill them. Mare is a bad-ass, I should note, if that wasn’t clear.
We also learn that it was John, not Billy, who was raping (remember, Erin was underaged and John’s relative) Erin and the father to DJ. And instead, John admits to killing Erin because she wouldn’t have an abortion and stay quiet about the whole mess.
Since we still had 50 minutes left in the final episode of the series, I knew John wasn’t the killer. My new theory was that John and Billy were taking the fall for Lori, who discovered the relationship with Erin, and killed Erin out of jealousy. Nope. I was wrong. It was their 13-year-old son, Ryan Ross, who out of a misguided attempt to keep his family together, killed Erin. Then Billy and John covered it up, and Lori kept the secret to protect Ryan.
Mare, of course, figures all of this out, which circled back nicely to the beginning of the series, with the Carrolls, an older couple who thought a prowler was in their backyard and had a security camera. Mr. Carroll’s gun was the murder weapon Ryan used, and the security camera caught him in the act of stealing the gun. That was a jaw-dropping moment for me. I love when something that seems insignificant (that opening scene of the series with the Carrolls) circles back to be the most important aspect of catching the real killer.
Lori blames Mare initially for destroying her family, for not leaving it alone. But then, in the second-to-most powerful moment of the show (the most powerful is coming up after), Mare goes over to Lori’s house, and Lori collapses in her arms, eerily reminiscent of how her dead son, Kevin, collapsed into her when she cut him down from the attic.
That image, of Lori collapsing into Mare’s arms, sort of encapsulates what Mare of Easttown is about. Yes, as with any show, there’s the overall hook — in this case, a whodunnit murder-mystery — but the show itself is actually about something else. Here, it’s about motherhood.
Mare is dealing with the complicated relationship she has with her ex, the suicide of her son (and the suicide of her father, all making her worry that Kevin’s son will also be like that), her daughter Siobhan, and trying to solve the crimes, for which the town is getting restless about.
Lori, obviously, trying her damndest to keep her family together, even as all of it is falling apart. She actually takes in DJ to raise him. There’s also a scene at the end of visiting Ryan in juvenile prison with her daughter and DJ. You can tell she’s barely keeping it together.
Erin herself, a single-mother trying to do right by her son, but finding roadblocks at every turn, whether it’s her father Kenny, her ex Dylan, or the real father of DJ, John. Remember, she’s a kid herself dealing with all of that. She even thinks of turning to escort services, but can’t bring herself to do it.
Then there’s Kevin’s girlfriend, Carrie, the mother of their child, Drew, who is addicted to heroin, but has been trying to get better. Mare tries to interfere with Carrie regaining custody by planting heroin on her (I can’t believe she did that!), but the police chief knows it’s BS. It was beautiful to see Carrie earnestly trying to be a good mother to Drew. However, the pressure gets to her and after Drew nearly drowns in the bathtub when Carrie falls asleep, she falls back into drugs.
The weight of motherhood in all its forms, some beautiful and some ugly, is all laid out here in Mare of Easttown. Which brings me to the most powerful moment of the show. When Mare, after therapy, solving the cases, and making up with Lori, finally confronts her grief. And to do that, she has to confront the attic where Kevin was found dead. In the final shot of the series, she opens the ladder to the attic and begins climbing, confronting it. I cried. It’s beautiful.
The other big aspect of the show aside from a meditation on motherhood is a character study of Easttown itself, a sort of microcosm of small-town America. Everyone knows everyone, and on the surface, everything seems … normal. But below the surface and behind closed doors, there’s affairs, violence, abuse, drug addiction, suicide and of course, murder. I think the show did a great job of keeping it real on that score and showing how hard it is for these characters to navigate the veneer of normalcy.
As an aside, the only minor criticism I have of the show, and it’s more amusement than anything, is that even with a prestige show on HBO, they still get basic things about the criminal justice system wrong. When John initially goes down for the murder of Erin, the police do a classic “perp walk” of him from the police cruiser to the courthouse. As far as I’m aware, that never happens anymore because it’s absurdly dangerous to bring a suspected killer through a mob of people. Instead, even in small counties like the one I cover for the newspaper, they are taken from a tunnel that connects the jail to the courthouse. I’m sure in places without tunnels, they would still take the suspect through a backdoor. But I digress.
Well, okay, one other mild thing: I didn’t much care about the Richard character, a writer and a sort of love interest for Mare. None of his scenes interested me and to the extent that they did, it was because of Mare again. He was also a jerk. I can’t believe he invited her to some author thing and when she actually showed up, he ignored her! Also, he seemed super self-absorbed about his book (he mentions the book as the most important unexpected things to happen in his life before his son and Mare, lol).
Anyhow, what a great, great show. Again, Winslet should win all the awards because she is the show, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, the whodunnit aspect engaged me and the character studies (including of the town itself) fascinated me, but at the end of the day, Winslet is the most captivating aspect of the show. She’s great. I could watch another seven hour-long episodes of her solving crimes and drinking Yuenglings. And supposedly, Winslet is interested in doing a second season.
If you haven’t seen the show, you shouldn’t have read this review because I just spoiled you, but anyhow, still, watch this show.