By Peg Aloi
Mare of Easttown is particularly effective in interweaving troubled domestic timelines, families held together by women who are on the brink of psychic or emotional collapse.
Mare of Eastown, streaming on HBO
A crime drama subgenre has been trending in recent years, probably inspired by the British series Prime Suspect, which revolved around a tough as nails woman detective whose skills were on par with her standoffishness. The show, which debuted in 1991, starred Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, a savvy, dedicated London homicide detective whose personal life was messy and complicated. The critically acclaimed show was popular enough to earn a prequel iteration, Prime Suspect 1973, which sought to explore Tennison’s early career. The figure of a talented woman police detective who is also a complex human being is a daring trope, given the misogynistic reputation of law enforcement. To have that character be anything but a well-rounded superhero risks an accusation of sexism: why must women who are put in positions of authority and responsibility be so messed up? Still, the idea that women — with their (perhaps) superior understanding of family and relationship dynamics — might also prove to be superior detectives has become an increasingly pervasive and compelling premise.
A glimmer of this notion can be seen in the talented, successful, but frazzled-beneath-it-all policewomen in the ’80s-era series Cagney and Lacey, starring Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless. The show was ahead of its time, but it still pandered to the then current social norms of women’s lives. The presupposition was that having a career and a family might be just a bit too challenging; women, after all, were (and let’s face it still are) the primary caregivers in most families. The heroines’ personal challenges were not only often hidden from co-workers — even their partners were kept in the dark. This trope, of the police detective’s partner serving as an intimate adjunct to an officer’s professional and personal life, was largely missing in Prime Suspect. In fact, British shows don’t tend to focus on detectives in pairs.
Accordingly, Mare of Easttown also presents a detective who doesn’t (normally) have a partner. Mare’s full name is Mary-Ann Sheehan and she is a well-respected police detective in the fictional Easttown, a small town that seems to be somewhat near Philadelphia. Kate Winslet’s decidedly unglamorous investigator is surrounded with aesthetic signifiers of the local PA variety: she eats cheese steak subs for lunch, has weirdly dyed blonde hair with dark roots, pronounces water as “wudder,” and wears makeup so infrequently that, when she decides to put on some lipstick for a date, she discovers all of her cosmetics are worn out and unusable. Mare is divorced and has a teenage daughter (Angourie Rice) and four-year-old grandson living in her home, as well as her mother (the iconic Jean Smart). Mare’s oldest son took his own life, and her refusal to discuss it or fully cope with the suicide that has woven a pall of weariness and avoidance over the family dynamic. Her grandson’s mother (Sosie Bacon) continues to struggle with the same drug addiction that worsened the downward spiral of Mare’s son. Drug addiction is a pervasive theme; perhaps surprisingly, the focus in the series is not on criminality but on addiction as a destructive force in the community.
Mare of Easttown is particularly effective in interweaving troubled domestic timelines, families held together by women who are on the brink of psychic or emotional collapse. But the emphasis is not on female fragility: it’s on their strength and adaptability. Mare’s best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) juggles a challenging home life, but she also serves as Mare’s friend and confidant. Mare’s ex-husband (David Denman) lives next door and is about to remarry. That causes understandable strife. Mare’s mother is a good grandma, but has to walk on eggshells around her daughter; she’s worried Mare may never be able to move on with her life.
Easttown is a troubled place: a teenage girl has been missing for over a year, and her mother blames Mare for not trying hard enough to find her. In the first episode, Erin (The Craft: Legacy’s Cailee Spaeny) is a teenage mom who’s being bullied by her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Erin is found murdered in a local wooded area. Solving the crime falls to Mare, who is the local police department’s senior detective. But as she navigates the possible involvement of people she knows well, she finds her own tangled personal life is getting in the way of her ability to be objective — even ethical. Into the mix add two men who complicate things: a visiting professor and novelist Mare meets in a bar (Guy Pearce) and a temporary partner in crime-solving, a detective sent from the county to help her, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). Then there’s Mare’s boss, Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson), who treats Mare as indispensable even though he must acknowledge and punish her shortcomings.
There are motives and secrets in abundance swirling around the case, including rumors of sexual abuse involving local clergy. There is also the possibility that the murder may be linked to a new disappearance of a teenager that has left the whole town on edge. Mare’s daughter is one of the last people to see Erin alive; her ex-husband was Erin’s teacher; her best friend’s husband is related to Erin’s father. The crushing small town closeness is almost too much to bear. The overlapping story arcs unfold with a naturalistic rhythm; viewers are given just enough information to methodically add characters to the growing list of suspects. Mare’s powers of deduction and mastery of details are often uncannily correct. But her personal life remains fraught throughout. Winslet gives her usual tour de force performance, a follow-up to her star turn in the quiet period film Ammonite. Her portrait of Mare cuts deep: her pain, her anger, her inability to let things go, her empathy, and her self-sabotage. Winslet evokes the balancing acts that confront working women in patriarchal environments, and the complex cocktail that is Mare Sheehan, with finesse and pathos.
The strong lead performers are supported by an excellent cast. Every small role offers a mini-master class in how to establish understated authenticity. Evan Peters’s Detective Zabel is marvelously likable and complex, slowly letting down his guard. Jean Smart is funny and moving as Mare’s mother; their dialogue exchanges are packed with micro-insults and simmering friction. Angourie Rice is excellent as Mare’s daughter Siobhan, who’s smart, talented, ambitious, and troubled by the failure of the family to process her brother’s death. The acting reinforces Mare of Eastown‘s strength: it is rooted in place and time as it conveys its working class characters’ struggles with reassuring flashes of hope and compassion.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.