Television

Mare of Easttown’s Creator on Its Final Shocking Twist

The show’s final surprise might feel out of left field, but showrunner Brad Ingelsby planted breadcrumbs along the way.

Kate Winslet is seen through a red room.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Michele K. Short/HBO.

This article contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown, including the final episode. Youse have been warned.

Mare of Easttown drew to a close with a genuinely shocking twist: The killer of Erin McMenamin wasn’t Billy Ross, who confessed to the crime in the penultimate episode, or his brother John, who fathered a child with his dead niece, or even John’s wife, Lori—it was tween Ryan Ross, who accidentally killed Erin in an attempt to prevent his family from breaking apart. The HBO series has become a phenomenon, increasing in audience every week since its premiere—a feat previously accomplished only by last year’s buzzy mystery The Undoing. The latter series suffered some serious blowback when it turned out the killer was just who the audience thought it had been all along, which isn’t a fate Mare is likely to suffer. How did Brad Ingelsby, who wrote all seven episodes, come up with an ending that made sense in retrospect but wasn’t easy to predict? Slate asked him about crafting the perfect mystery, that accent, the show’s depiction of police, and whether Mare might return for another season.

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Sam Adams: So, Ryan Ross! At what point in the writing did you settle on him being the killer?

Brad Ingelsby: Even before I wrote a single word of the script, actually. I had these characters in my head for, oh my goodness, months and months and months, but I just didn’t know where it ended. And I’ve watched enough of these crime shows to know, or to think at least, that you’ve got to stick the landing, as they say. And listen, who knows if we did. But I was convinced that unless I had a good-enough ending that I wasn’t going to start writing it. I took about eight months with the characters in my head and then one day I was like, “Can it be Ryan? That would be really hard on Mare and how it relates to her son and Lori.” That felt like a surprising ending, and also a really emotional one.

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It really throws into relief that this is a story about a woman coming to terms with the death of her son—and in the end helping her friend cope with losing her own son, albeit in a different way.

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Here’s the closest person in her life, really, outside of her family. Her friend Lori is losing her son, and it’s Mare who’s done it. A lot of people say, “Why couldn’t she overlook it?” But I didn’t want to go that route, because Mare made a pact with Erin to solve the case, and what would that say about her as an investigator? It was always like, what are the things, these big, huge moments, the ripple effect of this case that ultimately is going to get her up to the attic at the end? Because, as you said, that’s what the show has always been about. It’s about a woman who defers grief. She doesn’t want to confront the loss of her son. And literally it’s about a woman who is now ready, at long last, to confront the death of her son.

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There’s been a little bit of a cottage industry formed around predicting who the killer is, but Ryan wasn’t even on most people’s lists, even as a million-to-one shot.

It was a tightrope walk that we had to do in the edit all the time. Like, is it surprising in a good way? Or is it like, “Wow, that’s out of left field”? That was always our worry: Had we planted enough seeds where you get to the end and you can go, “Oh, wow, that makes sense”? Or is it, “Oh, they tricked us”? I guess audiences will tell us, but I’m curious what you think.

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I’m not a solve-the-mystery person. I really just want to watch the story as it’s meant to be told. But at the end of Episode 6, I was thinking, Billy Ross already confessed, so it can’t be him, and if it’s John, that’s not much of a twist: You thought it’s one brother, but it’s the other brother. Lori seemed to work in terms of surprise, but having her kill a teenage girl for sleeping with her husband seemed pretty dark, even for this show. I considered pretty much every member of the Ross family except for Ryan.

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The biggest challenge of the edit was to have him in there enough where the audience knows and cares about him, so when we get to the ending, they at least have experience and time with him. It was always a guessing game of: Have we shown too much, or is there too little? And it was the guessing game we played every episode of the show.

For people who feel like this came out of left field, is there a moment you’d point to in the earlier episodes where you could put it together if you were looking for the right things?

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I think the moments that we would be able to point to are, first, in that sequence at the cafeteria, where he acts out and you could tell something maybe even deeper is churning inside Ryan when he’s pounding on the kid. We haven’t seen a moment of rage like that. And that seems to be all the misdirected anger. Where’s the real origin of that anger? Yeah, his sister is being picked on, but man, that’s a little bit much, that’s really aggressive. And second, later, when he goes and he’s crying with his mom at the table and she says, “Is it with the same woman?” I wanted that moment to be a moment where he wants to tell her the truth. He’s desperate to get rid of this thing, and yet he knows that the repercussions of him saying, “It’s nothing to do with the affair, Mom, it’s, I killed this girl.” It would even crush the family more so.

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I would even point to Episode 1. When Mare comes into the house and he’s doing his homework, our goal in that scene was if you went back and watched that, this is a kid that’s so diligent about doing homework, he doesn’t want to cause any trouble in his parents’ life at all. He’s a guy that has known what’s happened to his parents and he wants to be perfect all the time. He doesn’t want to be a cause of any conflict in his parents’ life. So are those enough breadcrumbs? I don’t know, but I hope that if you went back and watched it that you could at least feel as if we didn’t trick you.

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Certainly moments like John telling his son, “This’ll be our secret,” are much more clear in retrospect.

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That’s another one. And when John’s leaving that night, he’s like, “I’m going to make this thing right, Ryan. I’m going to fix it.” That was a moment where we were like: “That’s really toeing the line there. Is that overdone?” We were going to cut that scene, and then we felt, well, we have to have enough of breadcrumbs where you can reasonably say, “Oh, they actually did tee it up.” But you’re right—it’s a tricky balance.

Were there any theories about who the killer was that you didn’t expect?

I think the one that’s been most surprising to me is that I’ve gotten a lot of people just out of my friend group telling me, “I think it’s Siobhan.” She was never, ever on my radar as a suspect, even in the writing of. We had her be in the woods that night, but that’s been the one that I’ve been a little bit like, “God, we didn’t plant any seeds to make her a suspect in the show.” And then I’ve seen a couple that have gone down crazy rabbit holes of sex rings. It was never a show that was going to go into that territory. But those have been the funniest to read, just how deep people go. And it has gotten a little bit crazy.

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The part I couldn’t make fit when I was trying to predict the ending was how Dylan and the other Easttown teens fit into the picture, and in the end you don’t spend much time with them in the finale. Is the idea that Dylan pulled a gun on Jess because he wanted his parents to raise DJ, and he didn’t want anything coming out about DJ’s real father that might jeopardize that?

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What we tried to do with the kids is that Erin, early in the episodes, or in her past history with Jess, had said: Listen, I’m keeping this lie because I like having [Dylan’s] parents in this kid’s life, and they’re good caretakers, and they love him dearly. And I want him to have that in his life because my dad isn’t that way. And it’s nice to have that. So they make a pact like, OK, now Mare’s onto the journals. If there’s something in the journals that’s going to identify the real dad, well, shit, we better go and burn them. The idea is that if Mare never knows who the real dad is, then CPS will just keep the child in the environment where he’s comfortable and loved. And Dylan and his parents will continue to keep the child. That’s why they go to those great lengths to burn the journals and keep the secret. But then Jess ultimately is like: The burden is too much. Too much shit’s happened. I got to confess and do the right thing here.

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Jess also has no idea whom she’s turning in to the police.

She thinks it’s John. He’s the real dad. And then in the structure of the finale, there’s almost a minimontage after the opening part. It’s Mare on her bed, Jess is moving on with her life, here’s Dawn and Katie, she’s going to get the house. So we hopefully lull the audience a bit, although any experienced audience member knows, hey, there’s way too much time left in this episode to wrap it up. In fact, in the scripts, we had that big montage at the end, but I really loved the idea that the structure of the episode is: It’s Mare and Lori, and they’re fractured, and then the end is that they come together. We already had the scene in the church where you bounce around the congregation—you give everyone a little moment on the screen one last time anyway. So it became much more interesting and emotional to make the ending just about Mare and Lori, these two friends. How are they going to come together?

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One character who played a much bigger role in the finale than I expected was Deacon Mark, whom I thought we might not even see again. His homily in church ends up feeling almost like a summing-up for the whole series. What went into writing that speech?

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One of the ideas that I was really interested in with the show in general is this idea of mercy. It was written at a time when I was like, “Man, this country has lost its ideals of compassion, and decency, and mercy. We’ve really gone off the rails a little bit here.” If you look at the show, it’s the character of Erin who’s never been shown any mercy in her life. The one person that shows her a moment of mercy is Siobhan by coming to her defense in the woods and saying, “Hey, I’ll give you a ride home.” But she’s so crushed by life at that point that she doesn’t know how to accept that moment of mercy and instead walks off and is killed later that night. Now, of course she’s not killed just because she doesn’t go with Siobhan. But it was an act of mercy and she doesn’t know how to accept it.

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If you look at the finale, it’s really about mercy. Here’s Lori—the ultimate act of mercy in my mind is to love the child that’s been the cause of the family’s demise. “I have to love the thing that has completely ripped apart my family. I have to stare at this child that is the thing that has ripped apart everyone I love. And I have to love it every day.” That’s an incredible act of mercy on Lori’s part. And then, what I was also interested in is, will the community show some mercy by allowing Mark back? Now that it’s been eight months, he says, I haven’t had the courage to stand up here, and there are some people here who don’t accept me and I understand that.

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By giving this homily, it’s the trigger that gets Mare to think about, well, the person I’ve left behind is Lori, I’ve got to go see Lori. And by having mercy on Lori, it allows her to have mercy on herself, and to go up to the attic. So it’s a little bit of like, “How do we track this idea of mercy in the last episode, and make it a show about compassion ultimately?” And that’s what I was really interested in with that speech—that it’s not our job to say people aren’t really deserving of our love. That’s not what we are meant to do at all. All we’re supposed to do is to love them.

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This goes beyond the text of the show a little, but I couldn’t help but think about how the suburban counties around Philadelphia voted for Trump in 2016, and even though they swung to Biden in 2020, it’s also an area that produced several participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection. So it’s very resonant to talk about the idea of people excluded from the circle of community, and welcoming them back in even if they don’t actually want to be welcomed.

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Right, yeah, 100 percent. It’s what we tried to achieve with that speech. I don’t want to get into politics too much, but I’m glad they voted for Biden. I’ve gotten this comment a couple of times from people who were on the show and like, “Oh, this is Trump country.” It’s like, “No, it’s actually not. If you go to talk to the people, that’s just a blanket statement that isn’t really right or fair.” And then just getting into the actual characters, that was something I really want to achieve. It’s easy to say that this is white trash, but I don’t know what’s white trash about these people. They go out and they have homes and they make a life. So I really wanted to portray this community in a way that was sympathetic, and honest, and not going to tap into the stereotypes we have of these parts of the country. It’s so easy to say those things, but it’s often not true. But it’s an important idea in the show that we’re exploring these ideas of compassion, which I felt strongly had totally gotten away from us as a country.

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There’s been a lot of soul-searching in the industry over the last year about the portrayal of police. Did any of that affect how you thought about Mare?

Well, it’s funny, because this was written a couple of years ago, but there are some things now that you look at, like Mare hiding drugs on people, and you’re like, “Oh, wow, this is maybe not the best look.” But I also think with Mare—and this is true of the cops that we talked to in the communities in Delaware County, Marple, Easttown, we had lots of conversations—one thing that I do admire about Mare as a character, and I do about a lot of the cops that we spoke to about the show, was that there was a level of approaching each case with humanity and understanding of each situation. And we tried to achieve that in Episode 1, where Mare walks into Freddy’s house, and here comes Trammel with the gun, and she’s like, Put the gun away. I’ve been here. I want to approach this with a level of experience that I have with this individual. When Mare was hiding drugs on Carrie, it wasn’t a good look in representing the police in the show. But what I take away from the character of Mare, and especially Chief Carter in the show, is approaching each situation with a level of humanity, and sympathy, and understanding, and trying to go in and be a peacekeeper in the situation. I hope that’s what people take away from the show.

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Even at the end, when the cops are pulling up to Ryan’s house, you have Mare telling the others, “No one gets in front of me.” They’re arresting a child, but there’s still the possibility of violence if she doesn’t keep things calm.

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In speaking to the cops, they’re going into every situation, even tough situations in these communities, and trying to approach them with a level of understanding of the history of this person. I think Mare is a portrait of a character that is using her experience and knowledge of these relationships and people to approach the police situations with a level of sympathy and understanding. And I hope that’s what resonates in the show, more than her planting drugs on Carrie.

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So Mare has turned out to be a big hit for HBO, and it’s sparked a national conversation about the accent. Did you see any of that coming?

Oh my gosh, no. It was all surprising. What I experienced with the edit, just as I experienced with the writing of anything, is that you’re immune to its charms at the end. I’ve seen the scene where Zabel gets killed 10 million times. I know what’s coming. It was a long process. We had the COVID hiatus. So there was a lot of time there, and I think we were all just like, “Wow, we’re glad to be done.” We couldn’t ever, ever predict all of this.

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I think what I was most surprised by was the whodunit of it all. I always thought, oh, a whodunit’s fine, it’s a serviceable way to carry us through the show, but really it’s about this woman and trying to deal with grief. Whereas people latched onto the whodunit in such a major way, had all these theories. And then the accent, everyone was so interested in the accent, and really, I’ve got to be honest, it’s a testament to Kate, because there were conversations early on where we were a little bit scared by it. It’s a lot to ask every actor to do the accent. But once she signed on, every other actor is like, “Well, I guess I got to do it too.” And listen, I think some leaned in more than others. But I’ve just been so excited that people have responded to the show.

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One of the things you do in the finale is remind us that Mare’s real name is Mary Anne. I’m a little embarrassed that it took me seven episodes to realize this is a show about a Catholic named Mary dealing with the death of her son.

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Oh gosh, yeah. When we were writing the show, in the original script, it was Mary Beth. And then what happened was, there was another Mary Beth Sheehan in Aston or something. So we had to change it to Mary Anne. But I’ll be honest, that never crossed my mind. Now that you said it, it’s so obvious as a kid that was raised Catholic. How did I miss that one? It was sitting right under my nose the whole time.

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And if you really want to push it, the last shot of her climbing into the attic is almost an apotheosis.

It’s my Catholic upbringing. I can’t get rid of it. It’s in there somewhere. It just shows itself in moments I didn’t even expect.

The story has a very complete arc, but given the success of Mare of Easttown, you have to ask: Have you given any thought to doing another season?

It definitely has a definitive end. I’m leery of the second seasons I’ve watched, and how tricky it is to come back and do it well. If we can do it well and have it be great—and obviously, so many things go into making something that works and doesn’t work—it’s hard to say right now. Just the scripts or whatever have to be good, or the idea has to be good, because so many other pieces … I know this is a collaboration. But if I was convinced that we had a great story that Mare can go through, or if I was convinced that the story could be really strong and emotional, then I would absolutely give it some thought. I don’t have that idea now, but I do want to work with Kate Winslet and Jean Smart again. Are you kidding me? I’d be a total idiot not to at least try to crack a story.

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