Television

Mare of Easttown’s Big Twist Changes Everything

After a big swerve in the fourth episode and an even bigger one in the fifth, what kind of show are we watching now?

Kate Winslet as Mare looking pensive as she leans against a railing by the river. She is wearing a heavy coat and holding a takeout soda cup.
Mare, just mare-ing. Michele K. Short/HBO

This article contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown.

Mare of Easttown trundled onto TV looking like a familiar type: a grim crime show with an anthropological eye, one of those murder mysteries where the journey is supposed to matter more than the destination. Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) stars as a detective in a down-at-the-heels Pennsylvania town with a personal connection to just about everyone in her jurisdiction.* At the end of the first episode, a young woman was found dead (and naked), and Mare took the case. But the show seemed to be using the murder as a hook, a whodunit meant to reel viewers, only to whap them over the head with a series about hardscrabble Delco life. As I said, this is a type. Think of both the Scandinavian and American versions of The Killing and the British series Broadchurch or Happy Valley, in which a gruesome murder is our entree into harrowing, behind-closed-doors goings-on. In Mare of Easttown this includes suicide, drug addiction, domestic abuse, prostitution, adultery, poverty, and violence, which all weigh so heavily that, in the early episodes, Winslet’s Mare physically limped along.

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But five episodes into Mare of Easttown, it’s become clear the series is not quite what it first appeared to be. You can see this most clearly in Mare herself, a character who is supposed to be a piece of work on a good day, and an asshole on any other. Good at her job, difficult at home, prickly and impulsive in both places, she’s one of those characters actresses get credit for playing “without vanity” or who kick-start conversations about likability. But in playing her, Kate Winslet has not fully dimmed her own star. Mare is supposed to be haggard, but her skin is luminous. Her roots are showing, but in a way some women would pay for. Every man she meets—the erstwhile novelist Richard (Guy Pearce), her eager beaver young partner Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters)—would like to take her to dinner and then to bed. Her family, who find her exhausting, don’t really hate her, and her beef with her mother is played for laughs. Mare, in other words, is not some grim, exhausted, depleted heroine—she’s Kate Winslet turned down to a 4, maybe a 3.

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This is not an insult. It’s why Mare of Easttown is kicky in ways it doesn’t seem like a dour, gray series should be—the TV equivalent of a person who says they hate gossip, but then goes and does it for an hour. (I would also point out here that, but for their different settings, Mare of Easttown, Big Little Lies, and Sharp Objects all have a similar description: a female movie star–led murder mystery airing weekly on HBO.) And Mare is not the only way in which the series has been unpredictable. There’s also the plot, which has not been quite the grim plod it first seemed to be. After a few episodes of slowly setting up and smacking down red herrings—a solid strategy for maintaining tension without building up so much the show buckles underneath it—in Episode 4, the series took a hard swerve out of anthropological observation to give us a villain straight out of a serial killer show.

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All season, a cold case had been hanging over Mare’s head: the disappearance and presumed death of the daughter of one of her high school friends. Mare, on leave from the police for planting drugs in her dead son’s drug addict ex-girlfriend’s car—in order to prevent her from getting custody of Mare’s grandson, natch—sees a news story about another missing woman and has her eureka moment: She’s dealing with a serial killer.* Mare may have ethical lapses, but she’s a great cop, and she and Zabel get to work, cracking a case that’s been hanging over her for a year, in days.

As all of this is unfolding, Colin is getting increasingly gaga over Mare. Evan Peters, who was born to star in a David Lynch movie, has assembled a robust career doing riffs on “slightly weird prom king.” Colin is no different, his hair slicked down in a way that suggests he’s in daily battle with a cowlick. He’s supposed to be a hotshot detective, but as he reveals to Mare, his big case was solved by someone else, and he took credit for their work. Colin is totally enamored of her cranky gravitas, and his adoration has a swag of its own. In a heavy bit of foreshadowing, he brushes off his mother’s concern about Mare, saying doing the right thing hasn’t gotten very far. Then, after he lays an unexpected smooch on Mare, she can’t help but look at him a little differently. (Winslet gets up to a 6 just then.) The show has seemingly moved out of methodical realist drama into high-octane catch-a-bad-guy mode with rom-com detailing. Chaos.

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And then, at the end of the most recent episode, the wildest swerve of all. Mare and Zabel unknowingly close in on the killer, who’s still holding young women captive in his attic. It all goes bad very fast and the top of Zabel’s head is blown off. It’s a shocking and horrible turn of events, and yet the speed at which it all plays makes it almost like melodrama, a “wait what??” moment. I was watching this one slightly unhinged yet decorous show, and now I’m watching Criminal Minds? I found myself wondering if Zabel could really be dead; feeling bummed not to see Peters’ wet-behind-the-ears look anymore; dreading how these events would be turned into a maudlin character beat for Mare, who will likely be in more trouble, with the law and with herself than ever before; and curious if this was an over-the-top way to get Mare back onto its initial track. Having skidded all over the road, the show seems poised to be as grim as it was only pretending to be.

Correction, May 17, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Mare Sheehan as Mare Brennan. It also misidentified Mare’s son’s ex-girlfriend as Mare’s daughter-in-law.

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