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“Mare of Easttown” finds the same old clues

Mare of Easttown

Despite a complex, engaging performance from Kate Winslet, the HBO Max limited series about yet another murder in yet another small town doesn’t try anything new.

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Mare of Easttown may at times feel like it’s kicking a dead horse. It’s a grammatically perfect post-Cardinal Bernard Law, cold-case-comes-alive thriller with rich performances by its entire cast. Yet for a story about a maverick detective purporting to be about more than crime, it follows surprisingly predictable beats, leaving little room for illuminating nuance. 

As we watch Kate Winslet turn over stones, we don’t learn anything about her setting other than what is absolutely necessary to move the plot forward. Showrunners Craig Zobel and Brad Ingelsby have so economized their narrative that they’ve created a morphological story which could be set anywhere and disservices the real world economics dressing up their thriller.

Divorced, parenting her daughter and grandson, as well sharing a house with her mother, townie Detective Mare Sheehan (Winslet) is barely keeping it together. As pressure builds from her friends and community over an unsolved disappearance, Mare is forced to juggle a new case when a young mother is found dead. When Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is brought in to assist in the investigation, it becomes evident that the toughest case to crack will be Mare herself.

Winslet is clearly the workhorse of this production. In Mare Sheehan, she has found an ideal vessel to channel every trick she has. She gets to be tough, tender, exacting, and empathetic — truly mentally/physically/spiritually complex. This is a character with a keen sense for bullshit who has to be able to rough up information and tuck her neurodivergent grandson in at night. 

Winslet is clearly the workhorse of this production.

Crass Winslet is the best Winslet, and thankfully we get plenty of her. Never without a foul word, vape pen, or beer near her lips, this is the kind of stalwart archetype Winslet feels made to play. She retains her ability to project a character working things out in her mind which helps the audience feel as though they are witnessing a mystery coming together rather than a foregone conclusion. Best of all, we get to see how well Winslet works amongst a cast.

The strength of Mare of Easttown is its strong sense of community. This comes from a strong sense of ensemble and rightly begins with Mare’s immediate family. As her mother, Helen, Jean Smart showcases her shrewd comedic timing without dropping the gravitas of a matriarch realizing her family’s precarious state. Winslet and Smart feel like they have been working together for years. Able to fight, make up, move on like mother and daughter. They have a wonderful familial back and forth that is only further highlighted when Mare’s queer daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) adds her volley to the mix.

Evan Peters’ Detective Zabel works remarkably well as the straight man foil to his unorthodox partner. He can be earnest and goofy while she is gruff and stubborn. Peters and Winslet are able to find the uncomfortable humor between two such different characters and create a fun working relationship that seems to mirror their own. It’s a relaxed relationship that we don’t often see in “New Cop, Bad Cop Dramas.” This is a partnership that realistically blossoms as the series goes on, and as Mare learns to trust again and Zabel becomes immersed in the tight knit community of Easttown.

Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)

Mare is able to do her job largely without the aid of a gun or a badge because she carries currency as a community authority. Once a star high school basketball player, the series smartly uses her community notoriety and connections to move her investigation forward, often getting information from her friends and former teammates. Special attention should be paid to Julianne Nicholson’s Lori, Mare’s best friend who gets closer to the investigation than she’d like. Nicholson is the glue that connects the supporting cast to Winslet and she handles this conflicting position with vulnerability and skill.

Writer Brad Ingelsby has written a structurally sound contemporary police procedural which progresses as one would rather expect it would, with plenty of the predictable surprises. Mare of Easttown has all the classic touches that fans of the genre look for: misdirection, well coaxed out information, titillating crime (crimes?), questionable police action, metal blinds clanging on office doors while landlines constantly ring unanswered. 

The series tries to step out from the pack by putting forth a narrative in which the community is just as important as the clues. But from the five episodes made available for review, it’s clear that these are well built characters within a story, but not necessarily characters within our world. Communities are more than their people, they are also the place they are in. 

Writer Brad Ingelsby has written a structurally sound contemporary police procedural which progresses as one would rather expect it would, with plenty of the predictable surprises.

Despite press releases foregrounding Ingelsby’s return to his home state of Pennsylvania to write the series, little about the series aside from a few wonky sounding O’s demonstrates any relationship to it. We don’t find any interrogation of the material realities of these characters, only junk food, beer, untidy houses, worn and dated clothing, teenage mothers, and drugs — empty signifiers of “white trash.”

Though the series realizes that financial limitations like not being able to afford pediatric surgery makes people desperate, it doesn’t pry open why those limitations exist and how the structures of poverty are contributing to the many violent problems in the community. We never see how the characters’ attitudes and motivations are tied to their living circumstances. Working class life is more than not having the money for things. It concerns a lack of structural access and opportunity that has cultural and emotional repercussions.

If Mare of Easttown had allowed for some of the conflict to have arisen outside of just interpersonal drama, it would have taken the series from a generic template police procedural that could be set anywhere (and thus nowhere) to a more rooted and investigative thriller that does justice to the real world communities it’s recreating on screen. Creators owe it to them to make sure they are fully and humanistically integrated into the stories they are trying to tell. The communities in which we set crime dramas like Mare exist and they are more than mere mise en scene

Mare of Easttown premieres on HBO Max April 18th.

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