With its moody atmosphere and a phenomenal star turn, HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” is an exceptional tale of intrigue, tragedy, and the challenging move toward acceptance.
In a dangerous Philadelphia town where everyone has their own secrets, one embittered detective, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), watches the ruins of her own life while attempting to solve the mystery of a disappearance of a young woman. When another teenaged girl winds up dead and hotshot detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is brought in to help with the case, Mare’s dark past — along with those of her neighbors — is brought to light as long-held secrets resurface and suspicion is directed everywhere.
The HBO series balances effective mystery with moving character study in an outstanding show. Mare is an extraordinarily well-drawn character; she is gruff and cold, holding onto deep trauma from her childhood and her son’s untimely passing a few years before the show. Winslet portrays the central figure masterfully, in a career-best turn. Several emotional scenes just leave the camera trained on her expressive face, stripping away any fancy editing or cinematography in order to allow the brilliant actress to bring the audience directly into her pain. The show is as much about her facing her past and reaching a place of self-forgiveness as it is about solving the case. And what a brilliant case it is.
The mystery is intriguing without ever forgetting the tragedy. Many offerings of the genre indulge in the fun of crime-solving while downplaying the cost of human life. “Mare of Easttown” doesn’t make that mistake, spending a good portion of the pilot episode with the likable murder victim, Erin, before her untimely death.
A struggling teenage mom who only wants to do right by her son, Erin is a heartbreakingly sympathetic character. Her first-episode appearance so clearly telegraphs her kindness and tragic circumstances that a sign may as well have followed Erin detailing her impending doom, but this foreknowledge does not at all harm viewers from investing intently into her story. When her body is found at the pilot’s end, it is brutal, because there is no character that viewers more wanted to escape Easttown and find some happiness with her baby.
As is necessary for a compelling mystery, nearly every central supporting character is involved in the narrative, and almost everyone is a suspect. It’s fairly clear that a few figures are likely red herrings, shown too suspicious too early to have any real chance of being the killer.
As such, the supporting cast is filled with complex characters and gifted performers. Jean Smart is both hilarious and frustrating as Mare’s sarcastic mother. Her biting comments can amuse or wound depending on the scene, and she strikes the perfect balance. Enid Graham is heartbreaking as the mother of a missing girl, demonstrating a powerful resolve paired with a buried fragility. Guy Pearce walks between smarmy and sincere as Mare’s love interest.
Evan Peters is charming as the new detective partner, and in his hands, Zabel is charming and genuine, a welcome harbinger of some levity in the brutally bleak series. Despite being the same age as the character, his incredibly youthful appearance can be a slight hindrance, particularly when he begins discussing deep regrets or developing a crush on the older Mare, but the actor’s talent makes up for the fact that he could effortlessly pass for being in his early 20s.
On the side of the suspects, competing motives and odd behavior permeate, to the point where most not only have a motive, but they are entirely believable as a killer: her abusive father, creepy uncles, the callous father of her baby, his cruel girlfriend, a new Catholic priest with the kind of allegations from his last parish that lead Catholic priests to get transferred, desperate drug addicts, and more. As the mystery unravels, the town’s deep secrets are uncovered, and many more lives are irrevocably altered.
The filmmaking largely stays out of the actors’ and writers’ way, merely capturing the events without calling attention to itself. A handful of shots in silent moments transcend, however, gorgeously capturing the characters’ states of mind and the show’s atmosphere with impeccable shot composition and camera movement.
With powerhouse performances, its small-town setting, and its bleak tone, the series reminded me somewhat of the first season of “Broadchurch,” which is one of the best-crafted mystery series ever. “Mare of Easttown” is an extraordinary series. It will break your heart each episode, but you’ll then obsessively turn on the next one, unable to step away.
Whether there will be a second season is unclear. As much as I adored the show, I think the best thing to do is to allow it to exist in its current form. “Mare of Easttown” tells a beautiful, complete story where the crime-solving perfectly mirrors personal growth. While other cases will be solved by the protagonist, and character development does not end with the breakthrough, the story was such a satisfying ending and finalized experience that I want to preserve it more than I’d relish the opportunity to continue with these great characters.