Why Mare of Easttown should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 12, Jun 2021
“You all right?” asks the police chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson). “Not really,” replies veteran detective Mare (Kate Winslet). “But you’re gonna survive?” he adds. She says nothing, but nods. In that small moment, we learn everything we need to know about the HBO drama and its leading lady – Mare of Easttown is a tale of survival in the face of life, an unglamorous ode to hanging on, and a showcase for a star at the top of game, precisely because you barely even notice she’s acting.
The series is, in many ways, a convention detective drama. Within an episode, a dead body has appeared in a small Pennsylvania town where everybody knows everybody’s business – and the person trying to crack it all is a cop with their own problems to solve. When we meet her, Mare is famous for two things – first, the basketball game that saw her make an impossible winning shot in her youth, and second, for failing to solve a missing person’s case from a year ago. She’s grieving for a son, living with her divorced husband on her doorstep starting a new life and trying to secure custody of her orphaned grandson, as his mother has been going through rehab. The very fact that Mare is a woman rather than your stereotypical male detective gives the hardships of her life a particular weight, but also brings to mind the British series Happy Valley – because while Kate Winslet delivers the best performance of her career (funny, grizzled, complex and, beneath it all, compassionate), what makes Mare of Easttown such a triumph of TV is the way it captures the community around her in such nuanced detail.
Writer Brad Ingelsby is a Pennsylvania native, and he brings an unsentimental streak of honest to every crack in the facade of the close-knit society – a rust belt town that’s been battered by poverty, drugs and left behind by America. From the opening episode, every person we meet rings with authenticity, from Mare’s mother, Helen (Jean Smart), capable of anger and comic relief, and Evan Peters as her new colleague, Colin Zabel, at once naive, kind and hapless, to Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), the agonising mother of the long-since missing Katie, and Cailee Spaeny as the heartbreakingly innocent Erin, unexpected single mother to a baby.
The roster of supporting characters are so richly drawn that any of them could be suspects – from Dylan (Jack Mulhern), the father of Erin’s baby who isn’t ready to be a dad, and Kenny (Patrick Murney), Erin’s intense, angry dad who doesn’t want to foot the bill for the baby’s needs, to James McArdle’s softly spoken and slightly suspicious Deacon Mark. Even Mare’s best friend, Lori (Julianne Nicholson), gets her moment in the spotlight, as she opens up about trying to hold together her family, including husband John (Joe Tippett), kind-hearted daughter Moira (Kassie Mundhenk) and troubled son Ryan (Cameron Mann).
In all of this, you’d expect Guy Pearce’s guest appearance as author Richard Ryan to put him squarely in the suspect frame, but it’s testament to the show’s ability to surprise that he emerges as a decent, but flawed, outsider, whose connection with Mare leads to a wonderfully frank depiction of middle-aged romance. Even an elderly couple with a broken security camera manage to be sweet and amusing while also deeply poignant.
The result is a superb portrait of a town that’s well lived in, if not lived well. Ingelsby’s script gives layers to every interaction we see, spoken or unspoken, immersing us in a sea of poverty, boredom, regrets, family loyalty and other potentially poisonous tensions – while still finding time for riveting set pieces, helmed with atmosphere and genuine danger by Craig Zobel (Compliance, The Hunt).
Amid it all, Winslet is mesmerising, throwing every inch of herself into this dogged, head-hanging, heartbroken detective, who will eat and drink without apology, walk out of fancy parties when she feels out of place and tell other people exactly what she thinks of them. But that weary, blunt streak is hiding patience, determination and empathy, and the more she begins to tie together the disparate threads of the twisting, turning plot, the more she emerges as herself once more – even though there are still tragedies to face. There’s a redemption arc there, but it’s gentle and far from straightforward, and the more understated Winslet plays it, the brighter she shines. “Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” she’s asked at one point. Whether it’s guilt, grief or a bit of both pushing her forward, Mare of Easttown’s gripping momentum is infectious – be prepared to binge through the lot.
Mare of Easttown is available on Sky Atlantic until 29th June 2021. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.