Alert: Major spoilers re: the Mare of Easttown finale ahead.
When Mare Sheehan finally realizes who actually killed Erin McMenamin in the Mare of Easttown finale, she technically has a choice. She can tuck this new information away and let John Ross, who has already confessed to Erin’s murder and is currently sitting in jail, serve a sentence for it. Or she can do what she winds up doing: Arrest young Ryan Ross, son of John and Mare’s best friend from high school, Lori, and alter the course of this young man’s life.
As we all now know, Mare does the latter despite feeling obvious anguish about it, which is beautifully displayed in Kate Winslet’s performance. Initially we, like Lori (Julianne Nicholson), may think we know why Mare reacts this way: Because it’s impossible for Mare to do anything other than follow through once an idea has gotten into her head. This is the same woman who planted drugs on the mother of her grandson even though she knew it was a terrible thing to do and the same cop who slammed on the gas pedal after telling her chief she was definitely going to wait for backup. She can’t not arrest Ryan (Cameron Mann, giving major young Henry Thomas vibes in this episode) once she sees undeniable evidence that he’s the only person who possessed the murder weapon on the night of Erin’s death.
Lori absolutely views Mare’s decision as a direct reflection of her stubbornness, which is one of the reasons she’s so furious at Mare after Ryan is taken into custody.
“Why couldn’t you just leave him alone?” Lori yells at her.
Nicholson so exquisitely channels Lori’s despair and rage that you can totally understand her side in this argument, especially if you’re a parent. Mare could have just left it alone, and if she had, Ryan would still be at home, being a kid. A less charitable person might even conclude that Mare, whose family dynamics splintered after her son Kevin died by suicide, is subconsciously trying to make Lori as hurt and miserable as she is.
But that’s actually not what’s going on here, and I don’t think it’s what writer and series creator Brad Inglesby or director Craig Zobel want the audience to take away, either. Throughout all seven of the Mare of Easttown episodes, Mare has been plagued with guilt about Kevin’s death, and, as we eventually discover, the fact that she put her daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) in the position to discover Kevin’s body. Her desire to find Missy Sager and Katie Bailey, the young kidnapped women she eventually rescues, and to find justice for Erin is pretty obviously driven by a hunger to save someone’s child since she couldn’t save her own. Ryan finally enables her to do the closest thing she can to saving Kevin: By forcing him to tell the truth about Erin and be held accountable, Mare prevents Ryan from becoming another Kevin.
It’s obvious that keeping his secret about Erin has already been eating Ryan alive. As Joanna Robinson pointed out in this extremely correct piece for Vanity Fair, there isn’t a moment in Mare of Easttown where the kid doesn’t look sad, concerned, or full-on angry while beating the hell out of a fellow middle schooler. While it’s hard to know how Ryan’s future would have panned out if he had never confessed to killing Erin, given the way things tend to go for troubled kids in Easttown, it seems fair to assume that the answer is not well. Even if he had decided to turn himself in, there’s a very good chance Lori would have talked him out of it. (As she told Mare and the chief, she had planned to take the secret to her grave.) It seems quite likely that Ryan would have endured further psychological damage while continuing to watch his father serve time for a crime Ryan knows he committed. It’s also easy to imagine, given what we’ve seen of Easttown, him turning to drugs or becoming suicidal, not unlike Beth’s brother Freddie and Kevin.
While Mare’s decision to hold Ryan accountable for what he did is agonizing in the short term, in the long term, she’s done him an enormous favor. She forced him to lay out the truth in the open instead of keeping it locked up, and that’s really what Mare of Easttown is about in the end: how people can’t move forward when they bury their pain and regret in darkness. Those feelings need to be looked at in the light. To put it another way while also borrowing a relevant quote from a different HBO limited series featuring the incomparable Jean Smart (that would be Watchmen): “Wounds need air.”
As Mare of Easttown comes to a close, it’s clear that Mare is starting to understand that. She remains committed to her therapy sessions. She’s discussed the circumstances around Kevin’s death with her therapist and Siobhan, which is a start. She shows Carrie (Sosie Bacon), Drew’s mother, real grace and understanding for the first time. As we see in the scene in the pizza place, she’s also kinder to Frank (David Denman), her ex-husband, and his fiancée Faye (Kate Arrington). Even Helen (Smart) shows a willingness to be vulnerable with Mare.
In that same pizza place scene, she breaks down crying while apologizing to Mare for not being a more present, compassionate mother. (Continuing with my wounds metaphor, Helen does this after helping great-grandson Drew fix his Band-Aid.) “That’s what I wish for you,” Helen tells her daughter. “That you can forgive yourself for Kevin.”
Even though she never speaks those exact words, by making sure Ryan confesses, Mare is helping him take a first step on a path toward forgiveness for himself. She’s also doing the same thing for Lori. As for Mare herself, she’s headed in that direction, too, as the end of the finale tells us. After avoiding the attic, the place where Kevin died, she finally pulls down the ladder and climbs up there for the first time since she lost him. The last image in Mare of Easttown, of that ladder leading to that now-open attic space, is a sign that Mare is learning to let the air inside.
More Mare of Easttown
- Take a Break From Hunting the Killer to Try Wawa’s Mare of Easttown Cheesesteak
- Mannequin Pussy’s Secret to the Art of Surprise
- What to Watch Now That Mare of Easttown Is Over