In her poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” from which the sixth episode of Mare of Easttown took its title “Sore Must Be the Storm,” Emily Dickinson described hope as what “perches in the soul … sings the tune without the words/and never stops — at all.” The purity of hope, Dickinson suggested, was that it “never — in Extremity … asked a crumb — of me.” Hope exists for its own sake, and for our sake, and it pushes us ahead when nothing else can, or will.
Consider that on one hand, and consider the word “Sacrament,” the title for Mare of Easttown’s finale episode, on the other. In Christianity, a sacrament is an essential religious rite; various branches of Christianity recognize different sacraments, but in general, they agree on the core idea that performing a sacrament can provide God’s grace. In the 1960 book The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion, W. Brede Kristensen wrote of the Roman root word, “sacramentum,” which was a military oath and sacred bond. When the early followers of Christianity took the word over for their own purposes, they transformed its Roman definition into “the means whereby sacredness … is actualized,” Kristensen wrote. Thousands of years later, of the various Christian sacraments, confession and forgiveness remain of particular importance.
Forgive my simplistic poetry and theology lessons, but I say all this because hope, confession, and forgiveness all entwine together in Easttown, don’t they? For the preceding six episodes, we’ve seen Easttown as a bleak, suffocating place. Abusive family dynamics, wayward teenagers, drug addiction, abducted and murdered women, the men doing the abducting and the murdering. Parents and children who can’t seem to stand each other, and neighbors turning on one another. Civic and religious leaders betraying their constituents and their followers, and the mistrust and cynicism of those deceived constituents and followers spreading outward, generation by generation, fraying the invisible web of confidence and belief and compassion and altruism that is supposed to hold a community together.
I don’t think all of that, the broad scale and scope of it, gets fully better because Mare brought Katie and Missy home, or because she solved Erin’s murder. Erin is still dead. Colin is still dead. Freddie is still dead. Kevin is still dead. Carrie is still slipping back into her addiction. The Ross family is still torn apart by incest, lies, and abuse. I’m not sure Lori and Mare’s friendship will ever fully be the same again. But as a slight tipping of the scales? As a brief glimmer of a better future? Yes, and yes. “It’s not for us to decide whether or not they’re deserving,” Deacon Mark said to his congregation about the outsiders in their community, and I can admire the intentions behind that. As a nonreligious person, I can also extend some appreciation for what Mare of Easttown hammers home in this finale about hope, confession, and forgiveness being the steps that guide us forward out of tragedy. Can I muster much empathy up in my heart for John Ross, though? No. Can Mare? I’m gonna also go with no.
“Sacrament” begins right when “Sore Must Be the Storm” ended, with Mare tracking John and Billy to their father’s fishing spot. Back at the Easttown police station, we see the photo Jess had taken from Erin’s journal: a snapshot of Erin beside a sleeping John Ross. John is DJ’s father, and John and Erin began having sex after the family reunion, and Billy isn’t the responsible party at all — neither in impregnating Erin, nor in killing her. It was always John.
At least, that’s what the episode wants you to believe for the first 45 minutes or so, and I’ll be honest: I felt pretty good in my sleuthing from last week! Billy innocent! John guilty! But shame on me for not picking up on the other intentional clues Mare of Easttown was laying down in preceding episodes. Ryan’s burst of angry violence, bullets from a police-issue gun being used to kill Erin, and that dead-eyed stare Lori gave Mare when she started repeating the lies John had told her to say. Are any of John’s and Lori’s actions forgivable because they were trying to protect Ryan? Any of their lies, their obfuscations, their mistruths? This is a town of people whose children have been taken from them as a result of drugs, poverty, lack of opportunity, mental illness. Can we blame Lori and John for holding their child so tight, and for deciding to sacrifice elements of themselves to save him? I don’t know if I can answer that question, and I’m not sure Mare of Easttown has an answer for it, either.
And I’m not sure if continuing to interrogate Erin’s murder is exactly the top priority of Mare of Easttown in its final episode. Instead, “Sacrament” spends most of its runtime on all the ways life keeps on moving after Mare confronts John and Billy on Lehigh River. We see Kate Winslet do exceptional work in that interrogation scene, her tamped-down anger, discomfort, and shock all over her face and captured in her body language as she looks everywhere but at Joe Tippett’s John Ross. That big breath she takes before asking, “When did you begin having a sexual relationship with Erin McMenamin?”, and how entirely without affect she recites her questions — John’s betrayal shook Mare, and Winslet sells that well. Then the reveal that Lori lied to Mare? A light goes out in Mare’s eyes after that admission from John, and everything else we see her do with her life can’t quite bring it back.
Getting together with Richard, at least until he leaves for another one-year visiting professor gig: good! Making up with Frank, befriending Faye, and finally receiving from Helen the apology she’s wanted for years regarding her crummy childhood, and how Helen treated Mare’s father: good! Growing closer to Siobhan: good! Continuing to go to therapy: good! Retaining custody of Drew: good-ish, I guess, although it’s only because Carrie is using drugs again as a result of her need to work so many hours to support herself, and that’s actually pretty depressing!
But Mare is Mare. This is the same woman who couldn’t give up looking for Katie and Missy, even when she was suspended. This is the same woman who went into Mr. Potts’s house without a gun and a badge. This is the same woman who refused to pull over and wait for backup when she thought Billy Ross had killed Erin. And so during the six or so months that we watch Mare grow increasingly suspicious of whether John really did it—how was he so chummy with Frank and Faye at their engagement party, the night he supposedly killed Erin; why didn’t he know exactly where Erin was shot; how could he not remember which gun Erin allegedly had?—we know, too, that there are limits to how much someone can change, at least when they’re grown. Mare could never have left this alone. It’s not in her nature.
Ryan, though? Maybe there’s still time for Ryan to become a different person. Cameron Mann is just devastating in that scene with Julianne Nicholson. His crying delivery of “It’s Mare, she knows! She’s on her way here! She knows!” is tortured and terrified in equal measure, and it was matched well by how wearily and resignedly Nicholson later said, “I agreed to lie to protect my son, and I would have taken that to my grave if you didn’t show up at the house today.” Lori, who once said she would never let Mare quit her, pushes Mare so fully out of her life that I thought they would never find their way back to each other.
Remember, though: hope, confession, forgiveness. Over and over, we hear people repeat these ideas to each other, like a mantra, affirmation, or prayer. Chief Carter says to Mare that she might not be all right, “But you’re gonna survive.” Mare says to Deacon Mark when telling him charges against him are dropped, “Wherever you go after this, I hope they treat you better than we did.” When Mr. Carroll, grieving the death of his wife and increasingly unmoored, asks Mare, “Does it get any easier?”, there’s no real hesitation in her “No.” But Mare’s “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable” is the true message, isn’t it? Time only moves forward, and if we’re lucky, we do too, our paths overlapping with those we love. Frank and Faye get married. Beth gives Freddie’s home to Katie and her daughter. Moira opens the door to Mare, and Lori accepts the hug that is offered. Mare lost Kevin, but she’s always loved Drew; Lori lost Ryan, but maybe she’ll one day love DJ. Everyone gets older. Everyone grows up. And Mare pulls down those stairs to the attic where her son killed himself, takes one step at a time, and ascends.
A Different Line of Work
• Shout out to eagle-eyed commenter Sylvia, who emailed me after my last recap to point out a detail I missed during the jewelry-store-receipt scene. My attention during that scene was focused on the right-hand side of the frame, with the receipt that only lists “Ross” as the buyer of the engraved heart pendant. Sylvia pointed out, though, that the separate receipt on the left-hand side of the frame clearly lists the full name “Billy Ross.” Thanks, Sylvia! But we never got a real confirmation about the details of that pendant purchase in this episode, did we? Did John buy it pretending to be Billy? Or did John have Billy buy it to give to Erin? Whatever the details of that, the amount that John involved his younger brother in his incestuous abuse of his
niece cousin—and the fact that various members of the Ross family knew about this for a while and did nothing—is deeply dispiriting.
• Another detail that I still can’t work out: When did the Jess/Sean/Dylan partnership happen, and why? It seemed to already be in place when Dylan confirmed that Jess was lying to Mare per his orders, and it felt like Dylan was alluding to something else the three of them had done together outside of the journal burning when he pulled that gun on Jess. I know that Jess’s explanation was that the three of them were working together to get Dylan’s parents custody of DJ because she thought Erin would have wanted that, but it felt like there were some gaps in this subplot, too.
• Mann made a solid impression in this final episode, and his “Hey, DJ. Hello,” was particularly poignant.
• “No one’s gonna miss a fuckup like me.” Poor Billy.
• John Douglas Thompson’s faces during the John Ross interrogation scene were great, in particular his disbelieving reaction to John’s description of his bond with Erin, “We could confide in each other in ways that we couldn’t confide in other people. We had this connection.” That “WTF?” face should have a long life on Twitter.
• Erin and John used prepaid burners! Did they buy them from Lester Freamon?
• In a less-silly comparison with The Wire: Mare going up the attic stairs felt like Bubbles finally making it out of his sister’s basement, and this is your reminder that Andre Royo should have won a billion Emmys for that performance.
• Am I too sentimental for wishing there were a scene where Mare went to Colin’s grave? Probably.
• Siobhan is really on her way to Berkeley? That’s not how college admissions work! And we never even saw her finished documentary!
• Amusing to me how the healthier-and-happier version of Mare just looked … more like normal Kate Winslet. It’s like they let Winslet moisturize her face and use a deep-conditioning mask on her hair and called it good.
• I am still fairly anti-Dylan, but I thought his final goodbye to DJ was just right: Dylan has enough of a chip on his shoulder that he would put together the amount needed for DJ’s ear surgery himself, enough of a scrap of a conscience to gift to DJ the money he stole from Erin, and still pissed-off enough that he would sneeringly point out to Lori that she’s not DJ’s “real mom.”
• Jean Smart’s “It wasn’t your fault” wasn’t quite as good as Robin Williams’s Good Will Hunting version of that line, but it was still good. Watch Smart on Hacks!
• Thank you for reading!