Mare of Easttown Kept It All in the Family

Photo: HBO Max

Spoilers for all of Mare of Easttown, including the finale, lie ahead.

In the end, the element of Mare of Easttown that was least obvious from its trailer or its beginning premise turned out to be the series’ greatest strength. Everything about it screamed, “I’m a murder mystery!” — the detective protagonist, the small town shocked by heinous crimes, the ever-shifting list of suspects, the grimy-bleak color palette. It is a murder mystery, of course, and much of the show is built on beloved, age-old murder-mystery structures. Mare is just as much a family drama, though. The finale hinges on a shocking reveal-twist-reveal that pulls together all of the show’s mystery threads, but the core of Mare is all the messy, horrible, endlessly sad, funny family stuff. It’s what makes the finale so much more satisfying than the simple “Oh, it was him?!” reveal, and it’s what has made Mare of Easttown so much more memorable than the dozen similar dead-girl-in-a-sad-place TV shows of the past several years.

Most crime fiction includes family themes. Breaking Bad’s Walt initially turned to meth manufacturing because of his desire to support his family — and spent the next several seasons feeling burdened but also shielded by them, using them to justify his actions. Mob stories are famously about keepin’ it all in the family; the recent rash of Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy plots are yet another variant on twisted family dynamics turned criminal. Illegal acts and complicated family feelings: Name a more iconic duo!

But Mare of Easttown’s murder-and-moms storytelling goes deeper than the typical “crime plus sad families” thematics. It’s structural, a way of looping together two different storytelling drives that naturally pull against each other. Family (or chosen-family) dramas — think Grey’s Anatomy or Shameless — are all about time and generations. It’s the anxiety and necessity of one generation making way for the next, the messy reality of children trying and failing to live up to their parents’ expectations. They’re sagas, really — stories that could easily play out over decades, with the anger from one grandmother’s marriage roiling through her daughter’s childhood and then being revisited and revised as they both co-parent a great-grandson. Family dramas are all about sins-of-the-father-type shit. There is no easy answer, no fast way to see the action and erase the consequences. They’re about turmoil and change, and the happy resolution of a family drama is about accepting the past and ensuring that some future generation will make it out okay.

Crime dramas, particularly the subgenre of murder mysteries, are fundamentally opposed to that slow-burning, forever-unraveling family-drama story. They are about questions that long for answers; where a family drama could happily unfurl for years, mystery stories ache for conclusions. This is why they’re so full of red herrings and proliferating theories. It’s tough to delay that reveal, tough to sustain that active interest in the answer without giving anything away. It’s a story shape that longs for its own ending.

Enter Mare of Easttown, which is an unlikely, sometimes shambling, ultimately rewarding combination of both of those structures. There are murders and disappearances in Easttown, and as is correct for a good mystery, the primary pull of the finale is the whodunit and all of its related questions. Was Erin murdered by her lover? Was that lover John or Billy? Who was the father of her son, DJ? What was in the photo that so alarmed Mare’s supervisor? The show spends the previous six episodes doing endless crime-y, suspect-y dodging and weaving to arrive at this point, and the finale is full of narrative fireworks going off with appropriate whodunit fanfare. Will the conclusion of this mystery surprise me, or will it be predictable? We think we know … but do we??

While it was playing with all of that mystery machinery, though, Mare was also winding its way through a number of side stories that have often felt like diversions, or maybe incidental psychological backstory. Mare is still traumatized by her son’s death from suicide, and she’s preoccupied by the worry that she’ll lose custody of her grandson. She lives in a house with four full generations of Sheehans, and there is strife and damage in every link of that chain, from her mother, Helen (Jean Smart), all the way down through her daughter, Siobhan, and grandson, Drew. And although the constellation of other characters in Mare of Easttown are all there because they’re suspects in Erin McMenamin’s murder, they’re also reinforcing the show’s preoccupation with familial, generational anxiety. Who is DJ’s father? Who will care for him? How are an older generation’s mistakes being visited upon and reverberating through the younger ones? It was not perfectly executed: Some characters never really work (hello, Guy Pearce), and the show struggles a little to staple together all the pieces that still want resolution at the end. Still, Mare invests enough in the family-saga side that a well-built ending for the show not only has to finish the whodunit story, but it also has to account for all the unhealed emotional wounds that continue to plague the Sheehans.

All of this together is why Mare’s shocking reveal of Erin’s murderer manages to be so startling, but also immediately right, in a gut-level “Oh, of course” sort of way. We, and most of the Easttown community, are entirely consumed by all the damage wrought by the past and the concern for how it affects all the kids. Erin was hurt by an adult who could not control himself; her baby’s father is John Ross, a man who had already been unfaithful in his marriage and who has tried to bury all of his mistakes. But Erin’s murderer was not John — it was John’s young son, Ryan, who desperately wanted to keep his family together and whose whole emotional life was wrapped up in addressing his father’s faults.

In an even more direct tie-in to Mare’s familial obsession, the final twist relies on Lori and John discovering the truth before Mare does, then hiding evidence and misleading the police to protect their son. The resolution of the mystery becomes an explosion of all the ideas Mare of Easttown has toyed with along the sidelines from the beginning. How can they protect the sons from the fathers’ transgressions? How can Lori and Mare care for the newer kids (DJ but also Drew) while they mourn for the ones they feel they’ve failed (Ryan and Kevin)?

That reveal that Lori is losing her husband and eldest son is so neat, so cleanly parallel to Mare’s own lost teenage son, while also being so carefully hidden under the audience’s assumptions of childhood innocence. It’s almost too neat, in fact, so much so that there’s something that feels almost Law & Order: SVU to that final discovery. The tidiness (with a dash of smugness that the surprise has worked) nearly undermines the tragedy. The resolution of the whodunit is a fait accompli, and it almost takes over the finale by tying everything together with a very sad, very clever bow.

This is where the lurking family-saga structure comes back into play, and it’s what transforms the finale from a pure mystery resolution into an ending with more complex, lingering psychological oomph. The surface-level question of the series was about who killed Erin McMenamin, but the underlying question was always whether any of these people would be able to have healthy relationships again, whether the kids could ever be all right. The story cannot end with Ryan being taken off to prison, with Mare looking on while Lori weeps in fury. The structure demands we follow the fallout, past the immediate consequences of the crime and all the way through, to Drew’s resolved custody case, Siobhan leaving for college, Mare having a healthy good-bye with Richard, Lori forgiving Mare, and, finally, to Mare finding the courage to revisit the site of her son’s death. It’s as happy an ending as Mare of Easttown could muster.

Mare of Easttown Kept It All in the Family