The HBO limited series Mare of Easttown comes with all the signatures of a classic dour prestige drama: There’s a murdered girl, an Oscar-winner playing a detective with *issues*, and of course a spot in the woods where all the local teens like to hang out. (Do all the premium-cable teens hang out in the same forest? That’s something to investigate another time.) But as Mare of Easttown has progressed, it’s revealed a darkly humorous streak. Nowhere does that come out as fully as in Mare’s interactions with her family, and especially her mother, Helen Fahey, played with unsentimental sarcasm and Fruit Ninja enthusiasm by Jean Smart.
It’s one of those essential truths of TV, as Watchmen and Legion displayed recently, that if you need a tough-as-nails broad, you hire Jean Smart. Smart has the voice and the timing to play a stern matriarch, and whenever she’s onscreen in Mare of Easttown, she wrenches away the spotlight like she’s grabbing a juice box. Look at her expression as she clutches one in the second episode: You can see Helen’s pride, her haughtiness, and her sullen resentment of her great-grandson’s mother, Carrie Layden, and her attempts to get custody.
It’s the resentment that’s key. Even if Helen acts as if she’s in control of everything around her, she’s often separate from events of the show, watching from the sidelines as Mare continues to make bad decisions in the course of her investigation, and just willfully pretending that nothing is wrong as her family falls apart. Later on in that episode, for instance, Helen tunes out the world and just focuses on her iPad games. Incredible Fruit Ninja enthusiasm from Jean Smart going on here. She also throws an iPad into a pool in the upcoming Hacks, solidifying her claim to the title of queen of personal tablet acting.
Much has been made of the Mare of Easttown cast’s meticulous recreation of Delco accents, but it’s really the specifics of Mare’s family dynamics that make the show feel lived-in. She and Kate Winslet play out a relationship that turns on mutual protectiveness and sabotage. When Mare tries to call a family meeting in episode four, for instance, Helen responds by going “what the hell’s a family meeting?” When Mare admits that her attempt at framing Carrie for possession has gotten her suspended, Smart replies with an all-time great line, reading: “Oh, God, Marianne, I don’t know what to say,” followed by a long pause, and then, “Oh wait it just came to me, that was stupid!”
In these moments, the show feels more like a murder mystery with a family drama hidden inside, much like the ice cream Helen buries within her bag of frozen peas. I have no idea who the killer might be — it’s very hard to keep track — but there’s so much to mine in the unfolding saga of Mare’s fractured family unit. By the end of last Sunday’s episode, poor Helen had been through a lot — specifically, she got hit by the front door as Siobhan’s ex raced back into their house.
But don’t worry, despite the brutally goofy image of the door hitting Helen, she’s okay! She tells Mare afterward that she’s “sorry I’m not more MAIMED for you,” and then later is reunited with her beloved iPad. Given the general grim vibes of Mare of Easttown, one can only assume that more misery lies ahead for Mare and Helen in the episodes to come. But let’s hope that there’s at least some levity ahead, too. Or at least some more prop business for Jean Smart to execute. We just really love Jean Smart’s prop work. Roll clip of that ice cream reveal!