Is it a prestige cable crime drama if a young woman doesn’t die in the first episode? I’m sorry to be so cynical, but Mare of Easttown begins with an upsetting amount of familiarity. One young woman disappeared a year ago in Easttown, Pennsylvania. To the day, another girl is found dead. Easttown is in free fall — no economy to speak of, opioid addiction on the rise, a pervasive kind of malaise — but nothing jolts a community quite like a murder. And now Easttown has two, with detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) in the middle.
Mare is a difficult woman, no doubt. The chip on her shoulder is a mountain range, and every person seems to irritate her. Her family and friends, her co-workers and boss — and most gallingly, the mother of the missing girl who Mare failed to find the year before. The woman who has cancer and whose daughter has disappeared into thin air is somehow the focus of Mare’s ire and defensiveness. It’s bad! And Winslet, who returns to HBO a decade after starring in Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce adaptation and who increasingly in her career has chosen these kind of brittle, inflexible characters (Ammonite is not a love story, people!), excels here, imbuing all of Mare’s physicality and facial expressions with some degree of annoyance. Can a person limp or vape exasperatedly? You wouldn’t assume so, but Winslet does it. She carries her body like Ben Affleck did in Mare of Easttown creator Brad Ingelsby’s film The Way Back: with a kind of bone-deep exhaustion and a claustrophobic hunching-in. Would I pay to watch a game of HORSE between Affleck and Winslet in their respective basketball-playing Ingelsby characters? Yes, I would.
Silliness aside, the Mare of Easttown premiere sets the table with tragedies past and present, and hints at even more to come. Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel, who will helm all seven episodes, immediately communicate how the small-town tidiness of Easttown — ordered brick townhomes, the rows of headstones in a cemetery, the billowing smoke coming from an industrial skyline — mask a community in crisis. Is anyone who lives here happy? Hard to say. When we meet Mare, there’s an immediate cause for her displeasure: She’s been woken up by a neighbor whose granddaughter saw a Peeping Tom in their backyard, and she’s peeved, as a detective, to be dealing with this low-level stuff. Maybe others would be swayed by Mrs. Carroll’s (Phyllis Somerville) “I trust you, and I don’t know who the station will send over,” but not Mare. She’s too busy investigating “all the really bad crap that goes on around here,” she admonishes Mrs. Carroll, and when she gets to the police station, we learn what that entails.
A year before, Katie Bailey disappeared. A body was never found, and the case went nowhere, and now her mother Dawn is giving interviews to the local news about how the police bungled the case. She doesn’t exactly say “Mare Sheehan fucked this up,” but the implication is heavy. Mare, for her part, is defensive rather than sympathetic. She blames the victim, complaining to her boss Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) that Katie was a known drug user and had a history of prostitution: “She’s probably lying at the bottom of the Delaware River right now.” Still, Chief Carter isn’t backing down, since Dawn’s interview is putting so much pressure on the force. “Go back to the file. We’re starting over here,” he decrees, but Mare looks at the file only once in the next few hours. On one hand, lifelong Easttown resident Mare is so ingrained in the community that people just keep calling her for help, as Mrs. Carroll did; on the other hand, Mare’s personal life is an unbelievable mess. It all might be impossible to balance, and it makes you wonder if Katie’s disappearance really got Mare’s full attention last year.
In the present, though, we see Mare on the job, and in every altercation, she’s tough but fair. When her longtime friend and former basketball teammate Beth Hanlon (Chinasa Ogbuagu) calls the police on her opioid addict brother Freddie (Dominique Johnson), and Mare injures herself chasing him back to his house, she doesn’t react in anger. She talks to Freddie calmly but directly and insists that the gas company reconnect heat to Freddie’s house because it’s illegal in Pennsylvania (and various other states) to cut off utilities for low-income families between December and March. She reacts to Beth’s admission that she wishes Freddie were dead without judgment. And as a mentor to new cop Officer Trammell (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), she initially scoffs at his discomfort with blood but ultimately asks if he’s okay.
It’s kind of strange, then, to see how much Mare changes after interacting with her family. Of course, all families have some kind of friction, and how we behave in our relationships with our parents, siblings, cousins, and kids does not immediately sync up with how we act at work. But how offended Mare gets over her ex-husband Frank’s (David Denman) engagement to his new fiancée, Faye (Kate Arrington), and the fact that everyone in her life seemed to know before she did bleeds into her job, doesn’t it? Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart) knew, her and Frank’s daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) knew, her best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) knew, her cousin Father Dan Hastings (Neal Huff) knew. And when all of Mare’s relatives choose to attend Frank and Faye’s engagement party rather than attend the 25th-anniversary ceremony for Mare’s high-school basketball triumph, they knock her off her axis enough that she behaves horrendously toward Dawn. What type of person accosts the mother of a missing child? What type of person thinks it’s appropriate to scold the mother of a missing child with “If you don’t think I’m doing my job, I wish you’d come to me first”? I’m amazed that Dawn didn’t slap Mare, “Miss Lady Hawk” herself, in the face, and I wish she had.
While this premiere episode spends a good amount of time asking us to decide whether Mare makes life difficult for herself or is the victim of others doing that for her, it also introduces the girl whose murder Mare is tasked with investigating: Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), who is living the life Mare doesn’t want for her own daughter Siobhan. Erin has a 1-year-old son with Dylan (Jack Mulhern), who barely tolerates her, and her father Kenny (Patrick Murney) is domineering and verbally abusive. She doesn’t have many friends since birthing her son, her mother is gone, and she spends most of her time either cooking and cleaning for Kenny or arguing with Dylan. Erin’s circumstances are already overwhelming, and then Dylan’s new girlfriend Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing) turns out to be a catfishing asshole who sets Erin up for a vicious physical attack. What would have happened if Siobhan hadn’t stepped in? It’s impossible to say. But what did happen after Siobhan interrupted Brianna’s beatdown was that the injured Erin wandered off the trail alone and wound up abandoned, bloody, and blue in the river the next morning. (Zobel positioning Erin’s dead body in the same splayed-out way as he introduced her while playing with her son was a morbidly effective touch.) Another girl dead in this small town, and “there’s nothing Mare Sheehan loves more than being the hero,” her daughter Siobhan had said. Can Mare solve the mystery this time, or will Erin join Katie in weighing upon Mare’s conscience?
A Different Line of Work
• Did Mare’s son Kevin, who she imagines in her grandson Drew’s (Izzy King) bedroom, die from a drug overdose? That would certainly fit thematically.
• Where does Richard Ryan, Mare’s once-and-perhaps-future lover (played by Guy Pearce, reuniting with Winslet after Mildred Pierce), fit in? I don’t think he’s a suspect, but I’m not sure he’s a genuine, long-term love interest, either. Maybe a Chris Messina in Sharp Objects type?
• “He looked like a ferret” is actually a pretty good description, no? That immediately conjures a certain kind of rodent-like face and sniveling energy, and I’m curious if Mrs. Carroll’s granddaughter’s description will turn out to be accurate (if the Peeping Tom is even found).
• “Remember when the impossible happened” was the newspaper headline celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mare’s high-school basketball triumph. Sounds like a tagline for that new Disney+ show Big Shot.
• The “county shithead” joining Mare to look into the disappearance of Katie and the murder of Erin will be played by Evan Peters. His next role? Jeffrey Dahmer in Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the serial killer. Peters has the range, etc.
• Money is tight everywhere in Easttown: Mare is carrying around a cellphone with a heavily busted screen and buys the cheapest aquarium she can for grandson Drew’s new turtle. Erin’s father complains about his job, while her ex-boyfriend Dylan doesn’t have the $1,800 to pay for their son’s ear surgery and refuses to ask his parents for it. Things are bleak, and it’s no wonder that the opioid crisis seems to have firmly taken hold here.
• Kate Winslet saw Margot Robbie’s love affair with that Birds of Prey breakfast sandwich and refused to let an acting challenge pass her by; her shoving that bagel in her mouth while driving and squeezing cheese spread on a cheese puff were both aspirational. Two other great moments of physicality on Winslet’s part: how she waves away Officer Trammel’s drawn gun when they go into Freddie’s house and her exaggerated “Welcome!” to Officer Trammell before he drives Freddie to the local shelter.
• Meanwhile, Winslet’s best line delivery: Her utterly unenthused “Oh. Congratulations,” to Frank.
• If you recognized Neal Huff from The Post, Spotlight, and The Wire, as I did, uh … do you also have a journalism degree? Solidarity!
• Mare’s atheism sticks out in a community where an older woman like Mrs. Carroll has crosses all over her home and her cousin Dan is the local priest. “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about him,” Dan had said to Mare, but what does it say if our idea of God is nothing at all?