At first, Mare of Easttown looks familiar.
The HBO limited series, debuting tonight, follows an attempt to solve the murder of a young woman and the possibly related disappearances of two others, a plot that’s played out on television more times than can be counted. Its protagonist is a traumatized police detective who pushes boundaries to get to the bottom of the case, a type that’s figured into such crime stories since practically forever. The show is set in a small Pennsylvania town whose modest brick homes, lined up in neat rows, chimney after chimney, are among the first images that appear in episode one, which begins in the azure light of a brisk winter day as the sun slowly rises. Immediately, you feel the sense of melancholy embedded in the cellular makeup of this close-knit, working-class hamlet. That mood, mixed with all those other elements, evokes a number of recent and semi-recent series, including Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, Sharp Objects, and Clarice.
But Mare of Easttown, created and written by Brad Ingelsby (Our Friend, The Way Back), distinguishes itself with strong characters who will grow on viewers with each hour-long installment they consume. HBO sent five of the seven episodes to critics, and by episode three, I was fully invested in Mare Sheehan, played by a thoroughly committed Kate Winslet, and the lives of everyone connected to her in this place she’s called home for her entire life.
It turns out that Mare of Easttown isn’t strictly a crime drama. I mean, it certainly is that, to an extent. A lot of the storytelling centers on the murder of Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), a teenager and mother of an infant son who is found dead by the conclusion of episode one under circumstances that may be connected to an unsolved missing-person case involving the daughter of an old high-school friend of Mare’s. We witness Mare doing plenty of police work, particularly in concert with Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), a county detective who is called in to assist her and to whom she doesn’t warm up right away. (Spoiler alert: Mare Sheehan doesn’t warm up to most people right away.) Our suspicions are raised, lowered, then raised again toward an array of local suspects in Erin’s homicide. Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel, who presided over multiple episodes of The Leftovers and last year’s The Hunt, toss these red flags without being gimmicky about it. Mare of Easttown invites us to view things the way that Mare does: with enough attention to catch the slightest change in a facial expression that may hint at a lie and with enough cynicism to think it’s possible that even people you’ve known forever could be capable of unspeakable behavior.
There are legitimate reasons for Mare to be cynical. She’s lost a grown son to suicide; gotten divorced from her husband (David Denman), who’s now engaged to another woman; and she’s trying to raise the grandson that her own son left behind. When Mare of Easttown delves into these matters, it pivots from crime drama to character study and exploration of grief. The idea that everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about permeates this series, in which Mare is hardly the only person struggling. A lot of television shows have depicted working-class folks in one-dimensional ways that reek of Hollywood elite acting like they know what regular people are like. But Mare of Easttown draws even its most flawed Easttowners with a sense of humanity and complexity, both aided by the fact that Inglesby is from the area and the production was shot there as well.
In addition to serving as a crime drama and a pure drama, Mare of Easttown also has a great sitcom embedded within it. That sitcom stars Kate Winslet and Jean Smart as Mare’s mother Helen, who lives with Mare and, in the grand tradition of mothers and daughters, has a flair for stomping all over Mare’s last nerve. In one episode where Helen has an accident at home, Mare notes that her injuries look pretty minor, to which her mother drily responds: “I’m sorry I’m not more maimed for you.” If sarcasm and deadpan comments could be transformed into pieces of visual art, just about everything Jean Smart says on this show would be on display at the Guggenheim.
But the most challenging role in the series belongs to Winslet, not only because Mare is in almost every frame but because the part demands a breadth of emotion and subtlety, as well as the not-insignificant hurdle of convincing us that this very British actress was born and raised in Pennsylvania. The first time Winslet says “wooter” instead of water and pronounces an O with the roundness of a Philadelphia-area native, the spine stiffens in anticipation of an actorly performance. But once you settle into the series and Winslet demonstrates how fully embedded she is in this stubborn, perpetually vaping woman’s skin, those preconceptions melt away. Winslet coats Mare in such a thick, hard shell that any time she cracks even a tiny bit, it is a revelation.
One of Mare of Easttowns’s greatest assets is its thorough attention to detail, but occasionally that also works to its detriment. The show places importance on so many story lines and sidebars that some inevitably get shoved to the side without being satisfyingly resolved. Richard (Guy Pearce), a writer and professor that Mare starts dating, also isn’t quite as well developed as some of the other characters. But the series is so immersive and well-done in other ways that its flaws don’t detract from the experience.
Even if it were just a basic crime drama, Mare of Easttown would be pretty good. The fifth episode features a tense sequence that escalates to a point that actually caused me to loudly gasp. But this seven-episode saga is more than just a gasp-inducer. Anything that can trigger a sense of shock, transport you to another town, and make you cackle (again: Jean Smart for president) is the kind of television that’s worth your time.
Note: A previous version of this article mentioned that the song “Thunderstruck” is used in Mare of Easttown. It appears only as a temp track. We have edited and re-published the article to reflect that.