This post contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown.
Crime dramas are a favorite subgenre embraced by network TV, cable, and streaming, which runs the gamut of long-running procedurals and limited series. The detective at the heart of the case on a prestige cop show is so dedicated to the job that their home life is a mess, and the one thing they cannot seem to fix is themselves. A sour demeanor but with the propensity for making wisecracks is another signifier, as is the lone wolf status that is challenged when they are paired with an officer that plays by the rules. Beer (or hard liquor), endless coffee, and junk food make up their diet — it is also likely that you can bum a smoke from this protagonist.
Recent examples that tick most (or all) of these boxes include True Detective, The Killing (both the Danish original and US remake), and Perry Mason. The latter is a private investigator-turned-lawyer but incorporates elements of the sad-sack detective trying to find some sense of meaning in the misery — although the titular Mason (Matthew Rhys) has a dry sense of humor to match his melancholy. Meanwhile, British offerings include Marcella, Broadchurch, Happy Valley, and Prime Suspect are examples of the “grizzled lady detective” featured in the very funny Saturday Night Live parody of the current HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown.
Kate Winslet plays the beleaguered Detective Mare Sheehan and her day-to-day routine involves answering calls relating to crimes ranging from petty to disturbing. The opioid crisis has ripped a hole in the small Pennsylvanian town — as well as her own family — and there is a sense that no one is untouched by the repercussions of this pervasive epidemic. It is a place that still celebrates a basketball win that took place twenty-five years earlier as victories are far and few between. At the end of the first episode, the naked body of teenager Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) is discovered in Sharp’s Woods, and the victim in a show like this is typically a young white woman whose body is a jagged scar in the natural landscape. This isn’t the only recent crime to rip this community apart as another young woman disappeared a year ago and up until this week's-dropping episode, Mare had come up short regarding Katie Bailey’s vanishing. So far, this matches the typical HBO crime drama checklist, and I haven’t even got to Mare’s dysfunctional family life and propensity to drink her feelings rather than utter them aloud.
It is in Mare’s home life, which adds to the lived-in feeling of this limited series from creator Brad Ingelsby. Four generations live under one roof with Mare’s mother Helen offering up much of the humor thanks to an incredible performance from Jean Smart. (The actress is taking prestige TV by storm and to see another side of her comedic timing Hacks on HBO Max is well worth your time) The mother/daughter relationship is combative with neither woman feeling the need to back down from their specific point-of-view, though tender interactions are sprinkled alongside unfiltered conversations. The recent episode “Poor Sisyphus” is far from the only example of this, but it plays up to Smart’s funny woman talents and her ability to slay you with a look. From the argument with Mare that results in a hot bag of microwave popcorn getting tossed at her (like a basketball) to her secret stash of ice cream hidden in an empty bag of frozen vegetables, she is serving humor amid the bleak landscape. She doesn’t let her daughter off the hook for the very stupid decision to plant heroin on the mother of Mare’s grandson (in a bid to get permanent custody), but Helen also isn’t too proud to ride in the ambulance alone. The latter occurs after she is inadvertently knocked out with a door after a teenage romance blunder in the basement of their home and it is surprisingly slapstick. Bed and iPad time follow and as we have seen from earlier episodes, Helen is a whizz at Fruit Ninja — details like this only add to the comedic interludes. The same goes for the affair reveal at a wake of all places causing Mare to belly laugh at her mother's embarrassment.
Six years ago, the very funny Kroll Show took a swipe at cool guy detective roles and ingrained misogyny in a sketch called “Dead Girl Town.” Nick Kroll plays the extreme version of the prestige crime drama lead investigator and whenever a show falls into these tropes, I rewatch this sketch — I have seen it a lot. And while Mare of Easttown does hit the familiar notes of this gloomy subgenre, the victims are not nameless beauties fetishized, and Mare is far from an aloof investigator. By letting Erin breathe (quite literally) in the first episode, this pattern is avoided.
The riff in the SNL “Murdur Durdur” sketch is that this is a town in which everyone knows each other and is probably related. Mare’s cousin is a priest and the murdered Erin has several relatives who might be involved. The Delco accent has been a big part of Winslet’s press tour conversations and the specificity of this speech pattern is central to the send-up of this “extremely Pennsylvania crime show.” Winslet’s messy ponytail is referenced (though not her noticeable roots), as is the constant eating, drinking, and vaping that is pivotal to the Oscar-winner’s riveting performance — no show uses food quite like this one.
Scenes flip from funny to heartbreaking in a beat, which includes the adorable Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) awkwardly flirting while he drunkenly slurs before he hits on his profound sadness at his divorce. His eagerness to please includes picking up coffee for Mare and even changing his coat to a thicker-looking parka after she suggests he wear something warmer. Details like this don’t negate the fact that everyone in this show is a potential suspect (including the wide-eyed Zabel — until this week) but it adds to the levity. Mare’s personal life is a mess but this doesn’t mean she isn’t unable to get a date and the arrival of two new men to Easttown opens up the options — her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) lives across the street with his new fiance. One is Zabel and mixing work and pleasure is a recipe for disaster. The other is a former hotshot novelist now teacher Richard (Guy Pearce), who was initially a one-night-stand but has developed into something more. His motives are not to be trusted either — though he seems less kidnapper/murder suspect and more like he is researching material for his next book.
Mare is good at her job and typically has solid instincts — this gut reaction is also a common sad cop trope. However, she also has some blind spots and her son is a big part of this shakiness. As I mentioned earlier, opioid addiction is a thread weaving its way through this story and the mother of Mare’s grandson is in recovery, and her son Kevin was also an addict. Kevin died by suicide and the grieving mother recounts to a therapist that he had a mental health condition that wasn’t easily diagnosed. Mare is skeptical about therapy, which is further emphasized when her suspension from work comes with mandated sessions. Mare hates talking about herself or any form of intimate conversation that could peel back the layers on her grief. Her stubborn streak has led to some bad decisions and while she is a formidable detective, she is also prone to reactionary hot-headedness. She also challenges authority, blinded by her desire to get the job done at any cost. Even when she is taken off the case, she is still relentless in her pursuit of justice. The town thinks she has already failed Katie Bailey — though this week she plays the hero — and Mare doesn’t want Erin’s killer to elude capture too.
On the surface, the permanent grey skies of this Delaware County location, Mare’s screwed-up personal (and now professional) life, and crimes committed feel awfully familiar. Thankfully, Mare of Easttown resembles the world SNL parodied while also offering up dark humor and heart of its own.
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