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'Mare of Easttown' and motherhood

Kate Winslet as Mare in "Mare of Easttown."
(Image credit: HBO)

This post contains detailed spoilers for Mare of Easttown

Dead moms, teen moms, missing moms, and struggling moms are among the large Mare of Easttown cast of characters who live in a town impacted by the wide-reaching opioid crisis and the lack of opportunities. A high school basketball game that took place in the ‘90s is one of the few shining glories and it is still being celebrated 25 years later. In the first episode, Erin McMenamin’s (Cailee Spaeny) determination to be a good mother to her baby DJ cannot surmount the prohibitive cost of surgery — the lack of healthcare is another major fault line running its way through this story. By the end of “Miss Lady Hawk Herself,” the teenage girl is lying dead in the secluded Sharp’s Forest, and this murder is being connected to the disappearance of Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan) who vanished the year before. Katie’s young child is now being cared for by her grandmother Dawn (Enid Graham), whose rage about her missing child is directed at former high school basketball teammate (and local detective) Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet). 

A troubled investigator who can’t keep their life in order is a familiar prestige crime drama trope, but in Mare of Easttown, it is impossible to separate professional and personal apart. While the overarching mystery has turned us all into armchair detectives, the exploration of motherhood failings (or rather, perceived failings) shifts into focus in “Sore Must Be the Storm.” Several factors account for this and the fallout from Katie Bailey’s rescue puts Mare on the receiving end of praise and vitriol. Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) was called in to help solve Erin’s murder and took the lead investigator role after Mare was suspended. His mother (who he lives with) voiced her concerns about Mare and the case: “Just be careful, that’s all,” is the last thing she says to him. Katie Bailey is rescued but in the process, the suspect shoots Colin dead, and his mother’s fears came true. 

Mare of Easttown Kate Winslet

(Image credit: HBO)

Guilt runs through Mare’s veins and Colin is another name added to her list of people she believes she let down in Mare of Easttown. Colin’s mother might be a practicing Catholic, but forgiveness is not something she can offer. Instead, she slaps Mare twice hard across the face when she goes to offer her condolences. “If my son had not followed you to that house he would still be alive,” she intones, the grief still raw. On the flip side, Dawn tearily (and somewhat awkwardly) offers her gratitude, “I’m so thankful that you returned her to me.” They embrace and after a year of contentious interactions, this is one mother who no longer wants to lash out at Mare. 

Mare’s contrition is also wrapped up in the person who found his lifeless body in the attic as she had sent youngest daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) to check after someone saw him enter the house. “It should’ve been you that day. I hate you for that. I hate that you made me find him,” her drunk daughter tells her in “Sore Must Be the Storm.” This episode gets its title from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is the Thing with feathers,” which uses bird imagery to suggest hope is prevailing even during the darkest, stormiest moments. Mare sure knows a lot about the latter from her father’s suicide to history repeating with her son. The one person who has been throughout all of this is her mother, Helen and this fiery dynamic is brimming with contentious moments. They bicker constantly, but tenderness is available on tap when required — the bird in the poem could be likened to this mother/daughter bond. After Mare has been to see Mrs. Zabel, her sniffles alert her that she is home, and in the darkened hallway these quickly transition into a full-body sob. All it took was for Helen to ask “How’d it go?” to get this reaction and the image of her in this state of distress in her mother’s arms is a powerful unifying moment. She is soon back to making fun of her mother — “I got new shoes! They sound like I’m fartin’!” — but there is love in that too.  Winslet and Smart’s chemistry through bitter feeds and laughter is equally gratifying and both women are delivering Emmy-worthy turns.  

Jean Smart in Mare of Easttown

(Image credit: HBO)

Running parallel to the case investigating in Mare of Easttown is Erin’s murder and Katie’s disappearance (by the penultimate episode it has been confirmed they are not connected), pieces of Mare’s past fall into place such as the history of suicide in her family (including her father and son Kevin). She has previously not addressed either the entwined grief and guilt and while she no longer has to attend therapy, she continues the sessions — there is a lot to be said that she gets her gun and badge back so easily, but that is for a different essay. “Bet you were a good mother,” Colin observed in an early episode to which Mare responded, “No. No, I wasn’t.” Drew is a second chance to get things right or even catch what she couldn’t when it came to Kevin’s mental health. Reading every article on this subject is her attempt to find a nugget of hope and is integral to this do-over — how many people get a second chance like this? Not only is she concerned that recovering addict Carrie (Sosie Bacon) is not fit to be Drew’s mother, but if Carrie gets full custody she cannot ensure that he won’t follow the same path as his father.

Perspective shifts and Mare goes from planting heroin on Carrie to finally giving her a chance to be a mother. Of course, this custody conversation between Mare and her ex-husband is followed by Mare of Easttown depicting an incredibly stressful sequence, which shows Carrie falling asleep while Drew is in the bath with the taps still running. Great-grandmother Helen had warned Carrie in the previous episode to not leave Drew in the bathtub alone, however, working two jobs (and refusing uppers from a co-worker) has left her exhausted. Thankfully, the already bleak Mare of Easttown did not add another casualty to its list and hopefully, this near-miss doesn’t send her back to the “pick-me-up” she politely declined. Cycles are hard to break and Carrie is doing everything in her power to prove she can be a good mom.

Motherhood is a thread weaving through Mare of Easttown's tragedy, which includes the weekend arranged to bring some light back into Erin’s life after the death of her mom (from leukemia). This event was the focus of Mare’s investigation in the penultimate episode and potentially holds the key to this tragedy. Billy has “confessed” to this crime, but it is not as neat as his tearful admission to his brother suggests. Perhaps the killer is a mother trying to fight for her family or it came about after Erin tried to get money for her son’s ear surgery. Sunday night will provide answers when the finale airs on HBO, but no matter the identity of the murdered (or who the father of Erin’s child is), Kate Winslet has given the mother of all performances and a character who will be hard to forget.