🚨This post contains detailed spoilers for the Mare of Easttown finale. 🚨
The Mare of Easttown finale took us to church (literally) during a final episode that gave equal weighting to community and motherhood as it did to the conclusion of Erin McMenamin’s (Cailee Spaeny) murder. The Kate Winslet-led crime drama is within a familiar prestige whodunit framework but one that places family at its heart. Cops with a dysfunctional home life are a cornerstone of this genre, but the fractures in Mare Sheehan’s (Winslet) family are not a consequence of her work. Rather, cyclical trauma is the culprit, and the Mare of Easttown finale confronts this deep-rooted generational pattern head-on.
After weeks of theorizing and a dramatic end to the penultimate episode, “Sacrament” quickly wraps who killed Erin — or so writer Brad Inglesby would like the audience to believe. The person who pulled the trigger is also the baby daddy and the photo Jess (Ruby Cruz) took from her best friend’s journal shows Erin with John Ross (Joe Tippett). Rather than waiting for backup, Mare comes upon the Ross brother’s fishing excursion aka John Ross attempting to kill his brother in order to protect his family. It gets a little dicey, but unlike the last time a suspect pulled a gun, no one is physically hurt. Tying a neat bow on this whole sad story, John confesses to the crime and explains that after Erin accidentally shot herself, he finished the job before calling Billy (Robbie Tann) to help move the body. Sure, his family has been destroyed but something about this conclusion feels too simple.
Motherhood has been a thematic point all season, but the penultimate episode “Sore Must Be the Storm” shifted this into focus. I wrote about how the personal and professional are entwined and this is a factor that is emphasized in the Mare of Easttown finale, which pits Mare against best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson). To borrow a phrase from Grey’s Anatomy, Lori is Mare’s person, but loyalty is not inflexible. The arrest of her husband, and the revelation that Lori lied to her BFF — when she told her that Billy was the one who killed Erin — are enough to shatter the unbreakable but this doesn’t hold a candle to the difficult choice Mare makes later on.
How do you break a cycle? Instead of maintaining the lie or burying the secret, Mare confronts the matter head-on knowing that while her recent distance from Lori could probably be repaired, the revelation that her son Ryan (Cameron Mann) is the actual killer will be harder to overcome. Mare puts her detective responsibilities ahead of friendship and considering Ryan has already acted violently after he accidentally shot Erin, this cover-up could take a further toll. “Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” Lori asks after Ryan has been taken into custody. “My whole family is gone because of you” she spits before telling Mare to “get the fuck out of my car.” I would argue that John’s affair and asking his own son to keep this infidelity secret had a much bigger hand in breaking the Ross clan apart, but Lori’s pointed rage at her bestie is not surprising. Lori has been keeping this secret since the morning she lied to Mare about Billy shooting Erin, and this is a “blood is thicker than water scenario” — though, I guess not for Billy.
One connection between the Mare of Easttown finale and two other recent prestige HBO dramas that have attracted Oscar-winning actresses is this link between adult crimes and the impact on children — spoilers for The Undoing and Big Little Lies ahead. The Undoing featured a very silly plot twist as Jonathan Fraser’s (Hugh Grant) teen son’s tried to protect his father by putting the murder weapon in the dishwasher (“twice”). Nicole Kidman’s therapist character Grace Fraser is blinded by her husband’s smooth-talking and it is only in the finale that she rejects the notion of spousal privilege. Kidman also plays a major role in the mystery at the heart of Big Little Lies as it is her husband who lies dead at the bottom of a concrete staircase in Season 1. Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) is an abusive husband and rapist who Celeste (Kidman) fears is passing on his monstrous qualities to their children. One of their twin sons has already tried to choke a first-grade classmate, and there is an element of violent cycles repeating in this storyline. The affluent sun-kissed Monterey vista is world’s apart from the permanently grey Easttown neighborhood, but some themes are universal.
In Mare of Easttown, John’s initial crime isn’t fully explored as the whole statutory rape element doesn’t really get addressed — and this is one area the series suffers. Sure, Mare looks disgusted when he is talking about the “connection” he shared with Erin, but the predatory behavior isn’t investigated. He turned Ryan into his co-conspirator when he asked him to keep the affair secret and because his 13-year-old son didn’t want his family to break up (as it had done when John had his first affair), he took matters into his own hands. The teenager only wanted to scare Erin with the gun, but the confrontation spiraled and resulted in her murder. All she was trying to do was raise cash for DJ’s ear surgery, a procedure he gets in the finale after Lori agrees to take the baby to raise as her own. I initially thought this would lead to more heartache and a deeper rift in the Ross household, but during a visitation with Ryan later in the episode, there is nothing but kindness from the teen to the baby. Instead of blaming this innocent child, Lori has seemingly taken on this responsibility rather than let bitterness seep in.
There are parallels with Drew (Izzy King) and while Carrie (Sosie Bacon) relapsed after the bathtub incident (in a bid to stay awake), the animosity between Carrie and Mare is no more. Putting Drew’s best interest first is all that matters and Mare is empathetic to the woman she previously tried to set up with drugs in her possession — she also got reinstated way too easily. Rehab and recovery is a long road, but this storyline doesn’t end with a closed door and there is hope — much like the Emily Dickinson poem that gave Episode 6 its title — that one day Carrie might break this cycle.
“Truth is, I was angry a lot,” Helen (Jean Smart) tells her daughter when the subject of forgiveness and her childhood comes up. Mare has just watched Helen treat Drew lovingly after his band-aid has half fallen off and she makes a remark about how different this is from when Mare was a child. Mare’s father’s depression turned him into a different man that she couldn’t fix and she remarks that she took her anger out on her daughter. This relationship has been so informative as it swings between bitterness and love, taking the dysfunctional dynamic and shading it grey. They argue, offer comfort, and laugh at each other, and this is one of the reasons why Mare of Easttown has been a rewarding watching experience because the relationships feel lived in and authentic. “Let’s not do that right now,” Mare remarks when her mom starts crying openly in public, and rather than let her deflect, Helen tells her daughter that she needs to forgive herself for Kevin. Calling her Marianne (you know it is a big deal when a birth name and not a nickname is used), Helen tearily repeats “It wasn’t your fault.” For anyone watching Hacks (if you are not then this is time to begin), there are a lot of shared themes that reflect the thin line between comedy and tragedy. Jean Smart isn't playing two versions of the same prickly character, however, the notion of forgiveness and decades-old pain connects the equally fascinating (and funny) roles.
Catholic guilt is another thread weaving its way through this story and while the church is no longer the center of this community for a lot of people, mass is attended by a host of familiar faces when Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle) stands behind the pulpit for the first time in eight months — the finale does a good job of showing the shifts over this difficult year. Healing is the underlying theme of this sermon, which stresses the absence of those who have not yet come out of the dark tunnel. It is maybe a tad on the nose, but this is a reminder to not let those who deem themselves unworthy push their community away. “They now find themselves outside of a circle they were once part of,” the Deacon remarks and Mare takes this cue to cross the threshold of the Rose home without knocking. While she isn’t denying the elephant in the room, this act and her initial conversation with Lori's daughter Moira (Kassie Mundhenk) lays the groundwork for the final emotional catharsis.
The anger Lori exhibited in the car has subsided and she offers her a tea before teetering into sniffles and then a sobbing embrace. The weight of this moment is so much that they end up on the floor with both Winslet and Nicholson delivering powerhouse performances that cut to the very core of the series. Mare can’t hold her up, but she can hold onto her through her wailing and that is enough. “I’m here,” Mare whispers to her best friend, and the prolonged period that has seen the detective avoid her son's death and deflect her trauma onto other areas of her life is finally coming to a close. Grief is not something one simply moves on from and Mare, Lori, and the other people in this town who are dealing with personal tragedy can’t wish their pain away. “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable," the detective remarks when asked about dealing with loss. In climbing up to the attic she cracks the hardest case of her life, and Mare breaks free from the cycle by finding space to forgive herself
The Mare of Easttown finale is now available on HBO Max
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Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.