Warning: This article contains mild spoilers regarding the backstory of certain characters in “Mare of Easttown,” but major plot points are not spoiled.
Unlike previous mystery crime-dramas like David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” or Peter Norwalk’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” Craig Zobel’s “Mare of Easttown” — which aired on HBO beginning in April — is unique in that it does not present the story’s pivotal mystery as the opening image of the series.
Instead, “Mare of Easttown” submerges viewers into the action slowly. While a central mystery does run throughout the seven episodes that make up the first season, the plot’s principal question is not revealed until the very end of the pilot episode. This encourages viewers to become acquainted with the characters and setting before becoming invested in the riddle of the story.
“Mare of Easttown” begins by establishing the world that surrounds its characters. This is Easttown, Pennsylvania, a fictional rendering of Pennsylvania’s Easttown Township or the Delco region. As images of the fictional, close-knit suburban setting cycle on screen, a piercing violin plays a singular ominous note, setting the dark tone for the series. A smoking power plant, a dark sky and middle-class houses stacked together appear in succession. It is apparent that Easttown is a community that is well lived-in, a place with visible growing pains. Easttown is a character in its own right— teeming with life and a conscious mind of its own.
The setting is not the only aspect of the series that draws viewers headfirst into the mystery. The town’s star detective and one of the prized daughters of Easttown, Mare Sheehan — masterfully portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet — is a flawed yet intuitive protagonist.
Mare does not pretend to be anything she is not. She has a “no bells and whistles” personality. Throughout the series, the audience watches Mare fail to connect with those around her, fail to acknowledge her own demons and react poorly to the pressures of her job. As she investigates the tragedies of her hometown, she is confronted with her own unresolved grievances and eventually allows them to break her.
In her first-ever sequence of dialogue in the series, Mare receives a call on her personal cellphone to investigate a peeping-tom complaint from an old woman in the neighborhood, Betty Carroll (Phyllis Somerville). Armed with a vape in her hand, Mare fearlessly curses at the old woman for calling her off-duty for something she deems a minor crime. She declares to Mrs. Carroll that her prerogative is to investigate “burglaries and the overdoses and all the really bad crap that goes on around here.”
From her blunt introduction, it is clear that Mare puts on a tough exterior to mask her own weaknesses, addictions and skeletons in her closet. Easttown may rely on Mare, but Mare relies on no one.
The biggest skeleton in Mare’s closet, as viewers later learn, is the premature death of her son — a suicide that haunts Mare’s family and that resulted in her separating from her husband Frank (David Denman). When her son died, Mare was left to care for her grandson. When she begins to worry that her grandson is showing signs of mental illness like her son — his father — and even Mare’s father before him, her personal life begins to seep into her work. Mare questions if the mental illness that has plagued her family can be passed down. Clearly, there is something in the water in Easttown.
Mare and her family are far from the only realistically flawed characters present in the series. Easttown has its share of troubled individuals. Every character has their own burdens and crosses to bear: drug addictions, teenage pregnancies, selfish parents, family secrets and lies.
It is no mistake that the series begins with a peeping-tom case, as all of the central mysteries concern violence committed against teenage girls and young women, most of whom are also young mothers. Easttown, like so many parts of the world, has failed to protect its young women. As discovered later in the series, many of Easttown’s teenage girls were forced to turn to prostitution to support their families, a tragedy they pay for dearly as the girls involved begin to disappear. Mare takes this personally. She beats herself up when she is unable to recover the young women who have been kidnapped. The central mystery, the murder of Erin McMenamin (Caillee Spaeny), becomes the only thing Mare can focus on and the driving plot point. In each of these cases, the primary suspects are never believed to be other women, but men who got power-hungry and have the potential to exploit them.
The Easttown detective force that Mare works for, like the imperfect Mare herself, is by no means a glorification of the police or criminal-justice institutions. They, as a whole, have failed their community by faulting the young women within it. The audience gets a glimpse into the flaws of each detective and officer in Easttown. Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) joins Easttown’s police force later on in the series to help with the cases of the town’s disappearing girls. The character admits to hiding under a false reputation and feeling unqualified for his position. Another minor cop character, Officer Trammel (Justin Hurtt- Dunkley), overreacts at the sight of blood in a high-intensity sequence in the very first episode. This is far from the impenetrable, omnipotent police force typical of crime dramas. Rather, “Mare of Easttown” seeks to prove that the police are flawed human beings like anyone else.
In the Tupperware community of Easttown, no one really ever leaves. Although every middle-class kitchen counter may be comfortably cluttered with cereal boxes, danger still lurks at every turn. Like every small American suburb, there exists a lingering desire for escape in Easttown.
The latent question of “Mare of Easttown” becomes who exactly, of all the characters, gets to leave small-town life for a chance at something new, a fresh awakening from the nightmare of the past that permeates every corner of Easttown.
Mare also has a daughter in addition to her deceased son. Siobhan Sheehan (Angourie Rice) embodies something new entirely. When the opportunity presents itself for Siobhan to get out of her hometown for college, she breaks the curse that entraps the residents in their isolated Easttown bubble. Siobhan represents the hope that exists for the next generation of Easttown, an alternative to the future that is not entirely bleak. Even though Mare and her peers have never left Easttown, the next generation is given the opportunity to determine their own fates. Siobhan, an artistic and strong-willed character, is different than those around her. Her potential allows her to leave her small town and discover something new outside of the murderous suburb she has known her whole life. Her character is a brilliant and symbolic addition to the show that keeps fans invested and rooting for her.
It is this intricate blend of complex character exploration, bountiful setting and mind-bending mystery that makes this series a must-watch. “Mare of Easttown” has earned a near-flawless 94% rating on “Rotten Tomatoes.” The praise is well-deserved, as the haunting images of Easttown are not quick to escape the imagination. The unbelievable twists will leave viewers tense in their chairs, constantly theorizing in what appears to be a never-ending game of “whodunit.” The end reveal will leave watchers speechless — a perfectly somber ending to the twisted tale of family and community secrets.
It remains unclear if there will be a second season to the limited series. Although Season 1 could remain a self-contained entity, there are still details left open that could be reexamined and are ripe with more story possibilities. Perhaps “Mare of Easttown” will soon return with more mysteries for fans to uncover, bringing back the characters charming enough to be real people living in actual small-towns throughout the country.