Photo: ‘Mare of Easttown’/HBO
Another year, another engaging HBO original series starring an unlikely A-lister takes the world by storm. The network has seemingly perfected this formula, consistently pairing the right talent behind the screen with the best talent in front of it. Be it Jean-Marc Vallée’s endlessly rewarding ‘Big Little Lies’ (2017-2019) or Jesse Armstrong’s pitch-perfect ‘Succession’ (2018-2019), there is little debate as to where the best prestige TV being made today can be found. Craig Zobel’s ‘Mare of Easttown’ (2021) has arrived as the latest offspring of the HBO dynasty and while it misses many marks, it ultimately proves a worthy addition to the company’s unmatched catalog of televisual content.
Kate Winslet’s ‘Mare of Easttown’
On its surface, the show is exceedingly simple; a young girl is murdered in a small town and only a weather-worn local detective can solve the case. Where the show imbues itself with a little more complexity than meets the eye is in the form of the detective character, Mare Sheehan, portrayed in a devastatingly subdued performance from Academy Award-winner and star of the likes of ‘Titanic’ (1997) and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004), Kate Winslet. As the audience follows Mare down the various rabbit holes and loose-ends of the investigation, they are simultaneously presented with front row seats to the crumbling of her personal life and mental health.
Each professional failure in the case to find who murdered Erin McMenamin reverberates loudly throughout Mare’s familial ties and strained relationships. The show never focuses on anything particularly new or previously unseen within the expansive history of the murder-mystery genre on both the big and small screen, but it does treat the premise with sincerity in its effort to paint a meaningful portrait of life after tragedy and the long road that must be trekked before one can truly move forward with their life.
A Devastating Star Turn from Kate Winslet Supported by a Superb Cast
Many HBO originals only wind up being as good as they’re cast, and luckily for ‘Mare of Easttown’, the show is outfitted with an immensely talented cast of familiar faces. Mare’s family unit consists of the exceptional star of 2019’s ‘Watchmen’ – Jean Smart as her sharp-witted mother, ‘The Office’ (2005-2013) alum David Denham as her exasperated ex-husband, and break-out star of 2016’s ‘The Nice Guys’ – Angourie Rice as her teenage daughter. All three are welcome additions, offering an interesting symmetry to the case Mare becomes increasingly preoccupied with. It is within this fractured family that Winslet is able to lay bare much of Mare’s inner machinations and address the themes that lie at the center of the show.
Evan Peters of the ‘X-Men’ franchise offers some much-needed comedic relief as Mare’s uncouth young case partner Colin Zabel, developing a surprising chemistry opposite Winslet. Guy Pearce also pops up from time to time as a distant novelist smitten with Mare and while his appearances may be fleeting, they offer an interesting romantic subplot not often seen in stories of this sort. Outside of Winslet, much of the emotional weight of the show, particularly the last two or three episodes, lies on the shoulders of the talented Julianne Nicholson. Rising to prominence through standout roles in ‘I, Tonya’ (2017) and ‘Monos’ (2o19), Nicholson has carved out a career for herself as a near-perfect supporting performer, and that track record is far from disrupted by ‘Mare of Easttown’.
General Conformity to the Trappings of the Mystery Genre
Creating a genuinely engaging mystery on screen has grown increasingly difficult in recent years as less and less possible genre spins or re-imaginings remain undiscovered. While ‘Mare of Easttown’ remains an entertaining watch throughout, it ultimately fails to fully escape from the shadow of past murder-mystery ventures. There are plenty of gasp-worthy moments throughout (particularly across the entirety of episode 5), but more often than not these moments do not correspond with the half-hearted twists of the central case that Mare is investigating.
The audience is sure to change their mind half a dozen times as to who they believe the killer to be, but in the end, much of the cat-and-mouse guessing game is rendered moot and the mystery resigned to the backseat in favor of the more dramatic plotlines and progressions. This is not necessarily a dig on the show, however, as it best succeeds when addressing the more serious familial aspects of grief and response to trauma, but those who enter looking for a spellbinding mystery to get completely entangled by will find the show comes up just a bit short.
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Emotionally Resonant Journey Through Grief and Acceptance
While the show is buoyed by its auxiliary cast, most of its deeper themes and relevant messaging rest squarely with Winslet’s Mare. It is revealed early on in the show that Mare had lost her son only a few years prior and with this revelation, many of her more standoffish tendencies and frigid demeanor are explained to not be born of anger, but rather mourning. The show itself may not follow the typical ‘five stages of grief’ conceit many other narratives tend towards when approaching a subject so heavy, ‘Mare of Easttown’ instead leans in on the more messy road to recovery.
Mare often lashes out at those in her life and sees her vast sea of repressed emotions bubble to the surface at less than opportune moments in the case. After her tragedy, the detective simply threw herself into her work as a distraction from the mounting sorrow that awaited her if she only took a moment to stop and address her loss. It is because of her utilization of her work as a smokescreen for her trauma that the McMeniman case begins to consume her along with the repercussions of the unsolved disappearance of Katie Bailey from nearly a year prior.
Mare is isolated by her grief, forcing those closest to her away while simultaneously being blamed in the community for the lack of momentum in the Bailey case by the girl’s mother. Rather than moving forward in her own life, Mare chooses to jump between petty misdemeanors and domestic disputes around town.
But once she becomes ensnared in the death of Erin McMeniman, it becomes clear that she won’t be able to catch the killer without finally working through all of the demons that have plagued her for years. It is in this narrative that the show discovers its greatest emotional triumph and offers some of its most striking symbolism, culminating in a perfectly bittersweet final shot sure to make the previous seven episodes well worth it.
Cast: Kate Winslet, Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, David Denham
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson | Editor: Amy E. Duddleston, Naomi Sunrise Filoramo
Director: Craig Zobel | Writer: Brad Ingelsby | Producers: Paul Lee, Mark Roybal, Craig Zobel, Kate Winslet, Brad Inglesby, Gavin O’Connor, Gordon Gray, Karen Wacker
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.