Family ties: Mare of Easttown (2021)

Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the show’s pedigree, I might not have given Mare of Easttown much of a chance. It just looked like any number of other series: a grim, drab crime story about one young woman who’s been gone for a year, another who’s found dead, and the grizzled investigator working the case. At least that investigator isn’t male for once, but then it’s not like we haven’t had a fair number of female investigators investigating the murder of other women by now. What’s to elevate Mare of Easttown over so many other grim, drab stories of violence against women?

Well, other than it being an HBO series? And the title role is played by Kate Winslet? Oh, and there’s also Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart and Guy Pearce?

Okay, okay, streaming service: you’ve convinced me. I’ll give this a chance. Just know that it isn’t quite as easy as that to convince me. I might still watch the series and be frustrated by how much it wastes a great cast on a story that we’ve seen several dozen times already, right? Right?

Cut to the end: Reader, I enjoyed it a lot. Yes, on the surface Mare of Easttown isn’t all that dissimilar from a lot of other crime series about small-town crime where everyone seems to be related to everyone else. But there is so much going on under the surface. Where a lot of crime series tend to repeat well-worn tropes – the underbelly of close-knit communities, dark family secrets, that sort of thing – Mare uses these tropes with care and empathy to tell a story that resonates thematically. The series is about families and the way in which parents and children can hurt, but also heal, one another, and how closely intertwined these things are. It is about loss and mourning and guilt. So many side plots, so many story strands focusing on characters that don’t tie directly into the crimes Mare is investigating, feed into these themes.

And Mare of Easttown handles them with a sensitivity that we don’t often see in the genre. Not in every respect, and down to every single storyline, but it doesn’t need to: the series’ focus remains on Mare and her nearest and… is dearest the right word? Thing is, Mare is an abrasive character, and sometimes, quite frankly, it is difficult not to resort to some choice bad words to describe her. She is also a highly competent, but by no means flawless, small-town police officer, which made me think of her as a fascinating blend of two memorable characters played by fellow Academy Award winner Frances McDormand: Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson and Olive Kitteridge of the eponymous HBO series.

As was the case with McDormand’s Olive Kitteridge, Mare’s abrasiveness is motivated by her past and her family history. She is carrying emotional wounds that have festered: Mare’s son, a drug addict, killed himself, and she blames herself. Everyone in the family is affected by this trauma, especially Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart, as wonderful as always) and her daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice). Again, in and of itself, there’s nothing special about the characters’ backstory, but they are not just flavouring, liberally sprinkled all over the Sheehan family, they’re fundamentally what this story is about. Mare of Easttown made me realise how often TV series in the crime genre view characterisation solely as something to give its characters the appearance of having more than one dimension and how rarely these series have the ambition to be about more than just who done it.

All of this sounds worthy and heavy, mind you, and that’s doing Mare of Easttown another disservice. See, the series is often grim, its themes are indeed heavy, and things won’t end happily for everyone – yet I don’t remember many recent crime stories I’ve watched where I laughed as often and as loudly as I did with this one. I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of Mare’s sarcasm, but she sure has a turn of phrase, and so do the other characters, in particular Mare’s mother Helen. In fact, Mare and Helen may just be my favourite parent-child pair in any crime series since Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni brought Veronica and Keith Mars to life. For all the pain and sorrow in their lives, there is a beautifully lived-in warmth to Mare’s relationships with her family and the handful of friends that put up with her, and which the series also develops between her and Colin Zabel, the county detective that she’s forced to cooperate with. These relationships feel genuine and complex in all the right ways, so that the audience doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief to accept that these characters are mother and daughter, or best friends. Mare of Easttown may use the shorthand of tropes to sketch out its cast of characters and the net of relationships between them, but it makes them real by means of strong acting and writing.

Mare of Easttown isn’t perfect and, surprisingly for an HBO series, it has some of the structural issues I associate more strongly with Netflix series. Sometimes the plot lurches, sometimes it seems to be in a holding pattern. This is particularly evident in the series last two episodes; the penultimate episode orchestrates its plot points somewhat clumsily to arrive at a cliffhanger that is then resolved in record time in the final episode, which is one of those finales where you know another shoe is yet to drop because there are still thirty minutes to go. On the whole, though, these flaws are minor and easily forgiven for everything that Mare of Easttown does right. It evokes a place and a set of characters that are tangible and that you want to spend time with, it uses its thriller plots to talk about themes and does so well. And while Kate Winslet is generally a very welcome sight, it is especially wonderful to watch her with a cast that is just as strong, working with material that suits them. On that strength alone, Mare of Easttown is worth almost any number of grim crime stories about violence against women: arguably, the series’ greatest strength is its women.

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