A gripping crime thriller, or just doom and gloom? George Nash reviews HBO’s Mare of Easttown, including Kate Winslet’s career-defining role (with some spoilers ahead).
A dark cloud hangs over Easttown, the fictional Pennsylvanian backdrop for HBO’s new seven-part crime series, Mare of Easttown. It is both figurative and literal: the pain and tragedy rife in this impoverished rural community are underscored by the seemingly perpetual gloom of the show’s grey, dreary cinematography. Misery, as they say, loves company.
And here, it has plenty. Easttown is a place beset by a collective, almost inconceivable sadness. At the point series creator Brad Ingelsby starts proceedings, a 19-year-old girl has been missing for a year. Her mother, distraught and desperate for answers, has cancer. Across town, a drug addict steals from his sister to pay for his next fix. Her retort is simple yet telling: “sometimes I wish he would just fucking die and get this over with.” Elsewhere, a single teenage mother struggles to afford surgery for her young son. Then, after attending a party in the woods where she is beaten up by the jealous girlfriend of the baby’s father, she is found dead.
In the midst of it all is Mare (Kate Winslet), a driven, world-weary detective whose championship-winning shot in a high-school basketball game 25 years ago gave the town one of its few moments of joy. Her stoicism and unapologetic straight-talking is merely a veil, however; a thin veneer to conceal her own set of personal demons. As much as she tries to hide it, the weight of professional responsibility and, as we later learn, the pain of a family tragedy is etched firmly on her face.
Mare is a fascinating, flawed, if somewhat familiar protagonist—brusque but brilliant; a hero who is often not all that heroic. In the wrong hands, she might have amounted to little more than that: a series of rather conventional juxtapositions. Thankfully, the show has Kate Winslet at the helm. Her layered performance—accent and all—is imbued with as much complexity and deft nuance as the most compelling of characters on HBO’s much-lauded television slate. Alongside a uniformly impressive cast that includes the likes of Jean Smart, Guy Pearce and Evan Peters, Winslet is on career-best form.
But even with its star-studded ensemble and overt pathetic fallacy, Mare of Easttown is a notably unglossy affair. This is not an intense, gripping whodunnit of the traditional mould. Rather, it is a tightly-coiled, quietly potent examination of family and despair—a sobering portrait of people ensnared by grief. Twists lie in store—several requiring a momentary suspension of belief—but this is more character study than murder mystery. Aided by shrewd pacing and some carefully-plotted humour, this is a thriller only in the very loosest sense: a crime series with a holistic edge that renders its central premise secondary to the wider implications for those individuals, and those relationships, affected by it.
Its view of life in small-town America—sometimes warm, frequently harsh but almost always unsentimental—is similarly compelling. So too is its take on detective work as a largely draining and frustrating slog: a perspective we are rarely afforded in mainstream shows of this ilk, where the job is so often portrayed as gritty and fulfilling. Here, for every minute of episode five’s nail-biting finale, there are several more of waiting for phone records to be pulled or poring over paperwork late into the night.
But like all great television, Mare of Easttown becomes more than the sum of its already impressive parts. By the end, there will be as much left to grapple with as has been seemingly wrapped up. Just as the shards of grief cut away at its characters throughout, the show leaves plenty of sharp edges to nip at the viewer long after the credits have rolled. In doing so, Ingelsby has crafted one of the year’s most riveting, satisfying slices of small-screen drama. It’s moreish and multi-layered, and we could do with more like it.
Words by George Nash
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