Mare of Easttown review: Kate Winslet's HBO drama has a curious quality for a murder mystery — compassion

As a murder mystery — despite a few gratuitous red herrings — Mare of Easttown is taut and moody, in the league of the first seasons of Fargo and True Detective. As a study of people and a community, it is spare, melancholy — and haunting.

Rohini Nair May 31, 2021 16:04:05 IST
Mare of Easttown review: Kate Winslet's HBO drama has a curious quality for a murder mystery — compassion

Kate Winslet is Marianne 'Mare' Sheehan in HBO's Mare of Easttown

Annawadi in Mumbai and the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Easttown would have little in common, yet I found myself thinking of Katherine Boo’s book on the former, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, as I watched the HBO show Mare of Easttown.

In Boo’s book, a family finally manages to buy the Italianate tiling advertised with the tagline “Beautiful Forever” that signifies aspiration and upward mobility in the Annawadi slum, built over a garbage dump. But when the son, Abdul, attempts to lay it down at home, the tiling remains stubbornly skewed. Mare of Easttown specifically reminded me Boo’s closing words: “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

The lives of many of Mare of Easttown’s characters are built on a deep vein of despair and dysfunction. How then is it possible for them to avoid tragedy?

**

The ‘Mare’ of Easttown is Marianne Sheehan (Kate Winslet), a tough-talking, hard-bitten police detective who also happens to be a local hero because of a winning basketball shot she made 25 years ago, as a high school student.

When we first see her, a reluctant Mare has been called in to investigate a prowler lurking around the home of an elderly couple. At the police station, the dispatcher is fielding a call about an altercation involving pee. Just when you’re thinking that Easttown is the kind of place where only petty misdemeanours happen, the story does its first bait-and-switch: Mare’s boss, police chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) tells her that pressure is mounting on them to trace a young woman from the community who went missing nearly a year ago. Katie, the missing woman, had a history of drug addiction and prostitution, Mare reminds Carter; there’s little chance of her being alive at this point. But Carter insists that Mare return to the case files, and look afresh at the evidence.

The next morning, Mare receives another call. It’s not a prowler this time though: The body of a 17-year-old girl, Erin, has been found by a creek. A gunshot wound to the head is the cause of death. Erin’s ex-boyfriend Dylan, the father of her baby DJ, is the prime suspect. So is Dylan’s current girlfriend, Brianna, who’s known to have assaulted Erin on the night of her death. Soon, other suspects emerge: Deacon Mark, a priest who transferred from another parish under suspicious circumstances and was one of the last people to receive a call from Erin. Erin’s closest friend Jess also shares some secrets that prompt Mare down a different path, as does the disappearance of yet another young woman, Missy.

Against her will, Mare is teamed up with a county detective called Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). Earnest and eager to impress, Colin is the foil to Mare’s stoicism. He’s also the outsider to Mare’s quintessential insider status at Easttown, taken aback at how closely she’s linked to most of the people she’s now investigating.

These relationships add another layer to Mare’s case, as do her personal issues: we find out that she hasn’t addressed the loss of her son, who died by suicide; is facing a custody battle for her grandson with her son’s former girlfriend, a recovering addict; and has lingering rifts with her ex-husband and daughter because of her refusal or inability to deal with their collective bereavement.

**

As a murder mystery — despite a few gratuitous red herrings — Mare of Easttown is taut and moody, in the league of the first seasons of Fargo and True Detective. As a study of people and a community, it is spare, melancholy — and haunting.

Mare of Easttown’s overwhelming quality is compassion: In how it depicts the personhood of Erin — and also Katie and Missy — beyond being victims or “troubled” young women. In how it depicts the quiet courage and burden of care women carry, be it Mare’s friends Lori, Beth and Dawn, or Mare herself. In its depiction of female relationships and how women hold on to and lift each other up. In its humane portrayal of the opioid crisis, addiction and the devastation it wreaks on families. In its gentle handling of mental illness and the trauma that passes down through generations. In allowing its characters to not only forgive each other, but also themselves. And importantly, in its poignant conclusion: Terrible things happen not because people are dyed-in-the-wool villains (even though Mare of Easttown does have at least a couple of those) but because they’re struggling to stay afloat in the only ways they know how, and sometimes, those ripples can cause others to drown. That tragic, irreversible consequences needn’t necessarily stem from malice, but can come in the brief moment when you let your guard down and allow something to slip past.

**

Again, they have little in common, but I was reminded of another of HBO’s star-led murder mysteries — The Undoing — while watching Mare of Easttown. Granted, Nicole Kidman’s affluent New York-based therapist in the former is a wildly different character from Kate Winslet’s suburban detective, but the fact that Mare is just allowed to be — in terms of her physical appearance — is refreshing. A lot of viewers commented on the disparity in Kidman’s appearance vis-à-vis her co-star Hugh Grant: only one of them was allowed to show crow’s feet, wrinkles and the other accoutrements of ageing, on screen (no points for guessing who). Winslet, on the other hand, disappears into her role. Even if you begin by not quite knowing what to make of Mare, Winslet makes you root for her by showing brief glimpses of the vulnerability, guilt and pain beyond the combative surface. Emmy and Golden Globe nominations seem like a certainty for Winslet at this point.

While Winslet is undoubtedly the star, her chemistry with the actors around her — especially Jean Smart as Mare’s delightfully feisty mother Helen, Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s supportive best friend Lori and Evan Peters as her partner Zabel — bring various facets of her character to light. Enough that well before Mare of Easttown ends, you’re hoping that its protagonist finds — not victory, because there is no winning for anyone in this narrative, only loss in varying degrees — at least a measure of peace.

All seven episodes of Mare of Easttown are streaming on Disney + Hotstar Premium. Watch the trailer here

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