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Mare of Easttown is showing on Sky Atlantic and streaming on Now TV.

In prestige TV thrillerland, regional richness brings rewards. Not just the depth and texture that a rooted story lends, but, you know, Emmys. So there’s no place like home for writer and Pennsylvania native Brad Ingelsby, whose bleak, absorbing and sharply detailed thriller about a beleaguered small-town cop is packed with the Rust Belt realism he brought to Scott Cooper’s 2013 feature Out of the Furnace.

In a refreshing change from the time-hopping second-hand Southern gothic of True Detective (2014-19), or the blackly comic Midwest crime families in Fargo (2014-), his immersive series, sensitively directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance, 2012; Z for Zachariah, 2015), focuses on present-day problems.

Middle-aged detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), brusque and jaded police stalwart in Delaware County, a scruffy, failing Philadelphia exurb, deals every day with the fallout of the local opiate epidemic in burglaries and overdoses, and with teens in trouble.

Cailee Spaeny as Erin in Mare of Easttown (2021)

One such is teen mom Erin, seen struggling with angry father Kenny and resentful baby-father Dylan, till her story collides sharply with Mare’s at the end of Episode 1 when she is found murdered in a woodland creek. Ingelsby really digs Erin in as a character – her fears, her plight, a hopeful online romance – so that her death reverberates far more than the usual cop-show female corpse. She is partially naked, of course (this is HBO), but Zobel’s discreet camerawork keeps things mournfully respectful. 

Thankfully, all of the show’s characters are rooted and rounded by Ingelsby with this care, especially Mare’s network of life-battered female friends. Mare’s stoical doggedness is particularly reflected back in her former friend Dawn, indefatigable mother of teen junkie Katie, whose year-long disappearance Mare has failed to solve. Weary of Katie’s cold case, utterly lacking in leads and hope, but badgered by her captain and the townsfolk, Mare is professionally and personally stalled.

From the off, Winslet does a fine job of painting Mare as a woman tired of being held fast by her home town. Grudgingly joining the 25th anniversary celebrations of the locally legendary high-school basketball state championship that her winning shot secured (“Miss Lady Hawk herself!”), she rolls her eyes at a community that simultaneously celebrates and suffocates her. Mare and Easttown are locked in a fierce dysfunctional relationship, one that the series unpacks skilfully.

Guy Pearce as Richard in Mare of Easttown (2021)

With all this baggage on board, it’s a slow starter of a show, bulging with town story trails and Mare’s tangled family history, and cramming in a stop-start romance with Guy Pearce’s outsider college lecturer. Richard, a genial one-hit-book author (he offers the delicious detail, “It was a TV movie starring Jill Eikenberry”), underlines the show’s melancholy interest in life’s disappointments and the perils of peaking early.

But all of this rich backstory and careful character detail significantly enhances the girl-murdered-in-a-small-town TV series template, already well explored by Sharp Objects (2018) and Top of the Lake (2013). When Evan Peters’s straight-arrow county detective Colin Zabel is assigned to the recalcitrant Mare, there’s a distinct Broadchurch (2013-17) odd-couple vibe, too. “Is there anyone you’re not related to?” he asks mockingly, as Mare’s insider’s short-cuts repeatedly trample police protocol.

Their banter, and inevitable bonding, is a small light patch in the show’s notably dour mood, darkened by the grim revelations of Mare’s family life (she’s caring for grandson Drew, after her son Kevin’s recent suicide) and the queasy small-town secrets (covert escorting, priestly transgressions, paternity shocks) that their footslogging investigations in Episode 2 and 3 pry loose.

Reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s bleak 2001 north-eastern noir Mystic River, which was filmed by Clint Eastwood in 2003, Ingelsby’s narrative finds darkness at every turn. Even the landscape visuals are appropriately gloomy, grey lowering skies oppressing red-brick row houses, looming forests hiding brutal teen parties.

Meticulous production design and the show’s lived-in interiors hint at the community’s warmth, however, keeping things rust-belt-real and grounded, right down to the crocheted blankets and card games. This authenticity is well judged, never tipping the show’s tone into Fargo knowingness, or Ozark-style snobbery about redneck lives – though its painstaking regional specificity did trigger the primetime accolade of a Saturday Night Live sketch guying the show’s lavish use of Rolling Rock beers, cheesesteaks, and hardcore Pennsylvania accents, spoofed as “I didn’t murdur nobody’s durdur”. 

Mare of Easttown (2021)

True, Winslet leans in hard to the accent, but her commitment to the role goes beyond pronouncing ‘water’ as ‘wooder’ and embracing a scrubbed face and a perpetual parka. What makes her first cop role (and first TV work since Mildred Pierce in 2011) riveting is the finely accomplished, arthouse subtlety of her performance. Tiny, resonant shifts in her voice, expression or gestures signal Mare’s complexity. Softening almost imperceptibly over her grandson’s head, hiding her cop cunning with shirty suspects, or affably faking out a therapist, Winslet reveals Mare’s multiple angles, not all of them pretty.

After last year’s policing protests, though, Mare’s brand of hometown, on-the-fly policing looks shakier and significantly more unethical than its creator may have intended. As well as shaming bullying teen Brianna with a public arrest, and noisily chasing unproven rumours about her ex-husband Frank, Mare commits one discreditable and highly illegal act, which might alienate some viewers. Yet the show doesn’t treat it as maverick policing of the kind found in The Shield (2002-08), but as a mortifying and desperate low point, emanating from Mare’s fears for her family.

For Mare’s motherhood is shown as central to her policing, in a way unusual in US prestige cop shows. Though it’s not Happy Valley with hoagies, there’s a very strong whiff of that 2014 UK show in Mare of Easttown, in its mix of familial tragedy, social comment and relationship dramas, surrounding a caretaking cop in a beaten-down town. Like Catherine Cawood in that series, Mare is the town mom dispensing tough love, by dispatching Freddie the junkie burglar to a shelter not jail and ensuring his cut-off heating is reinstated.

Mare of Easttown (2021)

On close examination, motherhood emerges as one of the show’s key obsessions, in a neat reversal of the way, say, True Detective’s Season 2 plots fetishised fathers and sons. Ingelsby’s scripts are fascinated by the fine line between good and bad mothering, as Erin’s helpless baby-love breeds fatal choices, a guilty Mare clashes with her own mother and Drew’s ex-junkie mum, and Dawn is swept into a risky ransom plot.

Enid Graham’s Dawn, whose flinty, unbreakable determination to find missing daughter Katie is edged with compassion for others’ familial horrors, is a fine example of the uniformly excellent performances complementing Winslet’s. All nicely understated, all swerving sentimentality or blue-collar cosplay, every cast member gets their unhurried memorable moment, such as the multi-shaded drunk scene for Peters’s sheepish Colin, or Jean Smart’s scratchy Manhattan-fuelled rows as Mare’s judgemental mother. 

Canny plotting, combined with this first-class playing, makes Easttown look sharply convincing as a town splintered by murder. If the show’s stop-start love triangle and lightly comic interest in Mare’s lesbian daughter’s love-life feel more filler than killer, the show lays down a well-judged string of shocks and cliffhangers from Episode 2 onwards to hit its thriller marks. 

Since HBO offers only five of the seven episodes for preview, I have genuinely no idea whether they stick or twist the final plot landing. Still, that’s more than enough to savour the way the show juicily if gloomily combines character study, subtle social commentary, and murder mystery, before Episode 5’s joltingly tense and surprisingly violent showdown – and plenty of time to recognise and relish the powerful portrait of smalltown suffering and reluctant heroism that the show paints. 

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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Originally published: 28 May 2021