The following is an incomplete list of conflicts faced by characters in Mare of Easttown, the limited series that kicked off its run on HBO on Sunday: Murder. Opioid addiction. Cancer. Unsolved disappearance. Unrealized potential. Divorce. Suicide. Grieving a child. Grieving a parent. Grieving a sibling. Each applies to at least one resident of the Pennsylvania township that gives the show its name. Many apply to Mare herself. Together, they’re enough to crush any community under their weight, let alone an audience, let alone a single character.
Almost 10 years to the day from the conclusion of Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, Mare of Easttown marks the triumphant return of star Kate Winslet to television. Specifically, she’s returning to the kind of performer-driven, prestige miniseries that’s become awards fodder since the last time Winslet headlined one. In a post–Big Little Lies world, it’s no longer remarkable when an actor of Winslet’s stature opts to do some episodic work. Less common is the commitment it takes to assume the unglamorous regional accent of greater Philadelphia, rare even among decorated movie stars. Like creator Brad Ingelsby, Mare hails from southeastern Pennsylvania and has the flat, nasal vowels to prove it. (Yes, she says “wooder.” More relevant to the plot, she also says “euhhh-verdose.”)
On the page, Mare of Easttown’s title role combines Oscar and Emmy clichés for men and women alike. Mare—pronounced “Mah,” short for Marianne—is a mother processing the loss of her son, stripped of makeup, and decked out in awkwardly fitting clothes. But she’s also a surly, Irish American cop who refuses to play by the rules and has trouble expressing her feelings, just like the guys.
Mare of Easttown nonetheless works to add depth through humanizing specificity. Ingelsby grew up in Berwyn, just over the county line from Mare’s native Delaware County, or Delco for short. He brings to Mare both regional awareness and distinct interests. Ingelsby’s father was a Villanova basketball star who briefly went pro, and Ingelsby also wrote Ben Affleck’s The Way Back, the redemption story of a former athlete who turns to coaching hoops while experiencing alcoholism. (The Way Back was originally set in Pennsylvania before shifting to California so Affleck could shoot close to home.) Winslet’s Mare Sheehan has a similar origin story: Once part of a championship-winning high school team, she’s still universally known as “Lady Hawk,” despite having moved on to an undistinguished career in law enforcement. “Doing something great is overrated,” she grumbles. “Cause then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is you’re just as screwed up as they are.”
To the viewer of Mare of Easttown, though, there’s no mistaking just how screwed up Mare is. At the start of the series, she’s still reeling from the loss of her son, Kevin (Cody Kostro), who died by suicide after years of substance abuse and mental illness. Kevin’s freshly sober ex-girlfriend Carrie (Sosie Bacon) wants custody of Mare’s 4-year-old grandson, while Mare’s daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice; HBO dramas love their Siobhans), refuses to fill out her college applications. Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart)—widowed when Mare was 13 after her father, also a detective, was killed in the line of duty—has moved in to help. And her newly engaged ex-husband still lives next door, both a reminder and an example of how Mare herself still hasn’t moved on.
All this personal strife has inevitably bled into Mare’s profession. As of the premiere, she’s yet to solve the yearlong disappearance of her former teammate’s young daughter. Her boss is on the verge of calling in reinforcements when a local teenager is found dead in a creek. That discovery kicks off a renewed frenzy with an uneasy question at its core: Are the two crimes related, or is Easttown so troubled it keeps letting its young, including Mare’s own son, slip through the cracks? “I can’t bear to lose another one,” Helen says, faced with the prospect of losing her great-grandson in a custody battle. She’s not just talking about herself.
On top of its eye for local color, Mare of Easttown makes another choice to distinguish itself from the generic crime template. We actually get to know the young woman whose shocking death will come to drive the show’s narrative: Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), a young mother in desperate need of money to fund her infant son’s ear surgery. Estranged from her ex and his jealous new girlfriend, Erin is stuck in a terrible limbo between adolescent insecurity and adult obligations. This being a murder mystery, we learn some secrets later on. But this isn’t Twin Peaks, True Detective, or Pretty Little Liars, in which a central character exists only in the past tense. Before the tragedy of her death, Mare of Easttown shows the tragedy of Erin’s life.
“Tragedy” is Mare of Easttown’s primary mode. Even after Evan Peters shows up as another detective to assist Mare on the case, the show feels far more interested in fleshing out Mare’s long-term problems than the central investigation. And even after Mare encounters a potential love interest in Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), a one-hit-wonder novelist who can relate to living in the shadow of one’s early success, Mare of Easttown resists the allure of the feel-good comeback story. (Leave that to Affleck.) It is, in a word, bleak—admirably, if not always enjoyably, unsparing. The first time we see Mare laugh, it’s a massive relief. It’s also not until the end of Episode 4, and in the five hours screened for critics, it happens only once. Mare of Easttown isn’t humorless, but it’s certainly humor-light.
Directed by Craig Zobel (The Leftovers, Westworld) and shot on location in exurban Philadelphia (though not Easttown itself), Mare of Easttown has an unflashy, lived-in feel that’s furthered by Winslet’s performance, which avoids the visible effort that earns prizes while killing immersion. But for all the attention that Winslet’s work is bound to receive, every bit of it deserved, it’s also worth highlighting other members of the ensemble. Fresh off of Watchmen, Smart is excellent as a tough-but-frail woman who echoes her daughter’s irascible charm. Siobhan’s arc feels almost tacked onto the rest of the show, like an episode of 13 Reasons Why tossed into a season of Happy Valley, but Rice manages to hold her own opposite two acting greats.
Mare of Easttown is aware of the genres it’s working in; at one point, a local news chyron openly references Gone Girl. Mare may not be Gothic like Sharp Objects or camp like The Undoing, a lack of stylization that only makes the travails of Easttown and its residents more acute. Yet it’s also a familiar story about a detective fighting their own demons as much as crime. Mare of Easttown attempts to update this blueprint for 2021, with mixed success; its portrayal of the opioid crisis is nuanced and humane, but in light of the past year, some of Mare’s ill-advised abuses of power aren’t as easy to forgive as the show seems to think they are. In its rock-solid sense of place, though, Mare of Easttown sticks to at least one infallible rule: Inglesby is clearly writing what he knows.