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All of the Little Things That Make ‘Mare of Easttown’ Great

The Kate Winslet whodunit runs back many of the tropes inherent to the subgenre, but differentiates itself with a host of tiny details and idiosyncrasies. Here they are, ranked.

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Spoiler warning

There is a three-step process to convincing your friends and family to watch Mare of Easttown, HBO’s latest dive into the dark, movie-star-strewn waters of prestige whodunits:

  1. Explain that, no, it’s not “Mayor” of Easttown. It’s “Mare” of Easttown—y’know like the lady horse, or in this case, like a lady’s nickname, short for Marianne.
  2. Explain that said lady is played by Kate Winslet. You can almost stop there because most people will be convinced by the Winslet of it alone, as they should be. But anyone who’s been through this process knows that Step 3 is no longer for the person you’re trying to convince. No, this one’s for you
  3. After getting past the “mayor” kerfuffle, and rattling off all the stars, you will inevitably begin explaining, in detail, some tiny, perfect scene from Mare of Easttown that hooked you. And if your mom or whoever has, at the very least, seen the trailer depicting a grizzled detective doing whatever it takes to bring justice to her small town, it’s here that she might become confused—Wait, did you say Fruit Ninja? Sorry, are you saying Dave Matthews Band? At which point, just return to Step 2, give her your HBO Max login, and tell her to make it to Episode 2 before she gives up. (Please do not attempt the optional and ill-advised Step 4: explaining HBO Max to your mom.)

Because, sure, Mare of Easttown is a grim, small-town murder show so typical to the prestige crime genre that it’s already inspired an SNL spoof featuring Kate McKinnon vaping a soft pretzel while explaining that she’s a grandma by virtue of being “a Philly 40.” But as audiences who have slowly made their way to the weekly series have discovered, there’s something else there.

Orbiting around the signature murdered/missing girls, as pursued by the brooding detective with a dangerous devotion to justice, are itty-bitty scenes depicting the bizarre minutiae that comes with being a real person who lives in a real place and gets real hammered on real Jameson. “The writers clearly Googled,” exclaims the Delco Daily in the SNL parody. “They knew the foods and the towns!” That’s both accurate and funny, but obviously not the whole story. Because yes, this show is set in a town in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, so a lot of the show’s best details revolve around turning “daughter” into a four-syllable word, and discussing different kinds of sandwiches and where to get them (Coco’s for cheesesteaks, Laspadas for hoagies, Wawa for miscellaneous). But I’d wager that what takes Mare of Easttown beyond parody is that writer and show creator Brad Ingelsby also knows people. When he writes them, he knows what concerts they’ve been to and what games they like to play on their iPad, and whether they’re the heartbreaker or the heartbroken—and so we get to know that too.

Mare of Easttown is still incredibly dark, but its moments of specificity manage to be so humanizing that they act as a sort of life raft to get us through the bleak and murky waters of investigating who murdered Erin McMenamin and kidnapped Katie Bailey. World-building is not a storytelling technique reserved for the fantasy genre, and alongside Inglesby’s scripts, Craig Zobel’s mastery of mise-en-scène brings a surprising amount of humor—and, dare I say, joy—to what could otherwise be just another budget whodunit.

“Who did it?” almost becomes secondary to who’s living through it. Because life doesn’t stop when tragedy strikes, even for detectives and mothers obsessed with getting to the bottom of it. They’re still going to register a man who looks like Guy Pearce at their local bar; they still have to get from point A to point B even after they sprain their ankle; and they definitely still have to eat, even when it feels entirely tangential to the plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m gasping right there with the rest of Twitter when Frank enters the paternity chat, or Deacon Mark flings a Schwinn off a bridge. But it’s Mare of Easttown’s moments of human mundanity that make it special. Come Monday morning, I’m not trying to formulate new theories about who did what during the hours of 12 and 2 a.m.—I’m just thinking about Jean Smart sprinting back to her Rocky Road before it melts in the bread box. So it really is quite rude of HBO to give us such a uniquely enjoyable show, only to then release it one week at a time. However, the traditional release schedule does give us appropriate time to reflect at the series’ halfway point, as it moves decidedly into more complex territory.

And sure, with that reflection, we could rank Easttown’s most likely murder suspects (brunette man, other brunette man, bearded brunette man, older brunette man, but almost definitely the skinnier brunette man), or try to decide whether Mare is likable, or an antihero, or some never-before-seen hybrid of the two …

But what if we talked about her 3-inch roots instead? What if we gave Lori’s DMB Firedancer sleep shirt its proper due? What if we completely ignored the actual plot of Mare of Easttown, and just ranked every perfect tiny moment from the four episodes that have run so far?

(Note: I promise not to just write “every single thing Jean Smart does, one through 25” even though that would be accurate.)

16. The Family Meeting

The seemingly first-ever Sheehan Family Meeting involves exactly as much discussion of what the hell a “family meeting” is as it does actually exchanging family agenda items. But really, how much is there to say about getting suspended for stealing two bags of heroin that you then planted on your son’s ex-girlfriend in order to prevent her from getting custody of your grandchild? Mare’s daughter Siobhan really takes one for the team when she offers up in return that, while she hasn’t committed any crimes or tried to ruin anyone’s life, she has broken up with her girlfriend. And speaking of …

15. Becca the Dirtbag Girlfriend vs. Anne the Manic Indie Dream DJ

It feels great to finally have equitable dirtbag representation on-screen! I don’t know whether Siobhan’s love life will at some point become integral to Mare of Easttown’s central mystery, and I don’t care. Because every glimpse of Becca in her bright orange beanie, upchucking edibles and wailing in teen angst, is a treat all its own. Played by Madeline Weinstein—who I was struggling to place until I finally realized I thought she was all three Haim sisters at once—Becca is Siobhan’s high school girlfriend and bandmate. But the moment we meet Anne, a college radio DJ who drives a BMW and keeps an extra Boygenius ticket on hand at all times—just in case she needs to ask an up-and-coming vocalist like Siobhan out—we know that poor Becca doesn’t stand a chance, even if Siobhan doesn’t know it herself yet.

HBO

By the time Becca lets out a banshee scream at the sight of Siobhan and Anne macking on the card table, I’d wager that we’re all finally on the same page.

14. Mare’s Attempt to Psych Out Her Therapist

Y’all, this woman actually walks into the therapy session mandated by her boss after she planted heroin on a civilian, and attempts to use reverse psychology on her therapist. She’s all, “I hope you don’t get discouraged by any lack of breakthrough, it’s just that I’m entirely good to go—absolutely down to clown—with the terrible and painful way that my life is progressing right now. But DO feel free to pass along these hours to the Chief, so that I can get back to solvin’ crimes, which I’m absolutely going to proceed with anyway.” The audacity! The gall! The people’s emotionally stunted Pennsylvania princess!

13. Vape-Acting

Has a single prop ever done this much work? If you glued a pair of googly eyes on Mare’s vape pen, I think it could be eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. (Vape-acting honorary mentions must include Rachel McAdams in True Detective Season 2 and Rosamund Pike in I Care a Lot—two Winslet-level actors who were, unfortunately, not working with Mare-level characters for their vaping vessels.)

HBO

At some point, the novelty of watching an A-list actress vape her way through heartbreaking monologues and top-notch detective work loses some of its luster, but what is never lost is the vape pen’s constant placement in Mare’s ever-vaping hand. And speaking of props …

12. Richard’s National Book Award–Winning Novel

Oh, Richard. What were you up to in that bar the night you ever-so-conveniently picked up Easttown’s lead detective and took her home the night of a town murder? And can you really get a job as a professor off one novel you wrote 15 years ago? It’s very possible that Richard’s book could become a plot point, given the number of times we’ve seen Mare manhandling but not actually reading it. But for now, it’s mostly just hilarious how he never stops talking about it. When Mare asks Richard if his book was any good, he replies, “Some people think so,” which is probably the most embarrassing, faux-humble thing anyone could say about their own writing. At one point in the third episode, Richard begins a story about losing custody of his son, only to accidentally derail himself mid-thought into talking about how his book was so critically acclaimed and so popular that he literally could not stop having sex with random women long enough to save his marriage. But what’s even wilder? His haircut told us all that before he ever did.


11. The Gilmore Girls of Easttown

Rory Gilmore may have had a bedroom full of literature and Harvard pennants, but Erin’s best friend Jess Riley has a closet full of gamer girl T-shirts, a lofted bed with a fort of fuzzy blankets and ambient lighting below it, and a supportive, nonjudgmental mom named Trisha who’s nice to her friends. The first episode of Mare of Easttown is pretty unrelenting, featuring few moments of levity that aren’t hoagie or vape related—but the minute Jess hears Erin is going on a date and calls out for her mom to come into the room, you know exactly who Trisha is ...

You know immediately what Trisha’s “makeup kit” looks like when she makes over Erin; you know she smells like Clinique Happy; you know that this is a mom who’s fine with your little friends drinking as long as it’s in the house and who tells her daughter a little too much, but who gets more than most in return, and whose house is a place of respite for her daughter’s best friend with a troubled home life.

HBO

And when Trisha shows up in Episode 4 in the coldest-shouldered top you ever did see, and a pair of MLM snakeskin leggings—well that, my friends, is a fully drawn character who has said maybe six lines to date. Eat your heart out, Stars Hollow.

10. The Rolling Rock/Yuengling Gender Divide

As they say in the ancient texts: Girls don’t like boys, girls like Rolling Rock and Cheez Whiz.

I will not even attempt to understand why the consumption of Pennsylvania lagers is classified by strict gender lines in Easttown; all I know is that Mare, Lori, and the rest of the gals drink Rolling Rock, while Frank, John, and the rest of the boys drink Yuengling. (Detective Colin Zabel, for the record, appears to drink Yuengling Light in the comfort of his own home.) And I know we’re veering dangerously close to actual plot territory here, but I can’t help but see it functioning as a visual representation of the sort of tribalism that exists in the Easttown community, where women stick up for and take care of other women and men look out for other men, often using their closest points of contact as intermediaries. When Mare needs to tell Kenny about his daughter’s death, she brings his male cousins to soften the blow and look after him. And after Jess tells her mom about Frank, Mare’s ex-husband, possibly being the father of Erin’s baby, Trisha then tells Lori, who tells Mare … who sets down her Rolling Rock and marches right over to Frank’s house to confront him in the middle of his evening Yuengling.

9. Helen Exasperatedly Inviting Patty Inside

An even smaller but similarly potent distillation of this community: After Tony Delrasso harasses Mare in her own driveway for arresting his daughter Brianna in connection to Erin’s murder (and then speeds off to harass her some more!), Helen hollers out to his wife, “Christ almighty, Patty, what’s going on?” But when Patty begins sobbing, Helen simply invites her in for coffee—like Patty’s husband didn’t just accost her daughter, and won’t go on to throw a jug of milk through their window a few hours later.

8. Erin’s Song

One of the more serious bits of mise-en-scène in Mare of Easttown is also one of the loveliest. Though the series can’t quite quit the “beautiful dead girl” trope so pervasive to the crime genre, it does at least give us the opportunity to get to know Erin throughout the first episode before we lose her. And though we’re exposed to the challenges and pain of her complex life, the sweet, tinkling score by Lele Marchitelli that accompanies all of Erin’s scenes when she’s alone or with her son suggest a young woman who tries very hard to find joy in the places where she can—a young woman who deserved to seek joy for much longer than she did.

7. Mare vs. Duck Liver Pâté

Everything about Richard’s book party is deliciously uncomfortable, from the grand way he invites Mare and the nonchalant way he receives her, to the reveal that Mare has put on lipstick and what could technically be classified as a blouse. But nothing is better/worse than when Mare encounters duck liver pâté while waiting for Richard to finally greet her. Almost better than her reaction to it is the fact that she takes the hors d’oeuvre at all. Why do people always turn down passed apps in TV shows? Have you ever turned down free food in your life? Mare Sheehan certainly has not, so she probably didn’t even listen when the waiter told her he was slingin’ pâté. And that is why she promptly spits it back into a napkin the moment it hits her lips, waits until the coast is clear, and then stuffs it into the deepest recesses of the fancy couch she’s sitting on.

HBO

Write a chapter about that, Richard.

6. Zabel’s Puppy Dog Obsession With Mare

Perhaps you’ve caught on to my indifference to Richard as a love interest for Mare, and perhaps it’s because his arrival in Easttown was suspiciously timely … or perhaps it’s because I have let wunderkind detective Colin Zabel and his goofy grin bewitch me, body and soul.

And I know I promised no mention of the plot, but if Zabel is revealed to be the murderer, I do believe HBO will have caused riots in the streets. Because from the moment this kid’s smile fell after Mare scoffed at the idea of them getting a “table for two,” to the moment she wooed him into getting all six canines via nothing but flexing her detective prowess, to the moment he tripped over his salutations and accidentally advised his partner to “have a good night-Mare,” I fell for Zabel as quickly as Zabel fell for Mare—and probably with about as much confusion over whether it’s ill-fated attraction or genuine admiration. But there was one moment to rule them all, and that was when Mare casually snarked at him that he needed to wear a warmer coat after spending 12 straight hours outdoors teaching him how to be a detective …

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Wouldn’t ya know it, the very next morning we see him jogging toward her in a puffy coat with an honest-to-goodness fur collar. The boy is sprung.

5. Lori’s Dave Matthews Band T-shirt

The absolute tiniest screen-time–to-impact ratio belongs to Lori’s sleep shirt in the second episode. This is the moment I knew that Mare of Easttown wasn’t just dabbling in a little prop comedy, it was making choices. Choices it would not explain—a vintage Dave Matthews Band shirt explains itself! Lori’s T-shirt has presumably made it through the marijuana-scented drive back from Philadelphia to Easttown decades ago, multiple house moves, a consolidation of goods with her husband, countless loads of laundry, only to wind up as her outfit the day she finds out about a family tragedy. This is something Lori holds on to, this is something Lori cherishes but isn’t precious about. This … is Lori’s weekend sleep shirt.

4. Eating a Hoagie on Broken Glass

Shall we define Mare’s entire character in one brief scene? How about when Brianna’s father, Tony, flings a gallon of milk through her window, right over her head, where it lands and begins gushing out onto the coffee table …

And Mare barely flinches. It’s almost like she knows it’s coming; like she knows exactly what it is and where it came from and who sent it from the moment it flew through the window, spraying glass all over her body; like she knows that stopping to get upset about it, or even stopping to clean it up won’t change the hard facts about what just happened. And it definitely won’t make her any less hungry. So, Mare shakes the glass off of her like a dog after a bath, picks up her hoagie, and takes a huge bite while milk and glass fall at her feet. And when Siobhan comes running in to see what the noise was, Mare simply tells her: “That was a scared, angry father.”

3. Helen’s Vegetarian Diet

There are plenty of hat tips to the intergenerational cohabitation that prevails in Easttown, but nowhere is it more evident than in Episode 4 when Helen sneaks into the kitchen, gleefully pulls a resealable bag of frozen vegetables out of the freezer, and begins preparing the table for a feast. For one brief moment, it seems like she might be about to load up a bag of frozen broccoli with Hershey’s syrup and go to town. But then, the reveal: She has a pint of ice cream hidden in the bag that no member of the family except her would ever look in. It’s at this moment that Becca knocks on the door asking for Siobhan, and for the entire time Becca is pouring her heart out, Helen is darting her eyes back at the bread box, her precious ice cream’s latest hiding spot. And later, when Becca’s scream startles the whole house, it is revealed that Helen’s nightly ritual also includes a Tupperware of M&Ms—presumably taped to the back of the refrigerator for safe keeping.

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2. Jean Smart Playing Fruit Ninja

Not only is Jean Smart aggressively playing Fruit Ninja on an iPad with a Manhattan at her side one of the first perfect moments of Mare of Easttown, it’s also one of the most consistent. Because if Helen isn’t snacking, or going unappreciated for the work she puts in to keep the Sheehan family afloat, then she is slinging that index finger around on her iPad with the stealth and agility of a ninja going undercover as a tipsy grandma. It’s played less for laughs than the ice cream bit, and more just as something that this person does to enjoy her time once dinner is finished.

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In the fourth episode, when Mare is the one looking after her mother after a hospital visit, she finds Helen snoozing with the iPad clutched in her hand, and we know … she’s Fruit Ninja’d herself to sleep.

1. Detective Colin Zabel, Sauced Off His Ass, Talking About Bagels and Despair

Between the Fruit Ninja, the Rolling Rock, and the glass-littered hoagies of it all, surely Mare of Easttown has contained no more joyful surprise than Evan Peters in this role, right? Because we know what Jean Smart can do, even when it’s a special joy to watch her do it. We know what Kate Winslet can do, even if we’ve never heard or seen her do it quite this way. On the other hand, while I am not entirely up to date on my Ryan Murphy–verse, it seems that, in this role, Peters has suddenly become a man all at once. And this man is very, very drunk.

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In a scene scored by the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” in Episode 3, Zabel encounters Mare in a bar after his Ridley Raiders 15th high school reunion. At the ripe age of 33, his life isn’t turning out how he expected, he tells Mare, a woman whose life is shattering around her. Nevertheless, Zabel asks the “bar guy” to bring another drink for “milady,” then promises to never do or say any of that again; he looks like, at any moment, he might vomit all over the bar; he sounds like he might cry, or laugh hysterically, or scream, or flirt, and he sort of does do all of those things as he alternates between telling Mare about his high school sweetheart who left him two weeks before their wedding, and giving Mare just the loopiest grins you ever did see.

It is a hall-of-fame-worthy drunk performance from Peters, and damned if we don’t learn almost everything we need to know about Zabel in that brief scene. It is almost as if these tiny perfect moments that seem entirely tangential to the Mare of Easttown murder mystery are, in fact, there to ground its characters, elevate its plot, and make this slow burn of a whodunit flame a little brighter.

And with that—cheers to nuts.

HBO