“I don’t need some county shithead coming on the case,” mutters Mare Sheehan, a beleaguered Southeast Pennsylvanian detective played by Kate Winslet, in the opening episode of the HBO Max murder mystery Mare of Easttown. Mare has stalled out on solving the disappearance of a local teenaged girl, and her boss is getting heat, and it’s easy to envision exactly the type of helping-hand archetype that she fears: a cocksure hotshot cop who blusters in, big-times the locals, and butts heads with Mare early and often. Indeed, when Mare first encounters Detective Colin Zabel one episode (and one murder) later, he is already all up in her office, lightly snooping, his leather bag occupying territory on her desk. It is the behavior of a dude who has got some nerve, you know?
Except then Zabel, played by Evan Peters, turns around and says hello, and it becomes apparent that he is actually just pretty nervous. His eyes dart and his Adam’s apple wobbles. He is pleased to meet Mare and so sorry about his bag, which he hastens to remove. Over the coming days, Zabel demonstrates that, far from being some county shithead, he’s actually kind of a courtly simp. (In a good way!) He holds jackets for suspects. He thoughtfully picks up Wawa coffee for his colleagues. And he asks Mare whether she wouldn’t mind giving him a do-over on that time they met.
“Are you kidding me right now?” she asks, as he reintroduces himself and tries to shake her hand. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” he replies, assuring her that he’s not there to usurp. “You’re the chef, I’m the sous-chef. What are we cooking?” He is earnest, and Mare is disarmed, if not quite yet amused. “Stop talking,” she says, glaring, even as it’s obvious that he couldn’t if he tried.
Thus begins Mare of Easttown’s most beautiful and doomed relationship, a pairing that rings discordant yet crackles with energy, a collaboration that has both detectives, not to mention the viewer, wishing for more. Over the first five episodes of the seven-part series, with Mare’s hyperlocal connections and Zabel’s county-level resources, they begin to make advancements, from the investigative to the interpersonal. Zabel’s respect for and fascination with the reticent Mare eventually blooms into a full-fledged crush on the gal. Mare’s initial reluctance to trust the younger gumshoe is eroded by his persistent, uncool charm. Their partnership is buoyed by bending some rules and by finding a bullet. And then it is severed in much the same way.
In 2018, an interviewer from GQ told Peters that he was surprised the actor hadn’t been cast in a romantic comedy. “I’m craving doing one of those,” Peters said then. “I’ve been watching so many of them. I love them.” At the time, Peters was mostly known for being a recurring cast member on American Horror Story, an FX anthology series from the twisted mind of Ryan Murphy in which Peters played, variously, a frat boy, a hotelier, Jesus, and a number of assorted ghosts. (He had also gotten a gig in the X-Men franchise, as the nimble and puckish and bored Quicksilver.) Peters’s more recent performance in Mare of Easttown suggests he never let that rom-com dream die—even if the murder mystery’s generally upsetting subject matter places it far away on the genre spectrum from the typical lite will-they-or-won’t-they fare.
“Hey, I’m just trying to be nice, and PS I love you,” is how Peters described Detective Colin Zabel in an interview with Variety last month. “We tried to bring that vibe.” This was, he said, an element that he worked to enhance. Peters came to the project while in the midst of shooting WandaVision, for which he had studied old sitcoms like Full House and Malcolm in the Middle. “I don’t know if it was because I was working on WandaVision as well,” he told Variety, but “we set out and were like, ‘I think Colin needs to be a little bit lighter—a little more comedic at times within the show.’”
A lot of this humor is subtle, hinging on little gulps and repressed chuckles and Zabel’s furrowed brow. The first time the two detectives embark on a little mission—to a family restaurant where a suspect is waiting tables—Zabel can’t help but grin in the background when he hears the customary “table for two?” Nor can he hide his disappointment when Mare answers, sharply, no. (Peters told Vanity Fair that he already had so much admiration for Winslet as an actress that it was pretty simple to play a man essentially star-struck by an older woman.)
Zabel is exceptionally dorky, as when he says “Good night, Mare!” and then chastises himself for having wished his partner a “good nightmare.” After Mare tells him brusquely one chilly evening that he ought to wear a warmer jacket, he shows up the next day in a coat with a fur hood. In the middle of trying to figure out which member of the community might be a killer, he chirps at Mare—in a terrifically marble-mouthed accent Peters honed by listening daily to a recording of a Philly-area townie talking about the Iggles—“Jinx! You owe me a Coke!” and he means it.
But other moments are bigger and grander and more ambitious. In Mare of Easttown’s third episode, Mare is brooding at the local watering hole—“UPPER CHICHESTER MEMORIAL POST 251,” says the lettering outside—when Zabel, good and plastered after having attended a high school reunion, bombs in with a “well howdy-doo there, pardner?” and somehow gets even cringier from there. “HEY BAR GUY!” he yells, then immediately apologies: “Sorry, I won’t do that again,” the very personification of an I’m-trying-to-delete-it meme.
Slurring and unable to modulate the volume of his voice, he calls Mare “m’lady” and overshares about the time his ex-fiancée dumped him two weeks before their wedding (“OK, let me put down my bagel,” he recalls, vividly, of the brutal moment.) He snorts and grins and grimaces; he takes a shot he doesn’t need. “Mr. Brightside” blares in the background.
Craig Zobel, the show’s director, said on Twitter that Peters drank apple cider vinegar while filming the exchange to trigger “sense memories” of being hammered. Whatever the elixir, the result makes for a magical, memorable scene, one of the great drunken performances out there. Two episodes later, in Sunday night’s fifth installment, Zabel is back on his benign bullshit, talking at a rather bored Mare. He has convinced her to join him on an actual date, at a real restaurant, and it’s not going well.
“I’m trying to be a more adventurous eater, but it’s hard,” he says, trying to make alluring small talk by explaining that he was too scared to order the tortellini with zucchini. “You can’t even taste it,” Mare replies, a mother through and through, and then tries to bring up the case. Zabel protests that he doesn’t want to talk about work during this romantic meal, but Mare reminds him that they already tried. “We just spent the last half hour talking ’bout how you had a stutter as a kid,” she says. It helps the zucchini go down when the show’s grim character development is served up with some legitimate, much-needed laughs.
Mare of Easttown is a brutal program, with a plot that heaps so much pain and suffering on its characters that it feels difficult to fathom. Some people are shot and beaten and kidnapped and harassed; others are driven to addiction and suicide. Paternities are questioned. Crimes of police malfeasance are committed. The hopeless prey upon the desperate, and vice versa. Everything feels geographically and existentially claustrophobic.
And yet, as in real life, all of this is punctuated by sudden, often inappropriate gags, like when Mare’s mother, played with snide luminosity by Jean Smart, is outed at a funeral for having an affair (a revelation that blesses viewers both with the phrase “smacked-ass” and with an absolutely ecstatic Winslet cackle). Or when Zabel, introducing Mare to his mother, slips and refers to her, adorably and awkwardly, as “my Mare. My partner, Mare.”
Even in some of the show’s most fraught moments, Zabel’s wizardry with reactions is a salve. When Zabel confesses to Mare that he hadn’t really cracked a cold case in Upper Darby but had, instead, essentially stolen a private investigator’s posthumous valor, she has an unexpected response for him. “Makes you feel any better,” she says casually, “I hid drugs on my grandson’s mother.” Zabel’s bug-eyed restraint at this revelation is both sincere and also a genuine riot, a real Nor’easter of confusion and alarm spreading over his face as he whispers: “Holy shit.”
Soon after that, though, emboldened by the WTFness of everything, he kisses her, and soon after that they are back on the case, knocking on doors to search for the proprietor of a suspicious blue work van. And soon after that, Zabel is down and almost certainly dead after being shot in the head point blank by a perp. (He does not appear to be breathing, and while it’s technically possible he’s alive, the show already pulled that move with Dylan.) It is startling and tragic, the kind of surprise that makes viewers stand up if they’re sitting or sit down if they’re standing and cry out “What? Nooo!” in the direction of the screen. There is nothing funny about it, both in the moment and in terms of what it suggests about the tenor of the show’s remaining pair of episodes.
One crime has been solved, but another has not. One mother will reunite with her child at the end of the day, but another will suddenly not. All of the horror embedded in Mare of Easttown still remains, but without Zabel, there can’t possibly be as much of its vital humor. The guy from county may have struggled with knowing when to shut the hell up, but it sure was a joy to watch him talk.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Easttown’s location.