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The Maternal Hum of ‘Mare of Easttown’

The mystery of who killed Erin McMenamin gave the show its plot, but over the course of seven episodes, it became clear that the series was most interested in exploring the contradictions and conundrums of motherhood

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Sometimes I wonder if you even realize how much I love you,” a doomed young single mom named Erin McMenamin tells her baby, DJ, in the opening episode of the HBO Max miniseries Mare of Easttown. “Your grandma used to say, ‘You’ll understand when you’re a parent,’” she continues, referring specifically to her own late mother but also echoing a near-universal koan, “and I was always like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’” (Also universal: the dismissive teen.) “But now it’s like, you can love someone so much it’s scary!” DJ gurgles at his mama in return.

By the end of the episode, Erin is dead. And while the specific question of who killed the poor girl is what drives Mare of Easttown’s seven-episode plot, it’s the broad emotion behind Erin’s idle baby-babbling, her familiar in-too-deep mix of rashness and rationalization, that weaves the series together. The series is a murder mystery and a cop drama and a character study, but mostly it’s a story about the staggering contours of familial love: those unconditional and uplifting expanses; those claustrophobic and wretched depths; those places where forgiveness meets the unforgivable.

Characters betray one another while demanding loyalty. They raise one another for the future while saddling them with the past. They sit next to their kids in police stations, nodding blankly. They call for their mother from a hospital bed, unable to bear the sound of a crying son. They cheat and they grieve and they throw jugs of milk through windows to send “don’t mess with my daughter” messages. They can’t avoid passing their own trauma along to their children. Sometimes they don’t even try.

Mare of Easttown plumbs the contradictions and chasms of parenting. It pairs the unthinkable with the relatable, the moral with the primal. And it is a reminder that, given a long enough timeline, we’ll all find ourselves yelling one day across the room at a grown-up kid: “I’m always on your side! Even when I act like I’m not!”

Screenshots via HBO

That’s what Helen Fahey, Mare Sheehan’s cutting, cackling cutup of a widowed mother played with boozy specificity by Jean Smart, indignantly reminds her daughter (Kate Winslet) in the series’ seventh and final episode. This is a pretty typical exchange in the irritable, four-generation household. Mare is a member of the Sandwich Generation with an extra layer of pickle: She is responsible for a cusp-of-college daughter, Siobhan; they both live under the same roof as Helen; and they also raise Drew, the 4-year-old child of Mare’s late son Kevin, who ended his life in their attic. In Easttown, there is a lot of lending a hand and a lot of taking a village, but also a lot of bristling and wanting nothing more than to be left alone.

The reason for this particular disagreement: Helen’s vocal empathy for Mare’s best friend, Lori Ross, whose husband, John, has just confessed to Erin’s murder. John’s guilt goes well beyond even that, each layer more upsetting for Lori and for the community: He is also the father of Erin’s son, DJ, and not only was Erin a teenager, she was also John’s cousin Kenny’s kid. In an attempt to cover up his crimes, John tries to kill and frame his own brother, Billy, and convinces his stricken wife, Lori, to lie directly to Mare’s face in order to protect their family—a detail that an angry Mare brings up to her mother. “Can ya blame her?” Helen asks, her tone heavy with years of grim societal insight. “Yeah,” Mare responds, “I can fuckin’ blame her.” This isn’t just about Lori, though.

Not long afterward, things boil over again when Mare, triggered by the sight of Helen tenderly adjusting the Band-Aid of her great-grandson, mutters “unbelievable.” She points out that back in the day, when she was a kid, she would have been told to shut up and deal with it by Helen. “Is that something you talk about in therapy?” Helen snarks. But then, from behind the joke, comes a rare moment of honesty: Tasked with being Mare’s protector, Helen admits she’d spent a lot of time projecting instead. “The truth is, I was angry a lot,” Helen says. “Your father wasn’t the person I thought I’d marry, and I was angry that I couldn’t fix him, and I took a lot of that out on you.” Mare forgives her. “Good,” Helen says, bursting into tears, “because I forgave myself a long time ago.”

Of course all of this takes place at a pizza parlor, as so many of life’s biggest little conversations tend to do. There is a searing sincerity to the mother-daughter exchange, full of small grudges and big implications. There is also a simultaneous display of self-flagellation and self-absolution that feels in line with the constant and at times contradictory messages delivered to modern mothers, who face the pressures of success with the so-frequent-as-to-be-suspicious reminders that “Mama, you’re doing great!”

What about when that’s not true?

“Maybe you could be my mom for a second and give me some advice?” Siobhan whines to Mare, with petulant vulnerability, during another exquisitely stilted conversation between a mother and daughter in the Mare of Easttown finale. The high schooler is trying to decide whether to head cross-country to Berkeley. She isn’t after permission so much as encouragement, but Mare isn’t really one for over-the-top displays. (Nor does reverse psychology really work on her, or maybe it’s just that she’s a subtle master of it; either way, her muted “OK” to her daughter’s clearly feigned I-don’t-think-I’m-gonna-go nonchalance is kind of hilarious.) “I think you should go,” Mare finally tells her daughter, after some exasperated prodding on Siobhan’s part. “Is that, like, not advice-y enough?”

And this is one of their most tender moments! But it all serves to underline that parenthood is both a long game and an unforgiving one. Midway through Mare of Easttown, in an episode titled “Poor Sisyphus,” Mare scrolls through Erin’s social media accounts and watches a selfie video that the girl made, searching for anything that might be evidence in her murder. “I’m just so tired and exhausted all the time,” Erin says in the footage, “that some nights I seriously feel like a terrible mother. I want him to have a great life, and I am trying to give that to him. I just want so bad to give him everything.” It’s that same instinct, however warped, that underlies some of the most upsetting moments in the show.

Dawn goes to great, and gutting, lengths to find her missing daughter, Katie Bailey, and is taken advantage of for her mama-bear persistence. Drew’s mother, Carrie, strung out and trying to work enough to afford her custody battle for the boy, falls asleep while he’s in the tub and also falls back into her cycle of addiction. Mare herself hits a moral, and legal, low when she tries to plant drugs on Carrie as part of the same custody battle. In “Poor Sisyphus,” this leads to a gentle intervention from Lori as she and Mare sit on a park bench. “Your family’s worried about you,” Lori says. “You’re pushing everyone away.” Mare, exhausted, lets the weight of her body fall onto Lori’s shoulder. “Including you?” she asks. “No, I won’t let you,” Lori responds, offering an unconditional, even maternal, kind of love.

There’s no substitute for the real thing, though. Late in the series, Lori reacts to an unfathomable revelation from her husband—that it actually wasn’t him who killed Erin, but instead was the Ross’s school-aged son, Ryan—by agreeing to keep the horrible secret from everyone, Mare included, at an enormous cost. As Lori later tells Mare, who figures all this out through a combination of perceptiveness and happenstance—and whose appearance at the school playground was as concentrated a dose of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” as has ever been seen on TV—“I agreed to lie to protect my son, and I would have taken that to my grave if you didn’t show up at the house today.” When Mare does show up at the house, she finds Ryan in Lori’s familiar protective embrace.

As Mare’s therapist points out, Mare’s dogged and ragged work on Erin’s case and others is in many ways an attempt to avoid managing her own family’s loss, to continue repressing the memory of cutting her son down from the attic rafters and collapsing under his weight. But it also helped her rediscover her own maternal gut instincts. The untimely death of Erin’s mom meant that, unlike Katie Bailey and Jess Riley, Erin didn’t have a champion in her corner when she needed it most. Mare’s investigation couldn’t save Erin, but it did at least advocate for her.

Still, there is little satisfaction in solving this crime. Mare’s gasp upon seeing Ryan stealing the gun on the security tapes is wrenching and pure. Lori now has a (truly vile!) husband, a son, and a brother-in-law in prison, and she is tasked with raising Erin’s baby boy in order to give him “the good life,” as John puts it. But how can that be, when he’ll grow up in such close proximity to the family members who raped and murdered his mother? Even the most well-meaning mothering can’t keep that level of trauma from being passed down to the next generation.

And by solving the case, Mare has seemingly severed her most meaningful relationship. When she gets into Lori’s car to offer her condolences, her best friend, understandably, flips out. “I don’t want to see you again,” she shouts. “Get the fuck out of my car!” She ignores Mare’s calls and texts after that. It is only months later, fueled by a church sermon, that Mare realizes what she needs to do.

Putting on a sweatshirt, she heads out the door. (That she has to have the classic and intrusive “I’m going out”–“Out where?” conversation with her mother, at her age and in her circumstance, is one small final piece of lovely comedy in the otherwise heavy series.) She walks in on Lori, sitting on the couch with a blank stare, and approaches her like a friend, but also like a mom. By the end of the scene, she’s the one holding Lori. She’s the one bearing her weight and rocking her on the kitchen floor. She’s the one not letting her loved one push away the grief. She is a parent, and so she understands.