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‘Mare of Easttown’ Was Not a Show About Murder

Yes, a central whodunit drove the plot, but the buzzy HBO drama was more interested in its characters, and how they operated in a very specific place

Scott Laven/HBO

On Mare of Easttown, it always comes back to family. Over its seven-episode run, the HBO series could often seem more invested in the communal ties of its namesake location, many of them filial, than its central whodunit. In fact, the community and the crime were inseparable. The cousin of the murder victim’s father was also the husband of Mare’s best friend, a loose but intimate connection that would prove key to cracking the case. At various points, persons of interest included Mare’s own ex-husband, a colleague of her cousin, and the father of her daughter’s classmate. (It’s impossible to describe Mare of Easttown characters without a slew of possessive nouns.) And in the end, finding the killer forced Mare to make a terrible choice that echoes her own core tragedy: the loss of her son.

Were Mare working in a city like Philadelphia instead of neighboring Delaware County, these conflicts of interest would disqualify her from working the show’s principal case. (Or even its non-principal case; when the show begins, Mare has yet to solve the disappearance of a young woman whose mother played basketball with Mare in high school.) Were this real life instead of a fictional TV show, Mare’s many connections would at least be a liability in the hands of a good defense attorney. But on Mare of Easttown, a show about a town with too few detectives and too many ghosts, Mare was as perfectly suited as a protagonist can be.

In its last couple of weeks on air, Mare of Easttown succumbed to the inevitable flood of theories as to who killed Erin McMenamin, the teen mother found dead in the final moments of the premiere. But unlike True Detective or Westworld, Mare of Easttown never appeared to court fans’ curiosity with Easter eggs or red herrings. (Guy Pearce may have felt too famous for his ultimately minor role, but his presence was due to another actor’s scheduling conflicts, not misdirection.) Instead, the revolving door of suspects was more a commentary on how everyone in Easttown is culpable of something, if not full-fledged murder. Refusing to pay for your infant son’s ear surgery may not make you a criminal, but it certainly earns you scrutiny from neighbors who know all about your indiscretions. Same goes for cheating on your wife.

For this reason, Mare’s secondary story line proved relatively unsatisfying. Yes, the set piece that concluded it was spectacular, and the loss of Evan Peters’s doe-eyed detective guaranteed emotional impact. But once the dust settled, the reveal of a random, anonymous Big Bad as the man behind multiple kidnappings felt at odds with Mare’s focus on the interdependence of an insular town. A predator who imprisons vulnerable sex workers in an abandoned bar was in keeping with the broader motif of blue-collar decline. But where Mare otherwise indicated that Easttown’s troubles came from within, it brought in an outsider for dramatic effect—short-term surprise in exchange for long-term consistency.

Mare’s main mystery made no such tradeoff. Yes, there was a bait-and-switch—several, even. But all three suspects Mare set her sights on had a shared link: They’re the brother-in-law, husband, and 13-year-old son, respectively, of her closest friend, Lori Ross. Through all the reversals and deceit, a clear picture started to emerge. At a family reunion (it all comes back to family!), John Ross struck up an affair with Erin, his first cousin once removed. The transgression wasn’t his first. Middle-schooler Ryan, furious to find his family once again on the brink of collapse, misdirected his rage at Erin, shooting her by accident with a neighbor’s stolen gun. John hid the body with the help of his brother Billy; both tried to take the fall for Ryan’s crime, only for Mare to undo their efforts.

The resolution wasn’t perfect. For one, it’s hard to square Ryan’s fate with Mare’s own misdeeds. Earlier in the season, Mare stole heroin from her precinct’s evidence locker and planted it in her ex-daughter-in-law’s car, a desperate bid to prevent her from regaining custody of Mare’s grandson. Mare did a poor job of covering her tracks, but Easttown’s police chief effectively opted to look the other way, suspending Mare without a formal misconduct charge and reinstating her after an unauthorized raid cost her partner his life. Evidence tampering isn’t just a crime; it’s a crime we see other characters arrested for who just aren’t Mare. What makes Mare’s sins forgivable where others’ are not, apart from Mare being the protagonist? The incident works as yet another example of Mare’s profession bleeding into her personal life and vice versa. It’s less effective at what the show otherwise does best: making Mare a proxy for her hometown, not a glaring exception to its struggles.

Such objections always risk imposing the rules of reality on a crafted fiction. It’s certainly true that some viewers, myself included, are more sensitive to stories that verge on valorizing police misconduct after the past year—a reckoning that extended not only to flesh-and-blood police officers, but also their scripted counterparts. Mostly, though, these questions come to mind because Mare raises them indirectly. Like many close reads, they’re a compliment of sorts.

Mare of Easttown wants us to think about what it takes to heal a community whose wounds run this deep. In seven hours, the show cycles through almost as many approaches to justice as it does suspects. Vigilantism is a bust; shooting Erin’s awful ex-boyfriend may be satisfying, but all it does is land her father in jail. So, too, is self-loathing, which traps Mare in the grip of her trauma. And despite Mare’s own experience, simply looking past a problem only lets it fester; forgiveness without accountability is a recipe for disaster. The answer Mare lands on is letting the truth come to light, no matter how harsh sending a child into the maw of the carceral system may seem. It’s not inherently wrong, just debatable, and a little hypocritical. Had Mare of Easttown let that debate play out onscreen, it would only fortify its themes—and help correct for its inconsistencies.

After all, the Ross family’s plight closely mirrors Mare’s own. By turning Ryan in, Mare both replicates and helps remedy the wound left by her son Kevin’s suicide. The Rosses, too, have a son whose life has been derailed by Easttown’s endemic violence—but Ryan is still alive, and will eventually return. The hope is that Mare intervened in time for Ryan to get back on track where Kevin succumbed to his demons. (It’s heavily implied that Kevin’s opioid use, a common vice in Easttown, was a coping device for lifelong behavioral issues.) There’s a reason the show goes out on Lori and Mare consoling each other, two grieving mothers collapsed on a kitchen floor. Once again, it all comes back to family.

Were Mare of Easttown to get a Season 2—a discussion that’s already begun, as is the rule for buzzy miniseries on HBO—another dead body almost feels unnecessary. There’s already plenty of tension to be mined in Easttown’s chronic ills, which far outnumber its urgent mysteries. We know who killed Erin McMenamin. We don’t know how Lori will cope with raising her husband’s love child, or whether the mother of Mare’s grandson can stay clean, or even if Siobhan will thrive at Berkeley. Simply extending the plot of Season 1 didn’t work out very well for Big Little Lies, but Mare of Easttown is a very different show. It’s not about fireworks, just a slow, relentless burn.

In other words, for all Mare of Easttown did to play down the central mystery in favor of atmosphere, it’s easy to crave more of the former and less of the latter. That’s less a criticism than a testament to how creator Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel were able to differentiate Mare from other crime shows: specificity, both of character and place. On many crime shows, murder is depicted as a singular trauma that rocks a town to its core. In Easttown, Erin’s death is just one of many, a single thread in a tight-knit tapestry of loss. It’s no surprise her killer ended up so close to home; when it comes to Mare of Easttown, nothing’s very far.