The creators of HBO’s Mare of Easttown, a murder mystery set in a small Pennsylvania town, aimed for verisimilitude. Its main cast studied the phonics and cadence of the Delaware County accent—all the downturned O’s and “water” pronounced to rhyme with “rudder”—which Kate Winslet (who plays the titular Mare Sheehan) described as “amongst the top two hardest dialects I’ve ever done.” The costume designer sent snapshots of people in line at Wawa, the legendary Pennsylvania convenience store, to director Craig Zobel for inspiration. Clothes were distressed with scrubbing brushes, holes added. In terms of its content, the show can occasionally feel like a primer on the problems facing suburban and rural America. Its characters contend with the opioid epidemic, insufficient health care, precarious and low-paying jobs, a lack of support for the elderly, and ambitious young people moving away for college with no plans to return. Crime in Easttown is driven less often by passion or malice than by the desperation of people forced to get by on less.
The exception is the show’s central mystery. Late one night, Erin McMenamin, a young mother with ties to many in the Easttown community, is killed by a relative, her body left in a creek. The investigation that ensues sends shock waves through the town and devastates the family of Mare’s close friend Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson). The family becomes isolated from Easttown life, but not, the show implies, forever: In the penultimate scene, Mare and Lori manage some kind of reconciliation as Lori sobs in her friend’s arms on the kitchen floor.
Verisimilitude on its own can seem clinical; in Mare of Easttown, it is counterbalanced with a finely tuned emotional realism, as if the series’ relationships had been buffed until they felt sufficiently timeworn as well. As with climactic moments like Lori and Mare’s, the town’s petty affairs are rendered in as much detail as its tragedies. There are gossips and cruel teens, squabbling couples, women drawing on their eyebrows to attend a funeral. The show depicts several loving relationships in which neither party, on a day-to-day basis, can stand the other.
Brad Ingelsby, the show’s creator, describes himself as “totally new” to the TV murder mystery genre, and Mare of Easttown does not depart significantly from the standard structure: dead girl, gruff detective, cliffhanger at the end of each episode, red herrings leading away from the real killer, who is revealed in the finale. But the attention paid to the mundanity amid the tragedy distinguishes Mare of Easttown from other detective shows. Its unique strength is that it presents pain, loss, and forgiveness as collective rather than individual processes, the stuff of everyday life rather than dramatic aberrations from the norm. Injuries large and small, with consequences that spill out beyond any single victim, take a village to repair.
At the center of many of these processes is Mare, a vape-sucking, cheese-ball-eating detective who lives in a split-level home with her mother, Helen (Jean Smart); her teenage daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice); and her grandson, Drew (Izzy King). (In interviews, Winslet described Mare as the kind of person “who looked at herself in the mirror when she brushed her teeth in the morning and would not look in the mirror again [all day]” and added that she “doesn’t drink water once in the entire show.”)
Mare is still mourning the death of her son, Kevin—Drew’s father—who died by suicide roughly two years earlier, something she avoids thinking about, mostly through work and alcohol.
Mare is exceptionally good at her job, both the traditional detective work and the part that involves fielding early-morning calls from senior citizens about graffiti. In the show’s first episode, she receives a call that the home of her friend Beth Hanlon (Chinasa Ogbuagu) has been robbed by Beth’s brother Freddie (Dominique Johnson), presumably to buy drugs. After finding Freddie with a cache of stolen sports memorabilia in his freezing-cold home, Mare arranges an alternate place for him to stay the night and instructs an officer to get in touch with the utility company; shutting off heat during the winter is illegal. “Call PECO Gas. Let them know they’re breaking the law,” she barks.
This arc ends with a detail I almost missed: When Mare finds Freddie dead from an overdose in his home several weeks later, the heat is off again. As Mare and Beth sit quietly on the back of a couch, their breath frosts in the air. Who knows whether the cop forgot to call, the gas company stonewalled, the heat came on but then went off again, or something else happened. It probably would not have prevented the death, but the tragedy of the cold house struck me in a way that the conclusion of the show’s central plot didn’t, in part because it felt more realistic—because it was the product not of an unspeakable act but the sum of myriad small failures, some of which were likely motivated by cruelty and some of which were simply oversights, which is how bad things happen in real life.
Mare’s cliffhangers and reveals occasionally seem shoehorned in—an arc involving a kidnapper who holds young women captive in his bar-slash-home feels especially dissonant, as does the revelation of Erin’s killer—which might make for an imperfect mystery. Still, the show’s enduring appeal is that its creators seem more interested in Easttown itself, its small failures and successes, than in the murder. “In a lot of crime dramas, you sort of open with the death and the investigation really starts from the opening shot,” Ingelsby told The Wrap. “Whereas in [the first] episode [of Mare of Easttown], it’s kind of a slice of life show, really.”
There are tragedies, like Freddie’s death, but also joy. A similar amount of time is given to a somber autopsy scene, for instance, as to Mare scream-laughing at her mother in the car after Helen’s ill-timed revelation of an affair with a recently widowed man. An ear surgery for Erin’s 1-year-old son, delayed multiple times because of a lack of money, is completed in the final episode, and an envelope of cash that Erin had earmarked for the surgery, stolen by her ex-boyfriend, is unexpectedly returned.
TV crime dramas can tend toward the epic and the teleological, presenting events and characters in a hierarchy of significance that builds toward a discrete conclusion, oriented by principles of truth, justice, and honor. That sensibility is certainly present in Mare of Easttown—most plotlines are tied up neatly but the end, and the climactic choice that Mare makes at the investigation’s conclusion is a principled one. But there’s also the pull of the entropy of everyday life: futures shaped by reactions and adjustments, contingencies, the decisions you make to get through the day.
The show is willing to accommodate the idea, for example, that maintaining a significant lie may keep your family safe; that there are some situations in which burying or delaying the processing of trauma keeps you sane; that doing something awful and then going on with your life is both monstrous and human; and that you can love someone deeply without liking them very much. Not the most satisfying of narrative conclusions, but things we have all experienced, to a degree that seeing them onscreen offers a different kind of catharsis than watching the detective unmask the perpetrator of a crime. They offer a different model of heroism, built of imperfections and compromises, in which repairing old wounds happens slowly but inevitably.