Some of the best TV I have seen over the past decade has been from the HBO stables. The dawning of the trademark name against a backdrop of curated white noise is a harbinger of quality or at least what you know is an attempt at quality, if nothing else. Apart from the obvious hits (Game of Thrones), there are some other brilliantly realized dramas that sear you with their intellectual honesty and thrills. Some of my favorites include the much acclaimed first season of True Detective and lesser recognized but equally compelling drama, The Honorable Woman, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. And now we have another one, starring one of the finest actresses of this generation, Kate Winslet. And what an addition to the canon it is.
Mare of Easttown is, on the surface of it, an investigation into the kidnappings/deaths of a few young women in the worldly-weary town of Easttown, where an equally worldly-weary and grimly hopeful detective, Mare (Winslet), ploughs away at the case in the face of gradually mounting criticism an pressure to cede to out of town investigators. But to call this just an investigative thriller would be to miss the point of the show. It’s a deep dive into small-town existential angst and long festering wounds, both of the soul and the heart. There is a certain lived in authenticity to the characters and their relationships which would feel real to keen observers even if they’re from another part of the world.
The first episode sets up most of which follows. Mare knows most of the people around, including the mother of the girls who has been missing for over a year. This lady, who pops up at various points in the story, both harangues her and the police force on the lack of progress on her daughter’s case, but also cares for Mare. Mare’s family include her daughter and her mother (Jean Smart) who live with her, as well as her grandson. Her ex-husband lives close by and is getting married again soon. Worse, it appears everyone around Mare, including her family, is charmed by him enough to help him out with his preparations. Though, that doesn’t really get to Mare; she has learned to live with this, her own hardnosed nature and the way it puts off people, especially her daughter Siobhan. Her best friend Lori, another great performance by Julianne Nicholson, lives nearby and has a seemingly content family, one of the many initial observations which get called into question as the series continues its riveting progress.
A relative of Lori’s family, Erin, is a young teenage mother who is deep into financial and custody issues with her erstwhile boyfriend, Dylan, and her father, with whom she lives. The first episode builds up into a crescendo that makes us deeply empathetic of the young woman’s troubles and then kills her off. The rest of the episodes is a slow burn thriller which deals with both this crime and that of the missing girls. But are they by the same person? To help her, Mare is forced to work with an out of town partner, an utterly charming Evan Peters as Detective Colin Zabel giving her some light hearted banter and understanding in an otherwise relentlessly bleak landscape. Meanwhile, another charming potential love interest pops up for Mare in the form of an author turned professor played by Guy Pearce.
The finale is arrived after a few red herrings and false endings and some almighty twists. Yet, none of this feels false or there for the sake of providing fake thrills to the viewer. Instead the characters all reach their fate and face their truths with an unfiltered honesty in their arcs. The ending may be messy at times, not least for Mare and her family, who are living the truth of a tragedy in their backstory.
As already said, Winslet is utterly brilliant, channeling the physical and mental space of her character with such lived in honesty that is by now expected from her but still no less incredible. Her Mare is a woman who is in some ways misunderstood and yet probably recognizable as one of those people who, in their hardnosed desire to get things done, will rub a lot of people the wrong way for simply being who she is. Not that she doesn’t get her hands dirty occasionally herself, like a particular incident with her grandson’s recovering mother testifies to. But for the most part, she just wants to do good in an increasingly cynical world and does her job with admirable efficiency.
The supporting characters too get their chance to shine, apart from perhaps the underutilized Pearce, and add remarkable layers to the show. There is grief, but there are plenty of moments which show that humor, especially of the self-deprecatory sort, is always a possibility. This is TV at its best.