The following contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown Episode 1, “Miss Lady Hawk Herself.”
After a full day of exciting birthday celebrations, HBO decided to gift me one more big surprise with the premiere of Kate Winslet’s new limited series Mare of Easttown. Alright, it wasn’t so much of a surprise since the release date had been known for a good while, but it was certainly a high note to end my birthday on. Especially since Kate Winslet is a name that holds a lot of power over me. It will get me to check out anything, and I mean anything. Even if it’s something I’m not even interested in it. I’m looking at you, Movie 43.
Mare of Easttown doesn’t feel like your typical American crime drama. You know, the ones that usually take place in New York, Los Angeles, or some really big city? The ones that tend to use the upper class as victims and then slowly tear them down to make some metaphor about America’s idealism towards the hierarchy of society, and that power and money aren’t always the cause of happiness? Instead, it feels more like the character-driven crime dramas that get delivered from the UK. Dramas like Broadchurch or Save Me where the focus is on the working class and shows how a tragic event can cause a ripple effect throughout a community. It can either tear them apart or bring them closer together.
The way series writer, Brad Ingelsby, takes the time to establish a community makes you feel as though you have been part of it all along. In its opening moments, we are introduced to Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) being woken up by a phone call over a neighbor being frightened by “someone standing in the back watching them.” In this community, Mare is seen as the figure to trust. Her job is to take care of break-ins or murders yet she is held to such a high tier that she’s personally called by people when strange figures are lurking in the back yard.
There were times where Mare of Easttown feels a lot like Twin Peaks in how the town is as much of a character as Mare. Only I bet their pie and coffee isn’t as good.
Easttown is where a 25-year-old basketball game win is celebrated as if it was a national holiday and treats the players of said game as celebrities. Everyone is connected by either blood or the fact that they grew up here and never left. When Mare is called in to help a new officer with a break-in, she is informed that it’s her friend Beth’s (Chinasa Ogbuagu) house and that it’s Beth’s drug-addicted brother who has broken in. When Mare catches him she gives an ultimatum that includes going to a shelter which just so happens to also be run by her the clergy in town, one of which is her cousin.
By the end when teen mother, Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), shows up dead under a bridge, we’ve become so invested in her character that we want to follow along with the who-done-it storyline as much as we want to know all we can about Mare.
This episode allows us to explore who Erin McMenamin was. We get to see her as a young mother sending her son, DJ, off to his father, Dylan’s (Jack Mulhern), and when she begs Dylan to help pay for an ear operation for DJ, he refuses. We see her relationship with her father, which appears to be borderline abusive at times. He almost loses his temper on her overheating mac and cheese.
We’re even reminded that she is still a teenager doing teenage things like gossiping with her friend Jess Riley (Ruby Cruz) or going to the teen hang out to meet up with someone. Even the dark side of teenage life. She discovers the “boy” she’s been talking to through texting is actually a horrible joke done by her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend as a way to get her to a spot where they can jump her.
Mare of Easttown allows this opportunity with Erin where we’re given a huge chunk of how she structures her life. We’re able to view how she is perceived by others, and this structure also allows us to begin our first guesses as to who could have ended her life. Could it have been her overbearing father? Maybe it was the ex-boyfriend with his easily jealous new girlfriend?
There’s a lot that happens in this episode. A lot that could be a little overwhelming, but it’s for a specific reason. Everything we experience with Mare is just one more way of unraveling this complex character that is wearing so many masks.
At work, she is a give-no-you-know-whats detective who can find the small humor in a new police officer who can’t stand the sight of blood. Her presence feels similar to any character Tommy Lee Jones plays. When she’s talking to the elderly couple at the beginning of Episode 1 after their peeping tom incident her patience with them is slowly thinning. Even though this is our first time witnessing this, it’s instantly clear that this sort of thing tends to happen on a regular basis.
She’s “Lady Hawk”, Easttown’s celebrated hero for having made the winning jump shot in a 25-year-old high school basketball game. No matter how busy it is in a bar Mare is always able to get someone’s attention because they take one look at her and realize who she is. Every time someone tries to acknowledge an article about the anniversary in the paper she is quick to change the topic. Even when one of her coworkers took the time to cut it out and frame the article, she doesn’t hang it up. Instead, it sits by the side of her desk. When new to town Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce) playfully calls her by her nickname she is quick to dismiss him.
Mare Sheehan is also a daughter, mother, and grandmother struggling to provide a positive environment for her family. She is on her daughter Siobhan’s (Angourie Rice) case about college applications because she wants her to be able to get out of Easttown. Her mother Helen (Jean Smart) has been living with her since her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) left and moved into the house right behind hers. There is a moment when we are gifted with domestic Mare shopping for a fish tank for her grandson Drew’s new turtle and even though she is stubborn and clearly doesn’t want to be there, she is.
Through all these masks there is one constant—Mare is trying to be Superwoman. Whether it’s putting on the tough act at work or making sure her family is happy. Every mask has a different perception as to who Mare Sheehan is, and only a few people such as her boss, her mother, and her best friend Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson) have witnessed it. In the moments, when those masks get shuffled that’s where we are able to catch a glimpse at the real Mare Sheehan.
When she is reassigned to the cold case of Katie Bailey the daughter of Mare’s former teammate, Dawn (Enid Graham), there become hints that Katie’s case could be why she’s made herself desensitized to her job. When Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) first brings up Katie’s disappearance Mare instantly becomes defensive. She fights him that everything had been done. That they have exhausted every lead from multiple counties. Even later when she confronts Dawn she does so aggressively. She’s hurt. She’s hurt that she’s failed and based on the drinking she does after having that discussion and after she finds out about Frank being engaged to someone new, Mare doesn’t take failure very well.
As I have said above, Kate Winslet is a name that I will follow to the depths of the most awful of films. She’s been a favorite performer of mine for as long as I could remember, and it’s fascinating seeing her entry into this new stage of her career playing women who have become cold and emotionally exhausted. As someone who has hit their 30s and works hugely with the public, I can relate to those many masks that Mare Sheehan puts on every day. When at work I am constantly bringing my levels of manic to eleven in order to provide that “customer connection”. Being that manic though really causes the situations where a negative interaction can cause my entire being to shut down. I suddenly go from having an extremely long fuse to a short one which means every interaction after that can make or break a day.
I also live with a roommate who is a woman in her 40s who I have witnessed give her time and love to people who take it for granted. She puts so much emotional labor out there for people who don’t acknowledge it, and I’ve seen it drain her. Maybe it’s these exposures that allow me to really appreciate these “crusty” characters like Mare Sheehan and how they come to be as emotionally exhausted as they appear. I’ve been told that once you hit your 40s you hit the stage where you’ve kind of seen it all and it just doesn’t faze you anymore. Watching Mare of Easttown you can quickly arrive at the conclusion that Mare Sheehan has reached this stage in her life.
It will be interesting to see where Mare of Easttown takes its viewers. This first episode was a powerful introduction, unpacking a small community and already breaking its main protagonist down to the bare bones. It’s a ride that will have you as invested in its murder mystery as it will make you want to be around Mare Sheehan all day, and perhaps buy her a beer and talk out her feelings.
Mare of Easttown airs Sunday nights at 10 PM EDT on HBO.