Mare of Easttown’s fifth episode, “Illusions,” was filled with mega bomb drops from start to finish, but it’s an episode that still somehow found the time to give us a scene where a man reveals during his wife’s funeral reception that he once had an affair with Mare’s mother. And it was great—it was one of the best scenes of the entire season. That is the balance that Mare gets so right. The series is undoubtedly dark and certainly bleak, but both the scripts and the nuanced performances give it these moments of lightness that so many other series miss in their desire to be “serious” or “prestige.” Breaking Bad was funny. The Wire was often hysterical. Mad Men was a surrealist fantasy. Those notes are often brushed aside when focusing on the weightiest moments that stick with us—the “Ozymandias,” the death of a beloved character, the unredeemed antihero of it all. But here’s Mare, cursing about how her grandson’s turtle wandering around in the dark (“Jesus Christ, it’s probably out shittin’ everywhere!”) before she stumbles upon her daughter’s documentary project. She watches the video of her son when he was young, innocent, before all the sadness and horror started. That’s what makes Mare great.
“Illusions” presented us with some new potential perps and some damning new evidence (more on that in a moment), but that’s to be expected with only two episodes left to close the case (if it does—and by God it better). But it also broke the mold when it came to the story of the missing girls. From the start, it seemed like Erin’s murder could be tied to those other cases, all of which were connected to sex work, that had occurred over the past year. This is a full story unto itself, but Mare of Easttown treats it as a B-plot; and ultimately, that’s what it seems to be. Within this single episode, Mare herself talks to an old contact, sets up an interview between Zabel and a young women who escaped her assailant, and they are not only able to run down the partial plate based on her description of the van, they find the guy who did it. Again, in a single episode where so many other things happened—Betty’s death, the deacon being attacked, an unlikely team-up between Dylan and Jess, DJ’s future, Brianna being dumped, Lori’s husband being sus, and Zabel admitting he didn’t solve that infamous case—Mare and Zabel found the kidnapper/murderer, found the girls, and killed the man. And there are two more episodes to go!!
I know most of you are wondering how I’ve gotten this far into a discussion of “Illusions” without mentioning Zabel’s death, the gut-wrenching punctuation mark of the hour, but that’s the point. When I first watched this unfold, I was so overwhelmed by Zabel being killed off that it clouded my memory of anything else that had happened. Watching it a second time, I was reminded how much actually went down before that. This episode was an unexpected escalation of events in a series that saw a teenager hunted down and shot in the second episode. It opened up so many new possibilities and closed down one of the most major side plots. Just the idea that a second, major crime—that is probably not related the crime at the center of the show—was solved a little more than halfway through the season is really astounding.
“Illusions” also held two other quiet key scenes about that central crime of Erin’s death, both relating to Dylan. Dylan, the original sus male on the show, seemed briefly redeemed when he decided not to smother the baby (what a low bar!), and also raise it even though he is not the father. But that was upended yet again in the porch scene with Brianna, who showed us a new, softer side, as Dylan began to distance himself from her. She also mentions how he was missing early in the morning after Erin was murdered. Later, we see him collaborating with Erin’s best friend Jess who lied for him, planted the necklace, and then went along with burning Erin’s journals. Why? Why to both the friend, who is betraying Erin, but also why to Dylan—what evidence is he looking to erase, and to what end? And what is he trying to pin on someone else?
To say nothing, of course, of Billy the cousin who is the Number One suspect in the Baby Daddy case, or Lori’s husband who has been cheating on her (again, evidently, although we don’t know who with). There are also new questions about why the deacon would have dropped Erin off at a park in the middle of the night and kept her bike while she was hysterical over a phone call. What would have made her so upset (or who), and why would the deacon have thought that was a totally ok thing to do to someone clearly in trouble (and who had also obviously been beaten to hell already?) And what about Guy Pearce?? (I refuse to refer to him as anything other than his real name).
Like any good crime show, Mare of Easttown tantalizes us with clues about the central case and makes its characters interesting enough to spend time with regardless of it. Zabel’s death hit so hard because he was a good guy who was doing his best, and we loved him for it. Seeing Mare totally unmoored after her horrific experience with the kidnapper/murderer was also new and heartbreaking. Throughout the season, Mare has faced every new crappy situation with a weary “yeah alright, what next?” attitude, because nothing she is facing now could ever be as hard as what she went through with her son and his death. And here she opened herself up a little to Zabel only to see him killed in front of her. This changed the game for Mare, too.
Where it leads not even I know—“Illusions” was the last episode provided to critics in advance. But its aftermath immediately sent me to excitedly, in all-caps, shout with those I knew who also had early access to it. It’s been a long time since one episode had that kind of effect, especially one that wasn’t a season finale or even a penultimate episode. The shocking murder of a beloved character was also somehow the least shocking part. There are other aspects of the series that feel like other crime shows, which is no surprise; there’s not a lot of room to reinvent the genre, and most viewers enjoy the familiar beats. Mare of Easttown isn’t reinventing anything here, but with Episode 5, it did prove the show is doing something really interesting—let’s just hope it sticks the landing.
New episodes of Mare of Easttown air Sunday nights on HBO / HBO Max
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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