A Study in Pain: The Heart of HBO’s Mare of Easttown Outshines Its FlawsPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Reviews Mare of Easttown
This review originally published April 5, 2021
Is there such a thing as a sober, carefully considered obsession? If so, that’s what we encounter in the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown, a show that is ostensibly about a series of deaths in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, but is, in reality, about the heavy pain of being alive. This is a Kate Winslet vehicle through and through, and for an actor once described as having the “soul and attitude of a jobbing actress, trapped in the body of a movie star,” here again we see her embodying a pained, difficult character who is not always sympathetic. As Mare Sheehan, police detective and former high school basketball star, she has suffered, and suffered, and suffered some more in ways that leave her defiant, sarcastic, and cynical, but too tough to be broken. It’s not an easy psychological space to occupy, but Winslet, looking appropriately haggard except in the rare cases when she decides to be beautiful—moments of hope that are almost more painful than the perpetual fatigue of reality—is more than equal to the task, carrying the show with all the brilliance you’d expect from somebody so talented. If you come to Mare for Kate Winslet, as many will, you won’t be disappointed.
After an awkward 15 minutes or so at the start of the first episode, I’d also guess that you won’t be disappointed in the show itself. Mare Sheehan isn’t alone in her pain, and the “minor” characters—which, you could argue, is everyone but Mare—are a collection of well-defined fellow sufferers. This is what I mean by obsession; the show (directed by Craig Zobel and created/written by Brad Ingelsby) has a way of honing in on the private agonies of each life, but never in a way that feels garish or exploitative. The depictions can be considerate, they can be harsh, and they can even be funny; but they are also perpetually thorough, perpetually incisive.
It is impossible here not to mention Jean Smart as Helen, Mare’s mother, and if you thought there was no conceivable way that the star of everything from Designing Women to Fargo would be anything but fantastic, you were right. She’s arguably the show’s most resilient character, full of life despite being hammered by death, and is also the centerpiece of the two genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the five episodes that were made available to critics. She doesn’t exactly steal the scenes she’s in, but she very much captures them—and if you’re like me, you’ll leave wishing there was a spin-off focusing solely on the snippy, complex mother-daughter relationship between her and Winslet.
David Denman, best known for playing Roy on The Office, is excellent as Mare’s ex-husband Mark, Julianne Nicholson is excellent as Mare’s friend Lori, Angourie Rice is excellent as her teenage daughter Siobhan, Guy Pearce is excellent as the one-time novelist Richard Ryan, and I would go on and on if this weren’t already sounding redundant. It’s a tremendous cast buoyed by sensitive writing, each person part of a community but also an island isolated by his or her pain, right down to the victims (Cailee Spaeny is particularly excellent), their families (ditto Enid Graham as a grieving mother), the priests, and the small-minded bullies of Easttown. (The one character who didn’t pass muster, for me, is Sheehan’s partner Colin Zabel, an outside detective brought in to help crack the case, but who proves himself immediately submissive, uncertain, and mostly incompetent; a victim, perhaps, of the show’s unwillingness to feature a male character of equal strength to Mare Sheehan.)
We have come this far in a review of a crime show without really mentioning crime, which is a testament to the extent that Mare is a show about heartache, about weariness, about the battering qualities of life, more than it is about any murder. In fact, the crime angle is just so-so—that part of the story seems to remain out-of-focus, perhaps purposefully vague, even in moments of resolution. These are the sketches of a crime, never quite original, rather than the bracing thing itself. It’s not exactly ineffective, just under-emphasized, and if you’re comparing Mare to another prestige HBO crime series like True Detective, it’s worth knowing that while in the latter case, the crime is both metaphor and an urgent, appreciably complex case, in Mare it is mostly just the first.
Which is fine, because as a study of small-town American suffering this show gives us plenty. The plights of our time are all on display—poverty, depression, drug addiction, suicide—and the debilitating effects are handled with masterful subtlety. There can be a nagging tendency, when depicting “strong women,” to atone for years of under-representation on the screen by turning them into invulnerable super women, conflating the two genres—drama and comic book—that should be kept separate. Mare stands out for its realistic depictions of this strength, highlighting not just the impressive resilience of its women, but the ways in which the need for this resilience takes its toll, both over time and in harsh, shattering moments. When those characters falter, or even break, it only serves to highlight that underlying strength; these are portraits written and directed by human beings with a deep understanding of how life works on the psychological margins.
It is, in that sense, a strange show, and entirely unique. It probably couldn’t exist outside of a network like HBO with room to experiment, and even then likely needed a star of Winslet’s caliber before being greenlit. It is bound, I think, to be under-appreciated and under-discussed, a result of the middling crime story. Yet with a gray palette, it renders our small, collective suffering in stark shapes—a portrait of people desperate to connect, desperate to be fulfilled, as they stumble in near blindness through the pitfalls of a life that looks very different from their dreams.
Mare of Easttown premieres Sunday, April 18th on HBO
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