Michele K. Short/HBO
Kate Winslet's mesmerizing portrayal of a small-town detective in 'Mare of Easttown' not only reveals her character's grief but also our own.
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Mare of Easttown is, in essence, like every other crime show: A surly, lonesome detective given a new case that eerily echoes the one case she couldn’t crack—and both cases conjuring the ravenous ghost of her past, its jaws coated in blood and foam, threatening to pull her down in the dirt if she doesn’t solve this one. Small town in mourning. Younger, less savvy partner with their moments of surprising insight. We think we know the killer—but no, it’s a twist! A grimily claustrophobic chase and shoot-out redeems the old case but doesn’t solve the current one. We think we know the killer now, for real—or do we?
Crime shows have never appealed to me: Despite the feminist pedigree of shows like Top of the Lake and The Fall, my heart chafes at making entertainment from the bodies of violated and murdered women or making the agony of a missing girl into a twisty whodunnit. I generally don’t even keep the old-school Law and Order on as background chatter. Yet I started watching out of my lingering affection for Kate Winslet. I’m hardly alone in my Sunday night viewing. At a time when we’re reassessing the cultural yen for copaganda—the uncomplicated appreciation for shows where police officers are unquestioned heroes—Mare of Easttown has become a bonafide hit, launching fleets of memes, podcasts, parodies, and as close to watercooler conversations we can have in the digital workspace. Nothing about the show is particularly original. It doesn’t have the abiding pathos of The Wire; the wackily meme-worthy McConaughey-isms of True Detective season one; or the deconstructionist verve of Watchmen.
However, what it does have is Kate Winslet. And the dark gift of timing.
Winslet’s portrayal of bristling exhaustion provides a likely unintentional, yet wholly undeniable encapsulation of what it’s been like to live through the past year and a half. In pandemic time, the days slur together in a stultifying sameness that is both boring and suffused with dread. Mare is a former champion athlete, the famous “Lady Hawk,” who scored a game-winning shot in a high school basketball game, and now a middle-aged, divorced mother of two. Not just a mother, a harried and fretful grandmother, watching her young grandson for signs of the “tics” that heralded the mood and neurological disorders which eventually drove her beloved son to addiction and suicide. Winslet allows the weight of those years, fleeting joys ground up in the maw of so much disappointment, to bear down on her movements. Even before Mare sprains her ankle chasing after a suspect in the first episode, there is a deep, abiding fatigue in her every gesture, as if the act of simply moving forward is an obscene ask.
After she’s injured, Mare walks like she’s pushing through molasses; there’s a slight hiccup in her step. That unconscious weariness is when the show started feeling like something other than a routine prestige premium-cable drama. Mare isn’t just another “strong female protagonist” whose “unlikability,” i.e., bluntness or assertiveness or “female rage,” is not-so-secretly a virtue, winkingly coded as a vice—she’s been so goddamn hurt that she’s not above doing genuinely destructive things, like planting drugs on the mother of her grandson, who’s trying to get clean and regain custody. Or taking advantage of her young partner’s attraction to her to stay attached to the case after the aforementioned drug-planting gets her suspended. Even a scene where Mare barges into the home her teacher ex-husband shares with his new fiancé to ask for a DNA sample to prove he’s not the father of his murdered student’s young son teeters on a knife blade of a tightrope between viciousness and tar-dark humor. Because yes, it’s a chance for Mare to get revenge on him for having the happier life, but also she’s been too tired for too long to care about the niceties of say, asking him to step into another room.
The town itself becomes a labyrinthian membrane of grief—the violence, incest, and neglect of its parents creating children who lose themselves to addiction. Even parents like Mare and her ex, who try to get their son the best medical treatment, ultimately fail. Mare of Easttown debuted at a time when we are just beginning to reckon with the generational trauma of so much loss—loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of hope—loss that cannot be easily quelled by electing a better class of white men in leadership or by getting vaccinated alone.
The aftershocks of four years of unceasing toxicity continue to cleave open the fault lines in this country, and there are things we can’t un-know about the people we grew up with, work beside, or live among. At the zenith of the pandemic, before the election, I moved in with my elderly parents; I watched my father’s deepening descent into a dementia that only magnified his pre-existing narcissism and paranoia, manifest in a singular obsession with increasingly brutal right-wing media. The unrelenting ugliness, and the sense that there was no way out of it, got to me. When my father’s doctor offered to put him on a new medication that could lessen some of his nastiness, but came with risk of stroke, I quipped that, with the cost of health care, that stroke better kill him. I was tired, too. Like Mare, I wonder if my better, kinder days are behind me. Or if it matters that this wonder feels dimmer, more distant every day, as I realize that I’ve resigned myself to the bitterness of this new normal because the old normal isn’t always worth pining for.
Mare’s inner life is saturated, almost calcified in grief. Her father, who she describes as her best friend, she lost to suicide decades before her son takes his life; the grandson she’s about to lose to a girl she can’t trust. Then, the partner, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters, who should be liberated from the Ryan Murphy–verse ASAP), gunned down right in front of her. Though Mare of Easttown initially presents as a murdered-girl drama, the cycle of loss that animates Mare involves young men. At the end of the fifth episode’s bravura shoot-out, after Mare has gunned down the vile predator who’s kidnapped and imprisoned teenage girls, she stares down at Zabel’s dead body. Memories of her son as a happy child at the beach play across the screen in flashes, the merry chirp of his voice superimposed over Winslet’s face in a rictus of shock; in that thousand-yard-stare, there is a deepening horror and sorrow that spreads with the thickness of the blood pooling on the floor around her.
For days after that sequence—Mare bleeding from a bullet wound as she evades the monster before she can pummel him with a piece of scrap, delivering vengeance for the girls he took, for the innocent kid he gunned down, and for all that the sickness and cruelty of the world have stolen from her; then, finally, ending him with a single, well-placed shot—I thought of all the grand, galvanizing scenes where a heroine has to summon her inner strength. Captain Marvel standing up to face her enemy against a montage of all the times she would not be defeated. Wonder Woman taking flight. Beatrix Kiddo punching through a coffin. Imperator Furiosa brawling atop moving big rigs. Then I thought of how distant such grand scenes can feel, these days. How Mare conjuring her old athletic power and grace in the service of her own survival—and to take those girls out of hell—feels like the smaller, more hardscrabble heroism of our moment.
Even the series finale ends up less about the satisfaction of preemptively solving a Rubik’s cube of a show than watching a woman, who has been mired in fathomless grief and rage, find the courage and the righteousness to do the right thing—even if it is unbearably hard. But even within that hard moment, she finds grace. In one of the final, most affecting scenes in the series, Mare comforts her best friend, Lori, whose terrified, impetuous son ends up being the killer. Lori, finally allowed to simply let go after a year of keeping the world on her shoulders, slumps in Mare’s arms, dragging them both, gently, to the floor.
There is pain here but also compassion. A sense of hope that may be tender, perhaps too tender to ultimately survive, but is here, now. “You learn to live with the unacceptable,” Mare tells a widower who asks her how she endures the loss of her son. It may well be the mantra for those of us who are trying to figure out how we’re supposed to re-enter a world that feels cold and strange. We don’t make our way in this world, so much as hopscotch over landmines and hope to land on some peace of mind. In this world, Mare is the hero we get, and the hero we deserve.
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