‘Mare of Easttown’: Kate Winslet Tackles Murder and Emotional Turmoil With Fantastic Grit

The starting point of HBO’s six-part limited series “Mare of Easttown” is a murder mystery. It then develops as an excellent thriller but along with the questions comes a stronger kind of drama. More important than the case is the character of Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), who pulls us into her orbit through an imperfect life. There’s something refreshing about a hero cop who can’t conjure incredible sleuth abilities or astonishing physical feats. We instantly relate to Mare because her obsession with solving cases can feel like those moments in life where everything, and everyone, seems to crash in on us. It’s an impressive return for director Craig Zobel, who returns to television to make something both refined and gritty. There are boiling tempers and violent impulses all around, but they’re almost side details to the more absorbing, individual stories involving characters all living confined in the same zip code.

As the title suggests, the story is set in Easttown, Pennsylvania. It’s one of those small American towns where class differences are stark and everyone knows each other. Detective Mare Sheehan is locally known for three things, only one of them positive. 25 years ago she scored the winning shot in a legendary high school basketball game, but recently her son committed suicide while an old friend resents Mare for not solving the case of her missing daughter. Life doesn’t let up and Mare lives now with mother Helen (Jean Smart), teenager gay daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and grandson Drew (Izzy King). Mare hopes to retain custody of Drew from her son’s ex, who is a recovering addict. Meanwhile Mare’s ex-husband Frank (David Denman) is also getting remarried, probably because he couldn’t cope with all of the emotional turmoil. Old ghosts come back when a young mother, Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), turns up murdered in a creek. Erin had been struggling with an overbearing father and useless ex-boyfriend with a vicious new girlfriend. Mare sees a psychologist to discuss it all, but solving this most recent case will truly test her resolve. 

For Craig Zobel “Mare of Easttown” is a welcome change of tone and pace after his 2020 “The Hunt,” a controversial action fest about liberals hunting MAGA conservatives that dropped right before Covid-19 shut the world down. “During ‘The Hunt’ and some of the TV I had done recently, I had been able to play around with the camera a bunch more. ‘The Hunt’ was of course a very heightened movie. But I come from indie roots in terms of directing drama, which feels like home to me. I wanted to do something naturalistic,” Zobel told Entertainment Voice about shooting the limited series. Filmed in a stark tone where Easttown feels enclosed and endlessly overcast, “Mare of Easttown” has the perfect ambiance for a story of many forces that clash in working class America. “I’m from the south. I live in Athens, Georgia and grew up in Atlanta. I was excited to go to this community, which isn’t necessarily the south, and get inside of its vibe,” said Zobel. The world of this series is so well evoked, you feel by the final episodes that if you were to walk into the screen, finding the local bar would be no problem. It is also a place where low-income women might look to prostitution to pay the bills and teens become parents too quickly. 

What the core murder mystery links together so well in the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby are the details of life in Easttown and how what happens to one person ripples into the homes of others. Emma’s death applies dual pressure on Mare because a key suspect could be the bullying daughter of someone Mare went to high school with. Even Frank gets pulled into the intrigue when questions arise over his behavior towards Emma as her high school teacher, and what about the local priest who left a previous parish under suspicious circumstances? The narrative then takes time to visit the lives of other side players, like Siobhan, who is making a documentary project for school about her brother’s suicide, while feeling attraction for a local radio DJ. There’s a continuous sense of many different lives in motion, which makes the world of “Mare of Easttown” feel incredibly vivid. “I hope that people who have never been to what they call the ‘collar counties’ in Philadelphia would still recognize it,” said Zobel. “I hope it seems familiar and a viewer can go, ‘oh, that’s my aunt or that’s just like my cousin.’ I hope people see it as a familiar place that they don’t judge as being an ‘other’ place, which might be a lot to ask for if you’re not from there. The writer, Brad Ingelsby, was from there and much of the crew. But someone like Kate Winslet, who is from another country, wanted us not to judge any of it.”

Kate Winslet undergoes one of her best transformations on screen since playing the frustrated suburban wife in “Revolutionary Road.” Her Mare is both strong and also lightly comic, endlessly drinking soda and chasing a burglar before flopping over a fence and winning a twisted ankle. She’s smart and alert to the ways of the world, but has been left vulnerable by heartbreak. Flashbacks of her late son’s spiral into addiction help explain why Mare is not a depressive, but someone still processing, and wondering how to even heal. When she meets a refined and nice writer, Richard (Guy Pearce), she’s not impressed at all by his fame. Richard invites her to an elegant party and Mare leaves when he takes too long to even acknowledge her. This also makes Mare a great hero, because she’s flawed yet cares. She desperately wants to find out who killed Emma, but is not above planting evidence in someone’s car. Her partner, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), is more of a by-the-book detective, but he can’t help but admire her sharp drive. “Kate had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do that she hadn’t done before with this character,” said Zobel. “That was the main draw for the entire project for me. I had never seen Kate be the lead of this kind of detective show. I could just see how different this would be in terms of what she usually does in her career and that was exciting. But a few weeks into it we had developed a communication level where we both knew what sounded like Mare and what didn’t. We both knew when we had found the Mare we were excited the most about.”

The suspense and tension of “Mare of Easttown” combine with a powerful sense of tragedy that still has flickers of hope. Mare may make mistakes and she is still haunted by the death of her son, but her determination to find out what happened to Emma proves she still has the will to fight. Another possibility for love emerges, in a way that might seem expected at first, but is pulled off by Zobel without clichés and instead with a very organic, mature feel. How the murder mystery begins to unravel also lacks false or tired action retreads. It’s almost in the foreground because the characters are the real focus. We sense the stress of Mare trying to do her job while trying to prove she can care for her grandson, while also trying to provide some guidance to Siobhan. If anything, the murder angle is a reminder that it’s a dangerous world out there and we’re lucky to make it out unscratched. “I hope it’s not too down,” said Zobel. “It’s not a depressing series. My drumbeat while making it is that yes, we’re tackling things that are down, but we’re not taking you down with it. I want to see this person who we would never see talk to a psychologist, go to a psychologist and talk about her feelings. It seems like a good thing to put on screen right now (laughs). We all need a little bit of that stuff.” 

Mare of Easttown” premieres April 18 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.