Breaking down the stunning conclusion of 'Mare of Easttown'

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A woman getting out of her car in the woods
Kate Winslet in the series finale of "Mare of Easttown." (Michele K. Short/HBO)

The following contains major spoilers from the seventh and final episode of “Mare of Easttown.”

As HBO's crime drama "Mare of Easttown" has entered the zeitgeist in recent weeks, columnist and culture critic Mary McNamara and staff writer Meredith Blake have traded thoughts on the death of Det. Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) in Episode 5 and theories as to who killed Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) after the cliffhanger of Episode 6. Now, after meeting over video conference from Los Angeles and New York to watch Sunday's highly anticipated finale together, the pair breaks down the series' stunning conclusion.

Mary McNamara: I'm not going to say I told you so, but I did tell you so, and I have the Slack messages to prove it. Sorry. I just had to say that.

I went into this finale with three expectations: The murder of Erin McMenamin would be solved. It would not be who we were led to believe it was (a pretty neat trick because so many characters had been presented as likely suspects over the course of the show). The revelation would take a lot of ’splaining and likely force viewers to choose between the surprise and the show. So many series become so intent on pulling off a shocking reveal that the final episode can feel more like a narrative magic trick than an actual resolution to the events that preceded it.

Amazingly, this was not the case in "Mare of Easttown." All along, the show has played with the dangers of assuming that familiarity equals understanding. Mare (Kate Winslet) is initially presented as the classic ground-down cop, if not world-weary then Easttown-weary: She believes she knows what's going on with Betty Carroll and her worries about a teenage creeper; with Dawn's (Enid Graham) missing daughter, who Mare is convinced is dead; with Zabel's abilities and feelings toward her; with her own mental health in the wake of her son's suicide. Alongside her, we surveyed the endless list of possible suspects in Erin's murder — her ex-boyfriend, his current girlfriend, Erin's father, Mare's ex-husband, the over-involved priest and, as we made our way through the penultimate episode, Billy Ross (Robbie Tann) or John Ross (Joe Tippett), off on the most menacing fishing expedition since Neri took Fredo out on Lake Tahoe.

Over and over, Mare discovered that there were loads of things she did not know about the people she had grown up with and the town she had never left, and over and over she had to be reminded that she was not "Mare of Easttown," she was Det. Sgt. Mare Sheehan of Easttown.

If I'm honest, there were many times when I just wished Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson would pop up to say, "I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Mare," but then Marge is an impossibly high standard.

And Mare got there in the end. (Please notice how I have given readers plenty of time to bail so they don't scream, "Spoiler!")

The revelation that Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann) had killed Erin was a plot twist that made actual sense, both logistically and thematically. (It also demands that Guy Pearce get a newly created Emmy for "Most Effective Red Herring in a Limited Series or TV Movie." Seriously? He was just there to date/sleep with Mare for a spell?) The show was about family, about the bonds between parents and children, both how strong and how warped they can become. Although I wasn't thrilled with the obvious twist tipoff of Mare wrapping up the fishing-trip showdown so quickly — you and I both wondered, "Um, we're only five minutes in so ... obviously this is not the answer" — I felt like the episode recovered its pacing and gave us both narrative surprise and emotional closure. What did you think?

Meredith Blake: You can say, “I told you so,” because you did, in fact, tell me so! Maybe you should take your resume down to the Easttown PD. I hear they’re down a detective. (Sorry, too soon?)

You called it all along: It was Ryan, Lori’s son and also, it turns out, the ferrety-looking intruder Mare was called to investigate at the Carrolls' house way back in the very first scene of the series.

I, on the other hand, was wrong about John and especially wrong about Richard, and I owe him and the struggling novelists turned creative writing professors of the world an apology: You are not psychopaths. At least not all of you.

Like you, Mare, I was ultimately impressed by how well Brad Ingelsby and Craig Zobel stuck the landing and pulled off a surprise (or semi-surprise) that didn’t just feel like a cheap gimmick — one that arguably elevated the series by providing closure, tying together many of the themes that have been percolating under the surface for the past six weeks, and, most important of all, gave Julianne Nicholson and Kate Winslet a chance to really chew the scenery together.

A woman looking forlorn on a sofa
Julianne Nicholson as Lori in "Mare of Easttown." (Michele K. Short/HBO)

If John had been the killer, as appeared to be the case roughly 2.5 seconds into this episode, then we’d have a very unsatisfying twist — it wasn’t the one sketchy brother, it was the other one! — an hour of airtime to fill and a show that is basically all about creepy older men and damage they inflict (though that’s still there). Instead, “Mare of Easttown” winds up being a more complicated tale about the way our family and community can both sustain and destroy us.

As you say, so much of the show is ultimately about the bond between parents and their children. I would take it a step further to say it’s about the desperate and even self-destructive lengths people will go to to protect their loved ones — or at least keep their families intact — and the anguish and guilt of falling short. Ryan steals Mr. Carroll’s gun and whips it out at Erin in an impulsive bid to salvage his parents' marriage. Then Lori lies to her best friend and lets her husband take the fall for murder in order to protect her son. We got a smaller taste of this when Mare planted drugs on Carrie, a plot twist that might have been over the top but was thematically consistent with the rest of the show.

I appreciated the elegant way the episode unfolded, with several quietly played but powerful moments of emotional resolution — especially the “forgive yourself” scene between Mare and Helen — building to the inevitable final twist, and how Ingelsby closed the circle by bringing us back to Mr. Carroll’s house for the big reveal. (Here’s where I brag about having a vague hunch that the Rodent-Faced Intruder subplot was going to lead somewhere. Though I have to ask: Does Ryan really look like a ferret?)

Although I still have some lingering questions — just who was that Winston-smoking creep kidnapping all those girls? How do you say Erin’s last name again? Would Siobhan (Angourie Rice) really have gotten into UC Berkeley out of state that easily? — the core mystery has been solved. And I, for one, found the resolution …. surprisingly satisfying?

The-kid-did-it twist is possibly too much, and I'm sure some will balk at it, but it worked for me. Did you have any quibbles with it? Do you think viewers will be mad at the ending of "Mare" the way they were with, say, "The Undoing"?

McNamara: I would totally like to see side-by-sides of the main characters of "Mare" and "The Undoing" — Winslet definitely got the short end of the coat allowance. I think the ending was surprising enough, and made enough narrative sense, that everyone should be happy with it. Julianne Nicholson was simply sublime in all the extremely challenging scenes she had — the agonizing farewell scene with Ryan, the furious exchange with Mare, then her miraculous collapse into a Pieta pose with Mare. The show may belong to Winslet, but Nicholson owned the finale, and if she doesn't win an Emmy there is no point in Emmys.

In many ways, "Mare" was a good, old-fashioned "manor house" mystery, with an admirable number of red herrings and side plots to keep the detectives busy and the audience wondering what was significant and what was not. The ease with which Siobhan slid into Berkeley — as an out-of-state student! — not to mention the family's ability to afford it (again, as an out-of-state student!) was no doubt more hot button than Inglesby intended (with the UCs once again pledging to let more California kids in, the timing was pretty terrible). I did often feel like Siobhan was in a completely different show, and I'm not sure what Mare is planning to do regarding childcare now she's gone, but her subplot, like Helen's Manhattan parties, did keep the show from becoming too grim.

I do wish we had had some follow through on the Winston-smoking rapist. In the end, he was much more of a bad guy than poor old Ryan and everyone who covered for him, though I did appreciate the fact that no one soft-pedaled the shooting as "an accident," and I hope it serves as a reminder to all handgun owners to lock their weapons up. I also feel like we never got a full picture of Erin, who did have a lot of relationships with older guys but after the first episode sort of disappeared into the anonymity of the body in the library.

What I love more than anything is American television adopting the British model of getting A-listers involved in murder mysteries. In the U.K., it feels like a condition of employment — if you are going to be a famous actor, you will play a detective at some point in your career. I think "Mare" proves why that's so; as murder mystery fans know, you really can't beat a good whodunit.

Blake: Oooh, I love the idea of “Mare” as an American Rust Belt version of a manor house mystery, only instead of an 18th century estate it’s a circa-1972 split-level house in suburban Philadelphia. (If you guessed it was Ryan in Brandywine Park with the antique detective pistol, you win!) Speaking of which ... I will say I was a little disturbed by all the stray loaded guns in this episode. They seemed to be stuffed into every random tackle box and backyard shed in Easttown. I know it’s Pennsylvania, but come on!

But your point about the British TV model makes me wonder something: HBO has a track record of star-studded limited series that wind up being not that limited. I am sure there will be speculation about a possible follow-up to “Mare of Easttown,” given its popularity, acclaim and likely Emmy nominations. And it does seem like the door has been left ever so slightly ajar. There is the matter of Mr. Winston Smoker, and Mare’s not completely resolved relationship with Richard, who was expeditiously whisked off to teach at Bates College. As Stephen King and Jessica Fletcher can both tell you, small-town Maine is a great location for murder, intrigue and tricky regional accents. Sign me up.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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