Kate Winslet’s ‘Mare of Easttown’ Is the Year’s First Great Crime Drama

·6 min read
Michele K. Short/HBO
Michele K. Short/HBO

Mare of Easttown is one of those shows that makes it hard to fall asleep after watching. It may not seem that way after its scene-setting, though still engrossing, premiere on HBO Sunday night, but the mystery-thriller speeds through a winding maze of twists, startling you after each hairpin plot turn.

Marketing materials tease the Kate Winslet-starring drama using a line of dialogue that compares solving one of the show’s crimes to finding “a needle in a thousand haystacks.” As the episodes unfold, in each of those haystacks is another disturbing grenade of information, just waiting to detonate.

You’d be excused for assuming Mare of Easttown, based on a first-episode impression, is the kind of crime drama you’ve seen before. “It’s like True Detective! Or Broadchurch! Or Top of the Lake!” you could rightfully recommend to a friend. That’s not meant as a deterrent; you’ve probably loved and devoured those shows.

Like those series, there’s meticulous crafting of a place and its people, transporting you to a fictionalized town in the Delaware County suburb of Philadelphia, both affectionately and self-deprecatingly referred to as “Delco” by locals. There’s an inescapable dourness, the chill of its winter setting manifesting in the pile-up of tragedy and pain experienced by the characters. And, like far too many HBO dramas before it, graphic acts of violence against women are central to the plot—at this point an exasperating, played-out device.

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But what starts as the familiar slow burn of those other shows—a close-knit community is rocked by a murder that a hardened local detective must investigate—quickly catches fire, becoming a powerful portrait of grief, trauma, and the devastating secrets buried in this claustrophobic town’s tangled web of relationships.

Critics were provided five of seven episodes to review. The panic attack I had watching the events of episode four and the way that, after five, I’m bereft at having to last one more minute without seeing the other two… Let’s just say that despite all the faults of the series, it’s one that knows how to hook you and then reel you in fast, like you’re being dragged through choppy waters by a speedboat.

Winslet, returning to television for the first time since her Emmy-winning turn in Mildred Pierce a decade ago, plays Mare, a local legend (she made an important shot in an important high school basketball game 25 years ago) who is now a veteran detective in the same town, investigating, as she describes it, all the “burglaries, overdoses, and the really bad crap that happens around here.”

Her born-and-bred ties to the community make her the first call for everyone, regardless of how beneath her pay grade the “emergency”—a neighbor wakes her up with a panicked phone call about a “peeper” she swears was spotted in the backyard. That she knows everyone and everyone knows her is both an asset and a roadblock to her job; an out-of-town detective (Evan Peters’ Colin Zabel) who joins her for a case can’t help but smirk each time it’s revealed that a suspect or witness is her cousin, childhood friend, or both.

But her local fame is hardly a bulletproof vest. The teenage daughter of one of her former high school teammates disappeared over a year ago, and her failure to provide any answers has started to draw the ire not just of the girl’s mother, but the entire town. When another tragedy befalls a local girl, they’re skeptical she can handle the case.

That the investigation consumes her only hastens her unraveling. She lives at home with her mother, Helen (Jean Smart, serving up a masterclass in how to steal a scene), her teenage daughter, and her 4-year-old grandson, who she’s raising following the death by suicide of her son (and the boy’s father). Her ex-husband lives in the house behind hers with his new fiancée, her grandson’s ex-addict mother is pursuing custody, and her friendships are tested as the case starts to involve those she’s known all her life.

You witness the weight of all this threatening to crush Mare, with Winslet showing how every step she takes requires effort: lifting her injured foot to move under the force of all her grief, fighting the attacks of her personal demons as they work against her ability to investigate the case. It’s a staggering, lived-in performance, the kind that Winslet hinted at in the recent period drama Ammonite, but brought down to earth in a way that escapes the blue-collar drag movie stars can sometimes wear in roles like this.

There will be much dissection to come of Winslet’s labor-intensive, at time distractingly mannered Delco accent, in which “water” becomes “wudder” and long “o” sounds terrorize the most basic of nouns: “phone” is “fewn” and “home” is “hewm.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Delco and around its defectors, and, honestly, every time you hear a strong version of the accent it sounds so outrageous that it’s hard to decipher if Winslet’s swing-for-the-fences attempt nails it or not.

She’s surrounded by a cast that does a more natural, subtle version of it, like Smart and Julianne Nicholson, who plays Mare’s best friend. But the accent is just one layer of the rare, multidimensional look at a community with generational roots that all intertwine. Supporting characters are rarely undeveloped plot devices or stereotypes. It’s not Tinseltown leering at a working-class area, but rather a clear-eyed look into people’s daily struggles and the ways those can avalanche into the kind of trauma you can’t outrun.

The relentless reminders of the violence that has been inflicted on the young girls at the center of the show’s mystery causes the show to skirt dangerously close to tragedy porn. Admirable space is given to the pain that not just Mare, but even tertiary characters, are enduring, which can sometimes settle like a fog of misery over the already dark and dreary Easttown.

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But unlike the recent I Know This Much Is True, whose onslaught of misfortune could be too much of an emotional slog to endure, Mare of Easttown finds the lightness and levity in survival and pushing through, because what else is there to do?

Peters’ Detective Zabel forms an amusing buddy-cop comic relationship with Mare, while Smart’s litany of deadpan, sardonic line deliveries—tossed off at Mare in a mother-daughter repartee familiar to anyone who has spent much time in close quarters with a parent—will surely be clipped and .GIF’d until the actress’ entire screen time has been meme’d.

Having not seen the final episodes—give them to me now, HBO!—I can’t speak to how the various threads are tied up, or whether it careens off the rails after an intriguing start, a la The Undoing. But even not taking into account how sleepy 2021 has been for TV dramas, this is one that whisks you away, even if it hits a few bumps in the road.

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