To say Mare of Easttown is high-concept mystery storytelling would be a lie. A young girl has been murdered. The case is assigned to a troubled officer on the force. A town known for being a safe place creates an unforeseen paranoia. This story has certainly been told, especially on television, becoming the ultimate subgenre of murder mysteries. Similar series have stumbled due to a lack of talent or miscast roles. However, Mare of Easttown features a surprising Kate Winslet that compliments the performances and narrative. While the series is driven by its star, director Craig Zobel and writer Brad Ingelsby tease out a fascinating mystery. The resulting limited series is endlessly entertaining despite its dark subject matter.
Mare of Easttown follows the titular detective after a young girl is murdered. Mare (Winslet) has many connections in town and is somewhat of a local legend for her high school athletic accomplishments. The young girl’s death comes around the first anniversary of another murder, which has remained unsolved. With public pressure mounting, Mare struggles to balance her professional and personal lives. Her ex-husband becomes engaged, her son passed after committing suicide, and her daughter-in-law is seeking custody of Mare’s grandson. A new partner (Evan Peters) and a romantic tryst (Guy Pearce) add new relationships and roadblocks for Mare’s already chaotic life.
Despite a bizarre accent and a generally unlikable demeanor, Winslet dives headfirst into the material. Donning a hard-boiled northeastern accent and flippant attitude, Mare has missed her opportunity to get out of a small town continue to haunt her. There’s some question about whether she chose this life or it was foisted upon her. Her attitude suggests that she might have issues with authority, but even that gives way to genuine care and concern about her family and her image in the small town. Winslet has played this kind of character before, with elements of her Wonder Wheel and Contagion characters sneaking into the performance. However, there’s a hardened edge within Mare that Winslet does not traditionally embrace. If Winslet were to feed this persona, she might unlock an interesting next stage of her legendary career.
Ingelsby builds on his credentials as a small-town character study writer. With The Way Back and Out of the Furnace finding success, Mare of Easttown marries a down-on-their-luck character with a criminal world defined by violence. Mare is not the only one seemingly stuck in place, as her family, friends, and an out-of-town author (Pearce) seemed trapped in the purgatory that is Easttown. Despite the ever-present bleakness, Ingelsby and Zobel build texture into the town. Interpersonal and familial relationships are laid bare in Mare’s interactions, opening the door to the more private lives of others.
Zobel’s camerawork and pacing elucidate the purgatorial feel of Easttown. Based on angles and blocking, the world feels small for our characters. He combines close-up shots for both interior and exterior settings. The darkness of the woods delivers a feeling of dread, and characters often return to the environment again and again. The only areas that feel open are a basketball gym and a lonely creek where the body of a dead girl lies. The theme of being trapped in an all-consuming, even draining place is revised visually and narratively. The combination of Zobel and Ingelsby build off each other and create a tonal harmony few series can carry.
Mare of Easttown might be confined by its played-out genre, but it also provides new turns on a familiar song. Winslet does not deliver an all-consuming profile on grief and loss, but her performance elevates the tone of the series in a way that a grander performance would distract from. Her ability to read what is needed from her and deliver a subtle, tortured performance within the confines of the series is why she remains one of our best actresses. HBO has another hit on their hands, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited for the episodes to come.