The new HBO mystery miniseries Mare of Easttown begins with establishing shots of its titular location in southeastern Pennsylvania. The sky is gray. The little houses, most of them built out of worn red brick, all sit on top of one another. Any paint in sight is faded and peeling. It is a depressing place, full of depressing people. When a newcomer tells Mare Sheehan herself (Kate Winslet) that the area seems OK to him, she replies, “Give it time.”
You cannot accuse Mare of Easttown of false advertising, that’s for sure. The tone of the show is as dour as those early glimpses of its setting, to the point where it can be unnerving in the rare moments where someone briefly smiles or, somehow, some way, laughs. Created by Brad Ingelsby (whose Ben Affleck movie The Way Back was also quite glum) and directed by Craig Zobel (The Leftovers), the series is well-acted and can at times be gripping, but it seems happiest when it’s wallowing in the suffering of Mare and everyone she knows.
Like the community in which she was born and raised, Mare has seen better days. She is lead detective of the Easttown Police, but her local celebrity stems from a winning high school basketball shot she made 25 years ago. And while she’s achieved some measure of success professionally, Mare’s family has imploded. She lives with her mother Helen (Jean Smart), teenage daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and grandson Drew (Izzy King), whom she’s raising in the aftermath of her troubled son Kevin’s death. Her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) has moved into a house whose backyard adjoins Mare’s. Everyone in town knows her, and vice versa, which comes in handy when she’s dealing with the burglaries and overdoses that are the area’s stock-in-trade, but which can create other complications. As the story begins, she is still brooding over the disappearance of the daughter of one of her high school teammates, and their friendship has fallen apart over Mare’s inability to get answers, or even to find the girl’s body.
Mare has put off calling in outside help on that case, but when a teenage girl turns up dead in a creek, her boss forces her into a partnership with Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), a young hotshot from the county police who can in theory look at things with more objectivity. This is a very familiar setup if you watch a lot of TV crime drama, with the insider-outsider dynamic between Mare and Zabel almost exactly like the Olivia Colman-David Tenant setup in the great U.K. drama Broadchurch(*), plus some sprinklings of Happy Valley and several others, too.
(*) There already was an attempt at an American Broadchurch — with Tenant essentially reprising his role, no less — but so few people watched it, Mare might as well be considered the remake.
This is Winslet at her most de-glammed. Aside from occasional scenes where Mare goes on dates with college professor Richard (Guy Pearce, in a reunion of Winslet’s last HBO project, Mildred Pierce), she’s in cheap, baggy clothes, with minimal makeup. She’s frequently stuffing her face with hoagies and cheesesteaks. (Mare naturally has strong recommendations for the best place in town to find each.) Her face is perpetually sour, and not just because Winslet has been publicly candid about her difficulty mastering the infamous “Delco” (Delaware County) accent, where “water” sounds like “wooder” and every long “o” will make you question the life choices that brought you to hearing it. Winslet mostly wrestles the dialect to the ground, but you can almost always hear the effort, where co-stars like Peters(*) or Julianne Nicholson, as Mare’s best friend Lori, take to it more naturally.
(*) Peters also has a scene where Zabel is the most convincingly drunk person on an HBO show since Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.
But if there’s an inescapable sense of blue-collar cosplay to Winslet’s performance and that of some of her co-stars, she’s still one of the best actors alive. She finds other ways to convey just how tired Mare is of what her life has become, and the lack of vanity goes well beyond skin-deep. Mare is an incredibly difficult person to be around, and neither Winslet nor the filmmakers flinch from that fact, nor from the bleak circumstances in which she and so many other characters find themselves.
The question remains whether suffering with Mare by proxy is noble or masochistic. As has been the case lately with HBO mysteries, critics weren’t given the finale, so I can’t speak to how satisfying the solution to the case is, nor to any closure, or lack thereof, regarding the familial and romantic entanglements in which Mare finds herself. But even though the performances, direction, and other technical aspects of the show are top-notch, it’s a tough watch whose early to middle chapters don’t provide the kind of emotional catharsis that justifies all the hardship. It’s not as punishing a slog as last spring’s bit of HBO awards bait, I Know This Much Is True — the larger ensemble (Smart’s delightful reaction shots especially) and the twisty narrative make Mare far more propulsive — but it often conflates misery with profundity.
Mare mostly does well treading over territory as well-worn as the fictionalized Easttown itself, but without that extra creative spark that’s elevated similar projects like True Detective and Top of the Lake above the grim story at their hearts. Maybe that’s OK for a show whose hero finds too-rare moments of pleasure from going to town on a can of Cheez Whiz and some crackers.
Mare of Easttown premieres April 18th on HBO. I’ve seen the first five of seven episodes.