This column contains spoilers for the finale of Mare of Easttown, available now on HBO and HBO Max.
For a show whose characters seemed congenitally incapable of smiling or experiencing joy, Mare of Easttown inspired a lot of amusing side discussions among its audience. There was the analysis of all the thick DelCo accents, with some viewers offering up their own versions. There were screencaps and GIFs of Kate Winslet as Mare eating hoagies and cheesesteaks and spray cheese, and loving tributes to Evan Peters making himself the King of Screen Drunk Acting for the wonderful scene where Colin Zabel (RIP) threw himself at Mare at a bar.
But there was a nerve-wracking party game, too: Would Mare stick the landing, or would it go full Undoing in the finale?
HBO actually has a pretty good track record in recent years when it comes to resolving its prestige mystery miniseries. The initial run of Big Little Lies ended very well (continuing the show beyond its first season was the problem), as did Sharp Objects. But the inert, helicopter-abetted Undoing finale was a historical stinker, the kind that casts a long shadow over any remotely similar project that follows. As the next bit of homicidal awards bait in the rotation, Mare had a lot of pressure to wrap up its stories in a way that didn’t inspire bitter profanity (preferably pronounced with a lot of long-O sounds).
The series had already gotten a head start on answering questions with the tense (albeit very indebted to both Silence of the Lambs and Happy Valley) sequence at the end of the fifth episode where Mare and Zabel stumble into the lair of the man who had kidnapped Katie Bailey and Missy Sager. Both Mare and Zabel (who died when the kidnapper proved quicker on the draw) had assumed the kidnappings were related to the murder of Erin McMenamin, but it turns out the kidnapper was out of town at the time of Erin’s death, and his overall MO was very different. So this left two episodes for Mare to identify Erin’s killer and his or her motive; to solve ancillary mysteries like why Erin’s boyfriend Dylan and her friend Jess had destroyed her journals; and to offer some emotional closure for Mare and her family as they continued to reel from the suicide of Mare’s son Kevin, as well as the custody battle over Kevin’s son Drew with Drew’s recovering addict mother Carrie.
And these final chapters accomplished all of that. It wasn’t always graceful, but the finale, titled “Sacrament,” felt like the proper and satisfying conclusion — emotionally, if not always plot-wise — to all that had come before.
The sixth episode ended on a cliffhanger: Mare believed that Erin had been killed by the real father of baby DJ, Erin’s cousin Billy Ross (Robbie Tann). She was heading to confront Billy and his brother John (Joe Tippett) at their father’s fishing cabin, when Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) was presented with a photo suggesting that Mare didn’t understand what really happened. We open with the Ross brothers trying to fish even as both are aware of the gun John has hidden in his tackle box, presumably to use on Billy. We see that the photo is of John — who had a history of cheating on his wife, Mare’s best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) — in bed with Erin, and realize that he is planning to kill Billy as a patsy to cover up his own crimes. Mare arrives at the river — the first of two times in this episode when her mere presence changes everything for the member of the Ross family who sees her — and John’s plans abruptly change to suicide. He’s foiled by both Billy and Mare, who wrestle the gun away as John pleads for Mare to just kill him.
All of this action unfolds within the first few minutes of “Sacrament,” leaving anyone watching to recognize that there has to be at least one more twist coming. The Ross family is clearly involved in some way with Erin’s death, which eliminates Mare’s boyfriend Richard as a suspect, even though Guy Pearce is perhaps too famous to just be playing the love interest in a mystery like this(*). So that leaves two candidates for our final twist: Lori, because Nicholson is also arguably too familiar to be relegated to the supportive friend role, or John and Lori’s son Ryan (Cameron Mann), who has come across as more troubled than a boy might be solely from knowing about his father’s adultery.
(*) Pearce (who co-starred in Winslet’s last HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce) was a last-minute replacement for Ben Miles from The Crown, who’s just barely anonymous enough (especially in America) not to invoke our reflexive assumption that the most recognizable person in the story who doesn’t otherwise have plot utility must be the bad guy. Richard, it turns out, is just in the story as part of Mare’s larger journey towards allowing herself to be happy again. And he doesn’t do or say anything to cast suspicion on himself beyond who is playing him. But the Winslet-Pearce chemistry has its unplanned tradeoffs.
This can be dangerous territory for a long-form TV mystery to enter, because the audience can feel just as frustrated by not having predicted the killer’s identity than if they did. In the former case, it seems like the show hasn’t played fair; in the latter, it seems predictable. What Mare creator Brad Ingelsby understands is that it’s less important to surprise the audience than to surprise the characters. When Mare realizes, via a conversation with widower Glen Carroll (Patrick McDade), that the real killer was Ryan(*) — who stole the distinctive murder weapon from Glen’s shed, having seen it when he mowed the Carroll family’s lawn(**) — it is perhaps not jaw-dropping to us, but it sure is to Mare. Winslet plays the scene, and the ones that follow, with the amount of gravity and anguish Mare would feel at this time, knowing from unspeakable personal experience what her best friend is about to go through.
(*) Some of John and Billy’s earlier conversations — particularly John insisting that he needs to hear Billy say that he killed Erin — are a bit confusing. But they make sense when you step out and consider that the brothers helped cover up Ryan’s crime, and that Billy, depressed and without a wife or children to leave behind, was preparing to confess to the crime to continue the cover-up. John, in turn, must have decided that the best way to protect his son would be to fake Billy’s suicide and hope his death prevented Mare from investigating any further. Like a lot involving the Rosses — including the very late-in-the-game introduction of their father Pat (Gordon Clapp) to implicate Billy for the crime — it’s clumsy, but more or less makes sense.
(**) More confusion: Glen’s conversation with Mare seems to imply that the gun was missing for days, when Ryan will later say that he returned it that night. But it lines up when you think of it like this: 1)Ryan steals the gun shortly before killing Erin; 2)Glen hears the noise, checks the shed while Ryan is off confronting Erin, and finds the gun missing; 3)Ryan returns the gun later that night, while Glen is asleep; 4)Glen doesn’t check the shed again for several days, and thus doesn’t realize how quickly it was returned. As with the John and Billy material, the presentation requires the viewer to step a bit too far out of the story to follow it all — not ideal in the emotionally fraught climax of the whole thing — but the math checks out.
This brings us to the second opportunity for Mare to play world-destroyer yet again, as she watches Ryan during recess at school, until their eyes lock and he takes off running for his house and the protection of his mother’s arms. And here we see that Nicholson wasn’t hired to shockingly play the killer, but because she, like Winslet, has the capacity to reach down into an almost bottomless depth of despair when the moment calls for it. Lori as a murderer who has been deceiving her cop buddy for weeks would be a cheap attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience; Lori as a mom trying desperately to cover for her son’s fatal mistake (and only doing that towards the very end of the story) fits right in with the series’ larger themes about grief and pain and the moral compromises we make for the people we love.
Nicholson and Winslet share a bunch of incredible scenes over the back half of the episode, starting with Mare walking in on Lori and Ryan hugging through tears, then jumping to a relieved Ryan explaining what happened while his mother sits next to him looking utterly hollowed-out, then to a righteously vengeful Lori ordering Mare out of her car, and finally — especially — to the reconciliation that comes near the end.
Mare has heard Deacon Mark (James McArdle) — another of the story’s red herrings — lecture the entire congregation about the importance of forgiving all the people who sinned in the events surrounding Erin’s death. “Our job is only to love,” Mark preaches. “So I urge you to go to them. They’ll push you away, they’ll lock you out, they’ll tell you they’re not deserving of your mercy. Don’t let them.” It’s enough for Mare to walk down the street to Lori’s house, where the door is once again unlocked, and to simply be there for her friend. Lori doesn’t scream, doesn’t curse, even offers to make Mare a cup of tea, and her friend’s physical proximity allows her to finally unleash all the anguish she’s been feeling for months, until finally she can’t even stand anymore and the two wind up sitting on the kitchen floor together.
This, ultimately, is the kind of moment that stays in the memory longer than a clever revelation of who killed whom, and why. And it’s clear that these emotional moments — see also Carrie (Sosie Bacon) apologetically going back to rehab and giving up the custody fight, or Mare encouraging daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) to be the one member of the family to get the hell out of Easttown, or that final, beautifully simple shot of the attic ladder, as Mare goes up alone to have an overdue reckoning with the memory of Kevin’s death — are what Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel care about much more than the mystery.
Mare doesn’t exactly end happily. Erin is still dead. Her father and Billy and John are in prison. Ryan seems to be emotionally healthier when his mom and siblings visit him in juvenile detention, but imagine what kind of relationship he and Erin’s son DJ (now being raised by Lori) will have when DJ is old enough to understand his own tragic history(*). Mare has made peace with ex-husband Frank (David Denman) and mother Helen (Jean Smart), and together they’ll care for adorable young Drew (Izzy King), but Carrie will keep trying to get clean and keep trying to get custody. Siobhan goes off to Berkeley, but she’ll always have the memory of finding Kevin’s body hanging from the attic rafters to haunt her.
(*) There’s also some sketchiness involving Dylan (Jack Mulhern), who believed he was DJ’s biological father. The finale explains that he and Jess (Ruby Cruz) burned Erin’s journals so no one would find out DJ’s true parentage and take him away from Dylan’s mom and dad; he threatened her in the penultimate episode to try to keep that secret. But those earlier scenes were pitched at a more nefarious level than that, which is the peril of trying to make everyone seem like a murder suspect for as long as possible.
Still, the series ends in a relatively hopeful place, especially considering how often Mare could feel like misery porn early in its run. Before Mare makes the horrible discovery about Mr. Carroll’s gun, he asks for her advice on coping with the death of his wife, knowing all the tragedy Mare herself has had to endure in recent years. Mare shares some of what she’s learned in therapy, admitting that things never quite get easier, “But after a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.” That’s a lesson that applies even outside the grim confines of a place like Easttown.