There’s a scene in the second episode of Mare of Easttown, HBO’s new crime series, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I watched it. Mare, the show’s titular police detective (played by Kate Winslet), visits a rural spot where a girl’s body has been found and prepares to inform the girl’s father. “I’m on my way over to Kenny’s right now to tell him, and I want John and Billy to meet me there,” she tells her best friend on the phone. “Probably good to have his cousins there for him, you know?” When Kenny (Patrick Murney) learns what has happened, he closes his eyes, shakes his head, then explodes, smashing random objects around him and shoving the other men as they half-hug, half-restrain him. Mare watches them from a distance, her gaze sympathetic but unsurprised. She knew exactly how Kenny would respond, and understood, too, that she would not have been safe with him and his grief.
Crime dramas are frequently informed by their setting. Some of the superlative crime dramas of the past few years have shrewdly used their locale for dramatic impact: Think the relentlessly crashing waves of Broadchurch, or the oppressive midwestern humidity of Sharp Objects, or the moody, primitive mountains of Top of the Lake. But Mare of Easttown is something else, a drama that, in exploring the bonds between its characters and the nature of its crimes, tells a story richly defined by place. On a Peeping Tom call early in the first episode, Mare tells a woman that she typically investigates “the burglaries and the overdoses and all the other really bad crap that’s been going on around here”—hallmarks of an exurban area where the opioid crisis has left its mark. Murder is uncommon, but violence is predictable, a fact of life that the show explores with understated specificity.