The Real Twist of Mare of Easttown

In the HBO show’s finale, the impulses to care and to crime-solve collide. But the miniseries has thoughtfully explored how the two aren’t always mutually exclusive.

Mare (played by Kate Winslet) in 'Mare of Easttown'
Michele K. Short / HBO

This article contains spoilers through the entirety of Mare of Easttown.

Mare of Easttown is a strange name for a prestige television show: clunky, nondescriptive, homonymic. (“So she’s the mayor?” people might ask if you recommend the series, and in a way, she is.) “Mare” is short for “Marianne,” the latter of which befits Kate Winslet’s scruffy, vape-slurping Delaware County detective about as naturally as the ancient, crumb-encrusted lipstick she digs out of a drawer in the second episode. Mare inhales cheesesteaks without pausing for breath; she runs headlong into cursed attics and bottles up her feelings like home brew. But she also has a mission that’s a kind of curse. Mare sounds like mère, the French word for “mother,” and Easttown as it’s portrayed in Brad Ingelsby’s HBO miniseries is a fascinating matriarchy. The men in the show fight, cheat, steal, throw milk bottles impetuously through windows, recoil at the sight of blood. It’s left to the women, the mothers, to do the things that matter.

The particularly awful irony of the Mare finale, which aired tonight, was that its protagonist, a woman who deflected the pain of losing her own child by trying to save others, ends up implicated in taking so many mothers’ children away. There’s the grieving mother of Mare’s short-lived detective partner, Colin Zabel (played by Evan Peters), who slaps Mare so hard when she goes to give her condolences that all Mare can do is mutely cup her cheek in response. There’s Carrie (Sosie Bacon), the mother of Mare’s grandchild, who forgoes her custody battle after she relapses on drugs. And, most agonizingly of all, there’s Lori (Julianne Nicholson), Mare’s best friend, whose middle-schooler son, Ryan (Cameron Mann), is revealed finally as the killer of Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), his cousin. If Mare hadn’t solved the case, she tells her therapist toward the end of the finale, Lori would “still have her family.”

I’m not sure that Mare of Easttown was a flawless show. Its efforts over seven weeks to spin out its intrigue by hurling red herrings—Frank did it! No, the deacon! No, Dylan! Billy did it! Or was it John?—left too many loose ends for my taste. Was Dylan really dragging poor Jess out from under a car and waving a gun in her face over a simple photograph? Could we not learn more about Wayne Potts, the serial abductor and abuser of young women? Was it really crucial to hear so much about poor baby DJ’s ear surgery? And yet, what the show lacked in totally elegant plotting, it made up for with world-building, superlative acting, and a sense that it was often in on the joke. “Murdur Durdur,” Saturday Night Live’s pastiche about a “grizzled lady detective … with a very specific accent” who scolded cops for getting their Wawa hoagies on the corpse, was only slightly more excessive than the show it satirized. Part of the Mare finale’s grand reveal comes about when an old man notices a few things missing from his suburban home: a pizza cutter, his “Iggles” cup, and a Colt pistol.

Shows about brilliant female investigators with complicated personal lives are a dime a dozen, and more often than not they end up trafficking in a tired trope—that their professionalism requires paring down, if not sacrificing altogether, the most stereotypically feminine parts of themselves, like their empathy or their maternal instincts. What I appreciated about Mare in the end was the ways in which it tweaked that formula. Mare is a good but imperfect cop, a good but imperfect mother and grandmother. She’s not a bully on a power trip or a workaholic who neglects her own offspring to save others. She makes awful, fatal mistakes. (“If my son had not followed you into that house, he would still be alive,” Colin’s mother tells her.) Her decision to plant heroin on her grandson’s mother to try to keep custody is egregious, even as the show details how terrified Mare is of losing another child.

Mare is, in many ways, a stereotypical fictional detective: rude, alcohol-swilling, remarkably observant. But she’s also guided by an impulse that’s relatively novel in crime stories, which is the maternal imperative. Mare’s investigative work is inextricable from her close relationships with people in her town, which in turn are impossible to separate from the semi-mythic status she has as a high-school-basketball hero and a trusted cop. Her authority is unmistakably matriarchal, and personal. Part of Mare’s rage in the first episode, when Katie Bailey’s mother gives a press conference about the Easttown police force’s failure to find her missing daughter, stems from Mare’s own sense of defeat. Having grieved her son after he died by suicide makes her particularly zealous about rescuing others. Her compassion toward addicts in her hometown comes from her personal connection to many of them (Freddie, a burglary suspect in the first episode, is the brother of one of Mare’s friends), but also from her own experience of having a child with an addiction. We’re so used to seeing cops on TV act out and bash heads and cross the line. But we’re not used to seeing them motherize their job in the way that Mare does, for better and for worse.

What the finale proved, though, is that the impulses to care and to crime-solve can eventually collide. The questionable personal biases Mare showed in the first few episodes as the one-woman arbiter of justice in Easttown were challenged by a case in which her duty to the town overruled her duty to her friend. By the show’s conclusion, she’s accepted that she can’t let herself personally determine who deserves to be found guilty and who doesn’t. To bring justice to Erin, a murdered girl, she has to arrest a teenage boy with whom she’s intimately connected. “This one thing,” Lori tells her in the car, sobbing. “Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” Viewers can decide for themselves whether Mare did the right thing. What’s inarguable, though, is that she did her job, knowing full well what it would cost her.