What HBO’s New Crime Show Gets Exactly Right

Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet as a Delaware County detective, is brilliantly specific in its portrayal of a community. More of its peers should follow suit.

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Michele K. Short / HBO
Sophie Gilbert Sophie Gilbert is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.

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.

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Set in the area just west of Philadelphia known as Delaware County, Mare mines its topography as intentionally as it casually drops in Eagles logos, hoagies, and references to Wawa. Its actors even mimic the forbidding accent, which my husband, who grew up in Delco, likens to speaking with a broad, fixed grin on your face, so “oh” becomes “eaux,” and “water” becomes “wooder.” As a character, Mare embodies her surroundings—she’s gloomy and stoic, mostly understated in appearance. Her propensity to reach for a Rolling Rock becomes one of the show’s running gags. But she also knows better than anyone else the fault lines of the town where she grew up—its hiding places and trouble spots and vulnerabilities.

Mare is charged with investigating the death of a teenage mother named Erin (Cailee Spaeny), and paired with Colin, a young detective (Evan Peters) whose instincts pale in comparison with hers. More often than not, Mare knows before she begins a case who committed a crime, and why, and she has her own metric for deciding which transgressions merit a fiercer response. Chasing a burglary suspect who’s an old friend’s brother with a drug addiction, she exasperatedly waves away a fellow cop’s drawn gun and ends up taking the burglar to a shelter. But when footage leaks online of Erin being attacked before her death, Mare arrests the teenage suspect in full view of a restaurant crammed with people. “She beat the shit out of Erin in a forest full of kids,” Mare tells Colin. “Let ’em watch.” The flip side of Mare’s closeness with the people she polices is that she often positions herself as the arbiter of justice in a way that oversteps her role, and the show makes clear that she’s far from impartial.

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Detective characters like Mare—resolute, undemonstrative, frequently derailed by personal bias but intimately connected to their community—don’t come along often on American television, but they’re a staple in Britain. Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, of the BBC series Happy Valley (which found an eager audience on Netflix), seems most reminiscent of Mare. Both characters are grieving children lost to the murky realities of the places they try to police, both are raising their grandchildren with stern affection, and both have a painful understanding of what addiction can do to families. Some early reviews of Mare of Easttown have focused on an egregious thing Mare does midway through the series that supposedly makes her hard to root for—a metric we tend to apply disproportionately to women. But the most interesting characters aren’t the ones who always do the right thing. Far from presenting Mare’s actions as defensible, the series nods at the countless ways in which cops can abuse their powers. It’s especially surprising to watch Winslet, with her history of inhabiting rosy ingenues, disappear into the colorless drudge of Mare, with the character’s six-inch dark roots and clumsy physicality. Never has the actor minimized herself in a role quite like this.

Ironically, the town’s characters are so well developed, and the shading of the fictional Easttown so delicate, that some of the show’s more sensational elements—particularly a missing-persons plot that becomes central to the story—occasionally feel out of place. Mare’s mother, Helen (Jean Smart), provides comic relief by constantly needling her daughter; Colin is as brash and idealistic as Mare is cynical and tired; her best friend, Lori (Julianne Nicholson), is the softer foil to Mare’s abrasive edges. On the flip side, the series relies—as too many crime series do—on the death or abuse of young women for its plot. More novel, at this point, would be for a prestige crime show on HBO to not linger over the pooled blood surrounding a woman’s battered head (The Undoing), or an unclothed dead woman turned into a grisly tableau (True Detective), or the missing teeth of a schoolgirl’s corpse (Sharp Objects). Despite some semi-exploitative choices early on, Mare does an artful job of laying out the stories of other women who have disappeared, including how opioids stunted their promising lives. Without making addiction its hectoring focus, the show paints it as an ingrained reality for locals, as commonplace and impossible to avoid as guns and fists.

Brad Ingelsby, who created the series and wrote all seven episodes, grew up near Delaware County, and Mare has a sense for the aesthetic details—crocheted blankets, screened-in porches, piney dive bars—that enhance the show’s verisimilitude without being distracting. More crucial, though, is the show’s choice to render a community without judgment. For a work about a neglected corner of America, there’s none of the sneering critique of Hillbilly Elegy or the ludicrous rivalries of Ozark. Instead, Mare of Easttown is just a subtle, textured portrait of a place where some people are suffering, and a woman is doing her imperfect and insufficient best to help them.