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Mare of Easttown managed an unlikely combination of family drama and crime drama

  • "Everything about it screamed, 'I’m a murder mystery!' — the detective protagonist, the small town shocked by heinous crimes, the ever-shifting list of suspects, the grimy-bleak color palette," says Kathryn VanArendonk of the HBO limited series starring Kate Winslet. "It is a murder mystery, of course, and much of the show is built on beloved, age-old murder-mystery structures. Mare is just as much a family drama, though. The finale hinges on a shocking reveal-twist-reveal that pulls together all of the show’s mystery threads, but the core of Mare is all the messy, horrible, endlessly sad, funny family stuff. It’s what makes the finale so much more satisfying than the simple ... reveal, and it’s what has made Mare of Easttown so much more memorable than the dozen similar dead-girl-in-a-sad-place TV shows of the past several years. Most crime fiction includes family themes. Breaking Bad’s Walt initially turned to meth manufacturing because of his desire to support his family — and spent the next several seasons feeling burdened but also shielded by them, using them to justify his actions. Mob stories are famously about keepin’ it all in the family; the recent rash of Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy plots are yet another variant on twisted family dynamics turned criminal. Illegal acts and complicated family feelings: Name a more iconic duo! But Mare of Easttown’s murder-and-moms storytelling goes deeper than the typical 'crime plus sad families' thematics. It’s structural, a way of looping together two different storytelling drives that naturally pull against each other. Family (or chosen-family) dramas — think Grey’s Anatomy or Shameless — are all about time and generations. It’s the anxiety and necessity of one generation making way for the next, the messy reality of children trying and failing to live up to their parents’ expectations. They’re sagas, really — stories that could easily play out over decades, with the anger from one grandmother’s marriage roiling through her daughter’s childhood and then being revisited and revised as they both co-parent a great-grandson. Family dramas are all about sins-of-the-father-type sh*t. There is no easy answer, no fast way to see the action and erase the consequences. They’re about turmoil and change, and the happy resolution of a family drama is about accepting the past and ensuring that some future generation will make it out okay. Crime dramas, particularly the subgenre of murder mysteries, are fundamentally opposed to that slow-burning, forever-unraveling family-drama story. They are about questions that long for answers; where a family drama could happily unfurl for years, mystery stories ache for conclusions. This is why they’re so full of red herrings and proliferating theories. It’s tough to delay that reveal, tough to sustain that active interest in the answer without giving anything away. It’s a story shape that longs for its own ending. Enter Mare of Easttown, which is an unlikely, sometimes shambling, ultimately rewarding combination of both of those structures."


    • Mare of Easttown tweaked the formula of brilliant female investigators with complicated personal lives: "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," says Sophie Gilbert. "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....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."
    • Mare of Easttown finale offered a real payoff: "Would Mare stick the landing, or would it go full Undoing in the finale?" says Alan Sepinwall of the concerns going into the final episode. "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 murder-mystery and human drama went hand-in-hand for Mare, and they ended up balancing out Mare of Easttown, too: The finale "managed to tie up far more of its loose ends than I ever expected, and in ways that proved more and more satisfying on subsequent viewings," says Ben Travers. "Bolstered by wrenching human performances (shout-out to Julianne Nicholson, HBO’s supporting MVP in Mare and The Outsider), the ending avoided going off the rails — a la the crash-and-burn hysteria of The Undoing’s atrocious conclusion — and even proved more moving than a show with this many fake outs has any right to be."
    • It’s a fine art, balancing the mechanics of a crime mystery with character depth and local flavor, and Mare did it beautifully: "No matter how revved-up the story motor became, no matter how many fake-outs popped up along the way, it remained a series about the aftermath of loss and a woman trying to dodge her inevitable pain," says Matthew Gilbert. "Kate Winslet was the perfect actress for the part, nailing all of Mare’s cynicism and neurotic energy without telegraphing it. Also destined for an Emmy nomination, along with Winslet: Julianne Nicholson, whose scenes in the finale, as a mother only trying to protect her son, were devastating. Watching two grieving mothers ultimately find solace with each other was such a fine note on which to end the series."
    • For Julianne Nicholson, Mare of Easttown marked a first in her acting career: “I’m totally shocked and thrilled that people are so into it,” she says. “I’ve never had the experience where there’s so much chatter. Isn’t it fun? And I think it proves that it’s always better when you make people wait. I’ve had people texting me, ‘Did Lori do it?’ and they had a lot of feelings about it. Some of them really wanted her to have done it. Some of them really did not.”
    • Nicholson knew the ending going into the series: "I don't remember if it was before or after I accepted the job but it definitely was before we started filming," she says. "I did know what was coming."
    • Angourie Rice was hesitant to watch the finale after reading the script: "It’s kind of my second bout processing it because the first time was when I read the script and then I had to actually do it, and now seeing it all come together, it’s like reliving both of those experiences," she says.
    • HBO Max was wracked by tech problems before and during the Mare of Easttown finale
    • Stephen King correctly predicted the killer
    • Ranking the twists and turns of the Mare of Easttown finale
    • Guy Pearce's Richard was originally played by Coupling and The Crown alum Ben Miles: After Miles was dropped early in the development of Mare of Easttown, Guy Pearce was brought on as a favor to Kate Winslet.
    • Mare of Easttown creator Brad Ingelsby is open to a Season 2: “We didn't ever talk about returning...it's very much a closed story. I think you've seen that now, the story ends. I think all the loose ends get tied up. I hope so at least,” he told Esquire before the finale aired. “But I think if we could ever crack a story that was as emotional and surprising, then I think maybe there's a conversation. I don't have that in my head right now, but I mean, listen, I love Mare. If we could ever give her a great season, I would certainly consider it. I would only do it if I was convinced we could make it great, though. I wouldn't do it just because you have a chance to do it. I would want to make sure that it was as rich and compelling as I hope this season has been.” 
    • Ingelsby describes how Breaking Away, Boogie Nights and Broadchurch influenced Mare of Easttown
    • Ingelsby says the most surprising fan theory he read was “I think it’s Siobhan"
    • Ingelsby reveals how he envisions Mare of Easttown after the credits roll
    • Kate Winslet said "Don't you dare!" when Mare's director proposed editing out "a bulging bit of belly" in her sex scene with Guy Pearce: Winslet also tells The New York Times' Maureen Dowd that she had Mare of Easttown's promo poster sent back twice because it was too retouched. “They were like ‘Kate, really, you can’t,’ and I’m like ‘Guys, I know how many lines I have by the side of my eye, please put them all back,'" she says. Winslet also says she balked when she saw an early cut in which her ordinarily luminous skin looked too good. “We tried to light it to make it look not nice,” she says. Winslet adds: “Listen, I hope that in playing Mare as a middle-aged woman — I will be 46 in October — I guess that’s why people have connected with this character in the way that they have done because there are clearly no filters. She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we’re starved of that a bit. In episode one, she’s having sex on a couch. I said to my husband, ‘Am I OK with that? Is it all right that I’m playing a middle-aged woman who is a grandmother who does really make a habit of having one-night stands?’ He’s like, ‘Kate, it’s great. Let her do it.’”
    • Winslet would be up for reprising her Mare role: “I would absolutely love to play Mare again,” she tells TVLine when asked about the prospect of a Season 2. “I miss her. I really do. It’s the strangest thing. I feel like I’m in mourning. It was an absolutely wonderful role… There’s something very addictive about Mare, because she’s so outrageous and lovable and brilliant and real, you know? I loved playing her.”

    TOPICS: Mare of Easttown, HBO, HBO Max, Angourie Rice, Ben Miles, Brad Ingelsby, Guy Pearce, Julianne Nicholson, Kate Winslet