June 2, 2021


East of Western decline: ‘Mare of Easttown’

By Kath Kenny
Image of Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown. Image © Michele K. Short / HBO

Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown. Image © Michele K. Short / HBO

Kate Winslet stars in this devastating portrait of a decaying America

What is the point of Guy Pearce, Kate Winslet’s mostly off-screen love interest, in Mare of Easttown? In the series’ first episode we learn that 25 years ago his character, writer Richard Ryan, was a young sensation when his first (and only) book won the National Book Award. He now lives a transient life teaching creative writing in C-list colleges. Carting around a box full of copies of his novel, he’s feted by his students, for whom he represents a successful future. His slightly abstracted air, and his life’s work dealing in fictions, suggests he is the opposite in every way to Winslet’s Mare Sheehan, a detective whose work involves untangling other people’s fictions. Is he the killer, we wondered in early episodes? And if not, what is he doing here?  

But Richard and Mare, it turns out, have much in common – and in ways that speak to the reasons why this intricately crafted show is so good. Crucially, Richard and Mare are both defined by their youthful successes. No one in the town will let Mare forget her winning shot in the Pennsylvania state basketball championship 25 years ago. Her hero status was sealed during that match, and it’s replayed in tribute editions of the local paper and anniversary ceremonies on the sports court. America is a country that valorises youth and success like no other; Mare of Easttown, however, is set in the decaying rustbelt heart of a decaying America. It’s a place where childhood can be so bleak and short that “youth” barely exists as a category anymore. And it’s a place where any kind of success is increasingly out of reach.  

Mare has spent her life trying to leave that one brilliant shot behind her and make something meaningful of her life. She is the moral centre of a show where so many other characters, out of work and out of luck, have long ago lost any hope in the future, and are now anesthetising themselves through drugs or alcohol or affairs.

Mare’s investigation of the murder of teen mother Erin (Cailee Spaeny) is the show’s main storyline, but before Erin’s death, we see her at home with her widowed father. He is lucky to still have a job, but he comes home angry every day from its deadening effects: “It’s just work,” he barks at her before drinking himself into a stupor. Investigating another case of two missing girls, Mare and her co-detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) knock on doors trying to track down the owner of a suspicious van. When they eventually locate the kidnapper, Wayne Potts (Jeb Kreager), he is living in the decrepit remains of a long-closed bar left to him by his uncle. Opioid addict Freddie Hanlon (Dominique Johnson), meanwhile, seems to be holed up in a home now deserted, but that once would have belonged to a family fed and clothed by regular jobs in a nearby plant that was decommissioned years ago.

Teenager Brianna Del Rasso, a realist and a prematurely hardened bully, has already imagined her future will involve days tending to the hair and nails of rich women. Mare’s daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), is talented and risks dreaming of a better life, but she is terrified it is just a dream, and afraid to leave. But staying might mean a life as the gas station cashier. She desperately wants the adults around her to be responsible – her mum’s workaholism meant that she was the one who found her drug-addicted brother hanging in the attic one day. An adult too soon, she too drowns herself in pills and drink.

There’s a lot of drinking in Mare of Easttown. Erin’s fateful affair with her cousin begins on a family trip when other family members are passed out from boozing. Erin is murdered the night everyone gathers to drink in celebration of the engagement of Mare’s ex-husband, Frank. An inebriated Zabel declares his passion for Mare – and his despair at the “is that all there is?” state of his thirty-something and less-than-spectacular life – in the local bar on the night of his class reunion. The series opens with Mare’s mother and Mare’s cousin (a priest) making Manhattans, and the scene is repeated again in the final episode only this time her mother – who’s never quite dealt with her own disappointments – falls off her chair.

Mare of Easttown is a devastating portrait of an America in decline, a country in denial about the way it has betrayed its youth. Good fathers are scarce in Mare of Easttown. Family man John (Joe Tippett) is regularly unfaithful; Mare’s detective father killed himself, leaving her feeling unlovable in some essential way; Erin’s ex-boyfriend won’t pay for the baby’s ear surgery; Mare’s ex, Frank, lies about his own relationship with Erin; and Brianna’s father responds with inchoate rage to accusations against his daughter. Writer Richard (who is father to a son from a previous relationship) is one of the few men who has come to terms with life’s vicissitudes and disappointments. “All the good things in my life have come to me without trying,” he tells Mare in the final episode.

As usual, it’s up to the mothers to try to hold things together. Erin spends the final weeks of her short life trying to raise money for her baby’s surgery. John’s wife, Lori, is trying to keep her family together after John’s indiscretions end in tragedy. Dawn, Mare’s former basketball teammate, battles cancer while campaigning for Mare and the police to work to find her daughter, who has been missing for more than a year.

On one level, Mare of Easttown suggests therapy is the answer to this great psychosocial mess. If only Mare can come to terms with her own son’s death, she could help others, her psychologist advises, not unreasonably. In the meantime, she’s inadvertently tearing a tragic path through other mother’s sons. Mare is determined to make things right (or at least better) by protecting her grandson from a life with his heroin-addicted mother. But the underhanded way she protects him is her most shocking moral lapse, and it will colour the way we see her choices in the series’ final scenes. As she comes closer to solving the crime of who killed Erin, her discoveries will have dire consequences for people close to her.

Easttown is a place you might at first expect to be overrun with Pentecostal churches and the prosperity gospel. But the failures of life in Easttown are too bleak for the residents to believe in their superficially alluring liturgy. Instead, the town’s church is Catholic. The priests, who live in an unkempt clergy house, preach a message of forgiveness and love. But the church has failed Erin and the town too. By the show’s end, another child’s youth has gone too. The final scenes show America’s great failure writ small. Whodunnit? America.


Mare of Easttown is streaming on Binge.

Kath Kenny

Kath Kenny is a writer and researcher working on a book about women’s theatre. 

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