Easttown is a weathered Pennsylvanian nook, the kind of place that presses its community together without much room for trees. It has sturdy houses built by great-grandfathers that people in the 90s would’ve said will last forever, but are just now falling apart. Crime dramas often rely on the claustrophobia of tight-knit neighbourhoods to force interaction between suspects, but even so, the people of Easttown are unusually close.
This is just one of the many ways Mare of Easttown over-feeds our gluttonous expectations, only to poke at our bellies when we’re full. In the first episode we are taken to a seedy bar and introduced to an out-of-towner named Richard Ryan, played by Guy Pearce, a Hollywood name with a Hollywood face who will surely play a big role in the drama that’s about to unfold. He is our first real suspect, before we’re even privy to a crime.
Without giving too much away, I think it’s evident to any crime drama sleuth that the first suspect is never the culprit. But what’s intriguing about this moment is that this smarmy, middle-aged author, who’s caught drinking whisky in a backwater bar on the night of the crime, isn’t a suspect at all.
Richard is by no means a main character, or even one who is fully fleshed out, but he is key to unpacking why this crime drama is a scorching revival of a stagnant genre, a genre that too often inhabits the persona of its archetypal lead—the detective who’s seen it all.
Detective Mare Sheehan, played incisively by the formidable Kate Winslet, has no doubt seen a lot in her life. She’s introduced to us as a surly loner, divorced, living with her mother, her teenage daughter and her grandson, and addicted to vaping. Once celebrated as a high school basketball hero and revered as a protector of this small, charming community, we meet her mid-fall from grace. In a series about a murder, it’s astonishing that one of the most gut-wrenching scenes to watch is in the first episode, when Mare learns that her entire family will be attending her ex-husband’s engagement party, forcing her to go to the 25th anniversary reunion of her old basketball team alone.
What’s apparent from the look on her face is that Mare cares about this. She cares deeply for her family, which becomes more evident as we find out she recently lost her son to suicide. Her stoicism isn’t a character trait, it’s a symptom of her denial. She refuses to accept her loss, and embrace her grief. This is yet another trope of crime drama, but the writers here won’t let Mare absorb this toxicity into her personality. Like she tells her therapist in episode four, she isn’t gonna be like other cops, those who don’t want to put in the time, who don’t think they need the help. ‘I’ll be here on time, every time,’ she says.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I do want to address it. Because there is a magic trick crime dramas like to perform, where they will show us a crime, but they won’t let us truly see it. This is because we’re taught to perceive things through a detective’s gaze. The camera will blur a dead body in the foreground as we see police lights flashing from the road, and then cut from a gruesome murder scene to the dead-pan face of a detective who’s seen a hundred crime scenes just like it.
In a crime drama, a victim is killed twice. First by the murderer, and second by the police, who itemise the victim’s personhood as a series of facts to pored over like a A-plus student preparing for an exam. The hacked up body parts of a victim will become photographs pinned to a wall—another clue in a mystery we are all collectively trying to solve.
It’s a consequence of its set up that Mare of Easttown can’t do this. After single mum Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) is murdered, we barely see her body, but we’ve already spent an entire episode learning about who she is. In the subsequent series, we are forced to watch the vast and unruly consequences of Erin’s death, that range from the dramatic to the everyday. The placards demonstrating against an alleged pedophile priest in town are matched with a small-town saga about who might pay for her orphaned baby’s ear surgery. And our eyes on the ground, Detective Mare, is woven into this mess like a suture on a wound.
In an early episode, Mare is forced to add her ex-husband to the suspects list, but even after the accusation shatters the fragments of their already broken relationship, she’s still stuck with him like he’s a piece of glass in her finger, because he, in her words, basically lives in her backyard. In episode three, Mare’s plucky new partner, Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) asks her, ‘Is there anybody (in town) you’re not related to?’
‘No,’ she replies, flatly.
Mare might be rigorous and uncompromising, but she is also uncommonly empathetic, a characteristic that is often framed in the genre as a detective’s achilles heel. Our hero might trust the wrong person to throw the audience off the trail, or else they might ignore their empathy altogether to see through a sob story and get to the truth. But in this show, empathy is presented as a point of strength.
Mid-season, Mare solves a lukewarm missing-persons case that had been pressing on her for over a year, after being faced with persistent appeals from a grieving mother. She is bothered by the needs of her community, but she isn’t cold to them. Although she is in denial of her own grief, it is impossible for her to look away from the plights of others. She is part of this community, and the fundamental desire that drives Mare isn’t solving a case, it’s helping people.
And this is why the show’s end is so heartbreaking.
In a behind-the-scenes interview, Kate Winslet says that the reveal of who committed the murder is ‘shattering’. Not shocking, as one might expect from the genre, but shattering. It’s an ending we don’t want. It rightly forces us to confront a fallible justice system, and question the black and white artifice we’ve been sold by crime procedurals for decades.
Resolution comes not from the satisfaction of an arrest, but from Mare’s personal triumph over her grief, and the way she uses this victory to help strengthen those around her.
The final episode includes a small, seemingly inconsequential scene where Mare says goodbye to Richard. He’s leaving town to take up a teaching position at Bate’s college, a place Mare’s never even heard of. In fact, she says to him that part of her doesn’t believe the college is real. Once again, our resident red herring is dangled in front of us, and once again, he slips from the scene without consequence.
But he does serve a purpose in foreshadowing the series end when Mare asks him, ‘what’s gonna happen to us?’
He says, ‘I stopped trying to predict life a long time ago. The best things in my life have come to me unexpectedly.’
These words come at a midway point in the finale, and I’m sure many viewers were like me, tugging at their hair trying to figure out what the fuck was about to happen.
What does happen is truly unexpected, and it represents the very best of a genre that I’d long assumed was dead.
Kara Schlegl is a Sydney based writer and producer. She writes for ABC’s The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, and her story-based podcast Death by Poodle will be released in July.