With HBO's "Mare of Easttown," come for the murder but stay for Kate Winslet and Jean Smart

This detective series set in a miserable town is no trip to Happy Valley, but its residents make it all worthwhile

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 18, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Kate Winslet in "Mare of Easttown" (HBO)
Kate Winslet in "Mare of Easttown" (HBO)

"Mare of Easttown" announces the kind of drama it's going to be with its earliest establishing shots. First comes a glimpse of a factory at dawn, then a saggy house, then a graveyard. Director Craig Zobel keeps going with this architectural misery parade in a way that sets the mood like poured concrete: A lingering gaze shows a street constipated with faded houses jammed shoulder to shoulder on one side, with a rotten-toothed sneer passing itself off as an old picket fence across the way. 

A row of brick chimneys jut into the sky with the rudeness of middle fingers flipping off a sun that reserves its gold for other places, ensuring daylight looks sickly and gray here even when the sky is cloudless. The scenery says so much, setting up the first human vocalization we hear, which is a scream.

Zobel does not make the titular burg look or feel like any place you'd want to visit, or end up, or have a breakdown. But the way Kate Winslet realizes Detective Mare Sheehan persuades you to stick with it past its glum first hour. If you  manage to do this, the show just might grow on you.

First, though, one must overlook the seven-part limited series' resemblance to any number of working-class grim tales about murder in small towns, Sally Wainwright's "Happy Valley" foremost among them. The parallels can't be ignored, since both stories follow middle-aged cops in places where everybody knows her and everyone else, and nurse resentments with the same level of care and devotion they give to their own children.

Of the two series, "Happy Valley" is top-notch, whereas this is more of a muddle elevated by superb performances. That shouldn't count out what Winslet, Jean Smart and the other women at the heart of "Mare of Easttown" offer. 

The characters are the reason to stick with this show as opposed to the murder and missing persons cases, starting with Winslet's performance. She gives Mare the spirit of a woman who spent years waking up swinging with all she's got and doesn't have time to grieve even though her life has given her many reasons to crumble.

Winslet doesn't entirely engage in the Emmy bait tactic of putting her vanity into a drawer here, and it's hard to decide whether the way she arches her Os against the roof of her mouth is the work of a regional dialect coach or accent slippage. 

But she does an admirable job of wearing the town's exhaustion on her body, trudging around with a slight hunch to her shoulders, sucking down her exasperation in endless clouds of vape smoke. She has a way of making the character's anger sit there, an unexploded munition that's still decidedly live. And while that should make her imposing, it has the opposite effect on the people around town who expect her to solve all of their problems.

Mare and her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) broke up, and although they get along enough to raise their grandson, their relationship is only slightly amicable for a slow reveal of reasons best left to viewing. He's found a way to move on while she very purposefully stagnates.

Somehow, the way Winslet plays this draws you in and makes you hopeful for whatever shots at goodness comes her way like the fluttering fascination she inspires in Guy Pearce's Richard, a literature professor sanguine about being past his prime. 

Whatever fuel Winslet injects into Mare gets burned down each day by Smart's Helen, Mare's wise-ass and hilariously mean-spirited parent who theatrically treats their relationship as if it were some terrible duty she's too lazy or tired to give up even though she never really signed on to the job. 

Smart's piquant gibes provide comedy meat in this sorrowful hero sandwich, and it's a flavor that shouldn't work here but it does. In fact, it gives the show a much-needed humor streak that carries over into Mare's other interactions. In one scene when Mare calls a family meeting a genuinely perplexed and irritated Helen pops back at her with "What the hell's a family meeting?" in a way so gloriously, quietly dismissive as to deserve a medal. 

Series writer and producer Brad Ingelsby reserves the broadest development for Mare and her family, including daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), who gets a sweet teenage storyline constantly threatening to be buried under all the adult angst but somehow keeps on surfacing. Other characters receive less care and feeding in the script despite their importance, including Julianne Nicholson's Lori Ross, Mare's best friend, and Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), another high school friend turned antagonist after Mare fails to bring her missing daughter home.

Generally a show like this takes pains to keep some small thunderclap hidden in its pocket by convincing us that we're watching one kind of mystery only to cold cock us with an entirely different scenario but no, that slice of plot hums along in a completely typical fashion. 

From the moment you meet the eventual victim of the murder that ensnares Mare, the scent of doom encircling her wafts right off the screen. Remember the graveyard? This is place where women disappear or are found dead, and when Mare can't find the killer or the vanished right away the town brings down curses on her head.

That this is often treated as something beside the point can feel bewildering at times, particularly in the points where you find yourselves caring more about, say, Mare's developing partnerships with a new hotshot detective played by Evan Peters or wondering what the deal is with another weird newcomer. There are a lot of small stories here jostling for attention crowded together like those houses, and at times it doesn't quite work, or it shouldn't, but a very tired Mare leads us through.

When "Mare of Easttown" lays in its shocks – some small and one that's absolute – they can be stunning enough to lend value to its complacent pace. 

Easttown, Pennsylvania is a real place, by the way and in a move one might interpret as a defense of the town, it posted a press release on its official website specifying that most of the scenes were filmed in Coatesville, Aston, and Drexel Hill. It's as if they're saying, "We are not actually like this!" Understandable, although they also point out that Ingelsby grew up there. But any burg's pride of place rests in its people, not its exteriors; and in that regard the writer acquitted his hometown well enough. 

"Mare of Easttown" premieres Sunday, April 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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