Writer-Creator: Brad Ingelsby
Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, Julianne Nicholson, Angourie Rice, Evan Peters, Guy Pearce
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
There's a rather mechanised ebb and flow to most whodunnits. Their constant charge, with each pulsating step followed by another tense one, numbs you instead. Towards the end, through some logically elusive puzzle-solving, you find out that each piece is connected. The more perplexing the puzzle, the more time you are supposed to spend on it. Mare of Easttown isn't any different, yet, it unquestionably is. This miniseries doesn't just adopt the grammar of the classic mystery. Instead, it swallows up the pauses and spaces that the detective genre often doesn't explore, and damningly spits out an entire universe built around these gaps.
This is a somewhat HBO staple — a look into the prosaic life of a lowly-but-macabre suburb. This one at least does separate itself from the production house's other titles — True Detective, True Blood, and Treme. The eeriness that haunts Easttown isn't particularly unfamiliar; there's a spate of murder cases in which the victims are all young women. This chaotic spree of violence is dark-drama flesh and blood. But the intensity of these crimes isn't solely a result of their heinousness. Instead, it is because of how interconnected they are. In this cluster of shattered neighbours and fragmented families, every second person knows each other. The town's incestuously fraught sexual history makes it easy to conclude that things are not going well.
This is a wounded community, and not all of it can be pinned on an unhinged killer. We see these wounds fester and gradually turn into scars through the titular character Mare (Kate Winslet). She's a detective, daughter, mother, grandmother, and divorcee. This assortment of responsibilities requires her to put out occupational as well as domestic fires. Mare does not have the luxury of time to be either reflexive or reflective. You cannot bear to watch her quiet, lonely suffering — she has taken on the burden of carrying herself, her family, and her town. Mare's iron-willed obsession with her unsolved and current cases does not singularly stem from their urgency. She cannot stand to confront the unacknowledged skeletons of her past. And the show's ability to delve into that is what sets it apart from its HBO counterparts.
The series rarely strays from Winslet. This is a portrait of Mare and she's responsible for all the strokes on this canvas. With her, the writing is secondary. She wrings the actor in her dry. There are several instances in which she approaches a prowler — her cautious but steady movements alone made me recoil at the scene's ominousness. When the camera panned from the location to her face, I trembled. Winslet excels at depicting the uncertainties that curse the detective life.
And god, what a cast! Not only do they construct this elaborate setting, they also help improve and advance almost every aspect of this show. Julianne Nicholson, who plays Mare's neighbour and confidante Lori, is the side-narrative's powerhouse. Her entire family is a microcosm for all that's corrupt in Easttown — they are all victims in their own way. But it is Jean Smart, playing Mare's mother, who shines throughout. You can see where Mare gets her steely demeanour from and it's not pretty. The two break into a fight before the other person even utters a word, and it's not because of their disagreements but their clashing personalities. My heart, though, goes out to Mare's partner Zabel (a winsome Evan Peters). In a sea of formidable characters, he is that one gentle soul that gives you a break. Oh, and there's Guy Pearce, who makes the show just a bit more delicious.
The majority of crime-dramas, including the first season of True Detective, are notorious for their wafer-thin, nothingburger female characters, who are usually also the victims. The men in those series call them reductive terms like 'whores' and 'sluts'. Writer-director Brad Ingelsby, however, transforms Mare of Easttown into more than a baloney-filled noir that philosophises at the expense of female character development. While the women are victims here as well, they aren't just that. They manage to jolt you because of how real they feel. We finally get to see something more than a sex fantasy. We finally get good television.