For all the murder and mayhem and madness happening in the HBO limited series “Mare of Easttown,” there’s something grounded and real and authentic about nearly every scene and every character. When old friends meet for coffee on a park bench on a chilly morning, when a new arrival in town navigates his way to buying a drink for a local he finds attractive, when a mother and her teenage daughter tangle as mothers and teenage daughters do — it feels real. It feels as if we know these people, even as they’re going through one soap opera-level crisis after another.
Set in a small, middle-class town, “Mare of Easttown” could have been titled “Big Little Working-Class Lies.” The contrast in locales between Monterey, California, and Easttown Township, Pennsylvania, couldn’t be sharper, but when it comes to scandal and romance and affairs and violence and cover-ups and crime investigations, those elite West Coasters got nothin’ on what’s happening here.
Kate Winslet adds to a long list of magnificent, disappear-into-the-character performances as Mare Sheehan, a world-weary police detective more celebrated around town for starring on a championship basketball team a quarter-century ago than for her police work or for that matter her personality, which leaves a lot to be desired on even her best days. If you told Mare to smile she’d tell you to f--- off, and she DOES have her reasons. She’s still in mourning for her teenage son, who took his own life; her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) lives so close she can literally see across the yard into his happy home, complete with new fiancé, and she’s under fire because it’s been a year since a local teenage girl — the daughter of one of Mare’s high school basketball teammates — has gone missing and the police still have no solid leads, no suspects, nothing.
The town is further roiled when a teenage single mom named Erin (Cailee Spaeny) is murdered, her nude and grotesquely twisted body splayed on the bed of a creek. When a THIRD young woman goes missing, it appears there’s a serial kidnapper/killer on the loose, as the community loses all faith in Mare and hotshot young county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is brought in to partner with Mare on the case, and you can imagine how thrilled Mare is about that. The investigation introduces us to a number of potential suspects, including Erin’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Jack Mulhern), who has a nasty streak; a priest (Neal Huff) with a troubled past and even Mare’s ex Frank, a high school teacher who claimed he barely knew Erin but in fact had been close with her.
Amidst all the chaos, Mare enters into a relationship with a college professor (Guy Pearce) who has just moved to Easttown and has to contend with her meddling mother (Jean Smart) and her rebellious teenage daughter (Angourie Rice.) The skies above are usually cloudy and gray, but there’s never a dull moment in Easttown.
At times the criminal procedural seems almost secondary to the tangled web of stories about custody battles and extramarital affairs and troubled children and delinquent teenagers, and it’s a bit of a task to keep up with every character and how this one is related by blood to that one, and this one had an affair with that one, and those two have a problem with each other because of that thing — but we always find our footing when Winslet is onscreen and Mare is in charge, or at least thinks she’s in charge. Mare is smart and has a dark sense of humor and is capable of empathy, but she’s complicated, troubled and self-destructive, she makes some really bad decisions and almost dares people to dislike her as much as she dislikes herself.
“Mare of Easttown” holds our interest throughout, thanks to showrunner/writer Brad Inglesby, the brilliant ensemble cast led by Winslet in one of the most resonant performances of her career — and also to the locale itself. It was filmed in and around Easttown Township, and even in this age of CGI trickery and this city filling in for that city, there’s something almost tangible about real-world, real-deal locations. Easttown comes across as a no-nonsense, middle-class small town where everybody knows everybody else, and every time you walk into the local pub or grocery store there’s a chance you’ll run into an old high school classmate, or your ex-husband’s new wife, or your kid’s teacher — and you’re happy about those encounters maybe half the time. At best.