(MARE OF EASTTOWN premieres weekly on HBO Nordic starting April 19th. Five episodes of seven viewed for review.)
A masterclass in acting
MARE OF EASTTOWN is the best work Kate Winslet has ever done. It’s a performance so complete, so nuanced, and perfect that it overrides any problems the show itself carries. After an almost thirty-year career filled with great roles, Winslet disappears into the part of Mare so entirely it becomes uncanny.
As she reigns supreme, the series itself isn’t bad either. It’s certainly a happy surprise to see director Craig Zobel bounce back after his abysmal and misjudged THE HUNT from last year. His direction in MARE is understated and delicate, allowing the sprawling tragedy to grow purposefully throughout its seven-hour runtime.
Murder she wrote
At the heart of the show is the murder of a young woman found in a creek half-naked and missing a finger. One year prior, another girl of the same age went missing and never returned. As her absence suffocatingly fills the streets of Easttown, her mother and Mare find themselves clashing in their shared sorrow. Mare has lost her son, and her daughter’s fate is unknown. Neither can see past their anger at the unfairness of it all.
As the evidence turns up messy and inconclusive, Mare partners with young hotshot detective Colin Zable (Evan Peters), who everyone expects to guide the investigation into a solid conclusion. Happily, the series eschews any wacky antics that cop shows like to pile on for unlikely pairings. Instead, their relationship becomes a genuinely interesting examination of oedipal complexities and regret.
Peters is excellent at playing against his usual smarmy type by imbuing Zobel with a cavalcade of insecurities and ticks. He’s likable even when we’re not sure why we like him. His and Winslet’s chemistry is great too, and their early bickering goes a long way in establishing a rhythm no one else in the town shares.
Not enough of a good thing
In a sense, MARE OF EASTTOWN is the rare series where its one failing is that it’s not long enough. At the same time, it is nice to see a mature and well-thought-out show about a serious topic that knows precisely how long it wants to be. Like its titular character, MARE OF EASTTOWN is a contradiction you can’t help but be fascinated by it.
And what a character that is. Mare is a cranky, difficult, and often unlikeable person. She has every reason to be, and much of the series dedicates itself to uncovering what makes her tick. But it’s not long before we start to question whether or not her Sisyphian task is earned or self-realized.
This comes out in every fantastic scene involving Winslet slowly burning every last bridge she has left. As her ex-husband, who lives next door with his new fiance, unintentionally gloats with how his life is moving forward, MARE OF EASTTOWN gracefully depicts the double standard by which men and women are allowed to grieve.
Even then, MARE refuses an easy out and never lets us fully root for anyone. While the premise and set pieces remain convenient for the plot’s sake, it always aims for the complex vagaries of life.
But MARE OF EASTTOWN isn’t perfect even when its lead is, although not for the reasons you’d expect. While a procedural (which I’m not a fan of), MARE sidesteps genre tropes by focusing on everything around the police work. Even as we run through the motions of interviewing subjects and looking for clues, Zabel’s camera is always more interested in the people than the case. There are stories of parents and children, generational trauma, societal failure, and the loss of a loved one too soon and far too late. None of these stories are clean or easy, and you’ll often find yourself going back and forth between allegiances.
And while MARE OF EASTTOWN does trip up by including too many of these, it rarely feels overstuffed. Instead, there’s a dread the already deliberately paced series could do with more padding.
For example, within the first three hours, we’ve established not just a series of suspects but unraveled four new mysteries and crimes in the process, all without taking any step further in the original storyline. That would be fine in a more extended season, but MARE has only seven episodes to spare, so each minute needs to count. And it does raise the question of just how many lunatics there are in a single small town, especially in one neighborhood.
I’ve only seen five of the seven episodes due, so it remains a mystery whether or not MARE OF EASTTOWN can pull off its ambitious narrative. By the end of episode five, I really want to see it to the end and hope that Mare can find some solace. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that there are at least a dozen plot threads still lingering, and unless some minor miracle happens, the chances of resolving each one remain slim.
[Addition 31.5.21] With the full series now available, MARE OF EASTTOWN easily earns its place as one of the best thrillers of the past few years. Never straying from its mature and nuanced storytelling, Zobel and crew bring the ambitious story to a satisfying, heartfelt conclusion.
No small parts
Having said that, even if MARE OF EASTTOWN crashes and burns in its conclusion, there’s still so much to love here. From the lingering directing to the stunning performances, every detail just clicks together. Even bit parts, like an underwritten best friend role, come performed with the highest pedigree. In this case, it’s the likes of a luminous Julianne Nicholson and an exceedingly charming Guy Pearce who fill out parts way below their level and make them sing.
But it’s Jean Smart, playing the no-nonsense Helen, who steals the show with her acerbic wit and things left unsaid. Behind her biting facade, there’s a world of unrealized love and ambition, and the way she and Winslet play off their melancholy is a masterclass in acting. Watch how they skirt the room or how their body language plays even when they bond. Both actors reveal a microcosm of emotion in every scene, and that alone makes the series worthwhile.
After a couple of great years for mature thrillers, HBO has another winner on its hands. MARE OF EASTTOWN is the kind of prestige drama others dream of making, and it comes at the heels of multiple masterworks in less than a decade. By any rights, it will be a massive hit – even if it’s not the easiest thing to watch.