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Friday, 28 May 2021

REVIEW: Mare of Easttown' - Characterisation Done Right

The following piece contains spoilers of Mare of Easttown including all six episodes that have aired to date.

Mare of Easttown is a compelling, heart-rending mini-series that everyone is talking about. The story follows Mare: our no-nonsense, no makeup, exhausted and ‘cool to the touch,’ Detective portrayed by Kate Winslet. Winslet transforms as Mare. She brings subtlety and tactful vulnerability to the role that creates a powerfully authentic performance. It’s refreshing to watch a series whose main characters are flawed but, through good writing and development, remain likeable. Winslet’s Mare is no bundle of sunshine and, like Sarah Lancashire’s gritty detective role in the BBC’s Happy Valley, it is her determination to discover the truth in her cases, as well as her personal life, that drives her to overcome countless obstacles. As an audience we journey with Mare through a murder case, seeing the effect her career has on her home life, but also how the past haunts her every step - we see how difficult she can be with the people she loves but, as the show progresses, we are shown why Mare is so complicated as a character and it only makes us love her more.

Winslet is perhaps best known for playing the romantic interest, from of course Titanic, to the rom-com The Holiday, and even her recent romantic drama Ammonite. However, as Mare, Winslet doesn’t play a prettied up, romantic lead (in fact romance is the last thing on her mind) instead we see her in all her natural, unkempt glory - wrinkles, eye bags and grown out roots, that many of us can probably relate to during lockdown. Mare is a strong, independent - and yes female - character, but she is more than a tropey ‘strong female lead.’ Mare is ruggedly human, as she turns up to work in her jeans and flannel, anxiously smoking her e-cigarette or chomping aggressively on her burger as she works a case. She’s also incredibly caring with her colleagues and friends, choosing to show her support by helping them out practically, like when she guides her co-worker through a panic attack at the sight of blood, even though she thinks it's ridiculous for a member of the law enforcement to fear such a thing. She’s calm and level-headed (most of the time), deeply caring whilst emotionally distant, great at her job but also not averse to breaking the rules here and there. It's important to see female leads who are complex and flawed like the rest of us, not painted as caricatures of women in television - she is neither perfect nor your stereotypical woman, because both are unrealistic.

Mare’s strength is shown by her resilience and her warm-hearted nature that becomes more accessible to the audience as the show progresses. No one comments on her womanhood, there are no big fanfares about the fact that she is a detective and a woman - no, she is just Mare. Nowadays, it often feels that so much emphasis is placed on the fact that our characters are ‘strong women’ that they lose their authenticity as real-life portrayals of people and they become 2D cardboard cutouts. Mare of Easttown handles characterisation wonderfully - these people aren’t perfect and that the best characters are flawed. Mare is impulsive, controlling and by focusing so heavily on her work, she has a strained relationship with her family, especially daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice). Mare can be snappy and cold, particularly towards the county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) who is made her partner on one of her unsolved cases. However, despite all of her shortcomings, the show builds character and history so effectively that we begin to empathise strongly with Mare and we warm to her quickly as certain truths come to light.

Mare has custody of grandson, Drew. She's raising him with Siobhan and her equally brilliant and cantankerous mother (Jean Smart) following the death of her son Keven who committed suicide two years before. Mare’s relationship with Kevin (Cody Kostro) is seen in heartbreaking flashbacks. We see in one how Kevin’s drug addiction makes him frighteningly angry and violent with him shoving his mother to the floor whilst screaming that he hates her.  This adds a further layer to Mare's character. On the face of it, the show is a whodunnit but in truth, it's more the story of how a family comes to terms with the death of a loved one. 

Mare feels guilty about the past and what she could have done to prevent her son’s suicide - although as an audience we know that there was probably little she could have changed. One of the most moving scenes (amongst many in the series) comes in the penultimate episode (Sore Must be the Storm) when Mare recollects the night she found Kevin’s body. Talking to a therapist, she recounts the awful memories whilst we watch a flashback; Mare runs into her house distraught having received a phone call from a traumatised Siobhan. She clambers up into the attic until eventually she sees her dead son and is overwhelmed by grief. Two years later, although she feels she's hiding it well, Mare is struggling more than she lets on. Sadly, it's another sudden and unexpected death (that of her colleague Colin Zabel) that adds to her grief and throws her back into her sense of despair.

Mare is tough, but she’s not invincible - no one is. Her emotions are visible behind the expressionless exterior and we know she is hiding so much within by trying to protect herself and her family. Despite solving a year-long case, Mare is straddled with more guilt as Colin was killed in the line of duty working with Mare when she was supposed to be on leave - deep down she feels it is her fault, and perhaps it is. Had Colin not followed the case with Mare, then maybe he would have avoided his sudden, shocking death at the hands of a suspect.  Like everything in the show, Colin's death is horrific and abrupt but the writer Brad Ingelsby makes it feel understated and realistic.  The tragedy is not sensationalised or dramatised, it is actualised as a reality for people in the line of duty. The threat of injury and death are constantly on the cards and Colin’s end is a sore reminder of what can be lost in a split second. The death of Colin, as well as Mare’s son and the threat of suicide, was just so brutally realistic, further adding to the gritty realism that makes Mare of Easttown one of the best TV dramas in years.

When it launched in America a lot of US critics dismissed it as 'bleak' and to be fair to them, it is. It doesn't shy away from tough, heartbreaking truths. It also does not overly dramatise these events. There is a constant thread of realism that runs through the entire plot that creates a world that is believable because it is relatable. Because of its humanity, it's also full of funny and heart-warming moments between Mare and the other women in her home. Particularly her mother, who Mare fights and argues with but clearly loves deeply.

Mare is many things: she's a mother who is trying her best to provide for her family, she’s a detective trying to help her community. However, she is overrun by her own personal grief and her career acts as a way to distract herself from her past. Mare’s character is realistic because she is believable, we understand her actions because we are given an opportunity to understand how she feels and why. Kate Winslet gives life to a truly complex, raw character and makes it look like she does it with ease. In only six episodes, with one finale to go, Mare of Easttown manages to build such an authentic world, spearheaded by a phenomenal character who tells a moving story about motherhood, family, love, loss, and the forces of human nature - both good and bad.

Contributed by Chloe Agnew

Mare of Easttown Concludes Monday on Sky Atlantic and the NOW Streaming Service.

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