I have to confess I started Sky Atlantic’s new HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown with a degree of trepidation. This is mainly down to the fact that I had done something that I don’t ordinarily do and read some of the early reviews coming from America. They branded the show ‘bleak’ and bemoaned an uneven accent from star Kate Winslet. All in all, I wasn’t expecting much from the new mystery drama. To save you bother of reading on, I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode.
Winslet (in her first leading role for television) stars as Mare, a police detective who has lived her entire life in southeastern Pennsylvania. The first episode takes its time explaining Mare’s life. She’s a grandmother raising her dead son’s four-year-old boy whilst also trying to parent her own teenage daughter and contend with her mother. Her ex-husband is remarrying and has bought a house on a plot of land at the back of her garden and her life seems to be stuck at a dead end. In a TV landscape that is often too desperate to get to the point, I appreciated that this first episode took its time introducing the key members of the town, their relationship and Mare’s place in everything. Everything about this first episode feels authentic.
Mare has a form of ‘celebrity status’ within the community. Not for her tireless efforts with the police but more thanks to a winning high school basketball shot she made 25 years ago. The now grown women who made up that winning team are still celebrated in the town, much to Mare’s dismay. On the face of it, it’s a strange plot detail, but it illustrates perfectly how inextricably linked Mare is to the place and the people who live in Easttown.
Mare’s police work is mundane. Petty burglaries and drug-taking. It involves chasing the same people for the same petty crimes. In an early memorable scene, she injures her leg whilst chasing a suspect she has chased many times before only to convince him to turn himself in as she has done many times before. Winslet is pitch-perfect as Mare. She’s an aggressive, no-nonsense woman with too many responsibilities and too little faith in the people around her and in Winslet’s hands, Mare is incredibly human and instantly engaging.
There are tensions over the long-unsolved death of one of the daughter’s of Mare’s old teammates. Mare hasn’t been able to convict anyone for the girls’ murder and the case hangs over the station. By the time we reach the grisly new case Mare and her team are going to work on, director Craig Zobel has done such a brilliant job giving the show a sense of place, that I’d be happy to spend time just following Mare rounding up the petty thieves of Easttown.
The other half of this first episode focuses on sweet-natured teen mum Erin (Cailee Spaeny). She’s desperately trying to save money for her infant son’s ear operation whilst contending with the tension between her son’s father and her own father, both of which treat her like something they’ve stepped in. Like Mare, Erin doesn’t have an awful lot to look forward to, but on the night her son is away with his dad, she gets ready to meet a boy she’s been texting with. Sadly, for both the audience and Erin, she has been catfished by her son’s father’s new girlfriend and is ridiculed and brutally beaten by a group of local teens. Their attack on Erin is painful to watch because writer and creator Brad Ingelsby does such a good job at setting up who these people are that by the time Erin meets her unhappy end, her loss is palpable.
There are comparisons to be made with Happy Valley and there are few shows that can be uttered in the same breath as Sally Wainwright’s masterpiece. It’s not just that both are helmed by great female performances. That they both feature women investigating violent crimes or even that both feature that same character raising their dead child’s grandson, but more that both have a great sense of place, an intriguing mystery at the heart and spot-on performances from every member of the cast. What felt so refreshing here was that the characters felt so human. There’s often a tendency to rush to the murder and learn about the victim as the investigation does, this first hour expertly introduces us to the key players and it’s all the better for it. Mare of Easttown may not set the world of crime drama alight but certainly stands up against the best the genre has to offer. It’s certainly the best recent example of a crime drama that I’m entirely interested and invested in.
Mare of Easttown Continues Mondays at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic and is streaming on NOW.