MARE OF EASTTOWN. Given the velocity at which I jettisoned myself from my own beat-down East Coast hometown full of salt-rusted cars and muddy yards, it's a little surprising how drawn I am to the world of Easttown. The grim, fictional composite of Pennsylvania towns in which HBO's detective miniseries takes place is south of the state line from where I grew up, but watching its disappointed characters drag themselves from high school gym to bar is like observing my imagined class reunion punishingly sober.
Surely there are happy people in the Philadelphia suburbs, as there were in my hometown, but we won't be visiting with them in Mare of Easttown. Instead, we'll watch parents digest the loss of their children and children shrug at their rapidly shrinking prospects, all while swiping at each other's wounds before a backdrop of comfortless Irish Catholicism and bare trees. Good times.
Last week's review of Sasquatch ("Homicide and Hominids," May 6) touched on the way visiting documentarians seem hell bent on pumping up the spookiness of Humboldt County forests. Conversely, Netflix's Virgin River sands down our local eccentricities to crank out a lightly pine-scented Hallmark romance in a flannel shirt ("Virgin River's Washed-out Humboldt," Jan. 23). Both are crimes of inauthenticity that might go unnoticed elsewhere. Perhaps someone born and bred in the Philadelphia suburbs sees gaffes and carpetbaggers amid all the Wawa cups and cheesesteaks, or detects a slip in Kate Winslet's accent. And maybe they'll cringe to see small-town, white Pennsylvania entering a moment of vogue in Hollywood, like South Boston did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But whatever set dressing or local details might be off, unbeknownst to me, Mare of Easttown feels true in its portrayal of humanity and challenging in the twin mysteries of the town's crimes and its reluctant heroine.
Detective Mare Sheehan (Winslet) peaked low and early, making a long-shot basket at a high school game that earned her the nickname Miss Lady Hawk. We meet her downhill from that moment, taking a public hiding over the unsolved case of a missing girl, which Mare has mostly written off as hopeless and responds to by barking at the girl's mother (Enid Graham), who's undergoing chemotherapy. Similar finesse goes into squabbling with her mother (Jean Smart) and daughter (Angourie Rice), a one-night stand and coping with her ex-husband Frank's (David Denman) engagement. In the wake of her son's suicide, Mare and her mother are raising his little boy, though their custody is tenuous. The boy's mother, Carrie (Sosie Bacon), a recovering drug addict, is getting her life together and wants him back. The murder of Erin (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage mother, brings media attention and unwanted help from the county in the form of detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). And so the two begin the slog of investigating Erin's life, interviewing teenagers, family members and the growing list of mostly men who might have killed one girl and/or disappeared another.
That we're looking at the murder of a young woman (yes, of course, and found nearly naked) is hardly groundbreaking — the formula for detective dramas seems to be a ratio of 20 minutes of tough, capable women doing things for every 30 minutes of awful shit happening to women. (Pro-tip: Fast forwarding through scenes of women being brutalized can really move you through your streaming queue.) And the list of suspects reads like a bingo card: an angry father, an angry ex, his jealous girlfriend, priests, a teacher. Though I'm four episodes in and still casting about for my pick of the lineup. And unlike so many delightfully unlikeable fictional sleuths, Mare's life isn't poisoned by her dedication to her work or her myopia as she dives into the minds of criminals. In fact, she's kind of terrible at her job, shrugging off a missing case, arresting a suspect publicly out of spite and worse every episode. Really it's her life that's poisoned her work, a life cracked by tragedy and her inability to cope with her own feelings and deal with them beyond attacking those around her. But she's not dumb — she knows people, knows her town and has a broad background in bad impulses and poor decisions, as she demonstrates by sagely telling her partner, "Trust me, teenage girls are fuckin' sneaky."
While much has been made of Winslet's accent, she embodies Mare with her low-grade frown and the hunch of her dun coat. Along with the intense, emotional scenes we expect Winslet to ace, when her living room window is smashed right behind Mare's head, she's utterly natural shaking off the broken glass to eat her sandwich and read her mail. As her mother, Smart is a goddamn treasure, at turns funny and angry, sometimes at the same thing. Peters is up to the daunting task of holding his own against Winslet and he's the most convincing drunk I've seen on screen for years. Those performances pull us along as much as the mystery. What happened to the girls, missing and dead, is only part of the story, which is bound up in the fetishization of youth and potential, and the crushing disappointment when it's spent or trapped with nowhere to go. TVMA. HBOMAX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.