Mare of Easttown (2021; HBO) is a missing-persons/murder mystery that expands until the mystery becomes secondary to the family and community narratives that come to light. We are invested in knowing who killed Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), but we expect that mystery to be solved for us. The more interesting thing for the show is how all the now-intertwined families are going to survive—or not—and coexist once the murderer is found. Mare could easily have been just another small-town murder mystery, where “everyone has secrets,” and those secrets are slowly and “shockingly” revealed. (Sharp Objects with Amy Adams was one of the better versions of this.) Mare of Easttown, however, exposes unexpected layers of complexity.
We expect the clichés about people in a small town, where some people “escape,” others want to “get out,” and others are “stuck.” We expect everyone to be in everyone else’s business. We expect the negative associations with all of this. But what often gets overlooked, or not taken seriously, are the reasons why people would willingly live in a small town, why they would stay in a small town, and the strong human connections that make it possible for people to live through, and after, horrible things.
Communities are essentially extensions of the families who live there, and small communities even more so. The relationships intersect and overlap at both the happiest and the most horrible points. Mare (short for Marianne; played with emotional range and depth by the brilliant Kate Winslet), the only detective in Easttown, grew up there. She is known by nearly everyone, not only as a detective, but as the one who made the tournament-winning shot for the high school basketball team. What’s more, she followed her father as detective in the town.
Easttown is a town where very few families are fully intact. Teenage pregnancy, adultery, divorce, remarriage run through nearly every family, not to mention suicide, which Mare fears may run in her family. But while town gossip does use these things as fodder, the series doesn’t use them as so many elements of a sordid soap opera. They are just the way things are; what are people going to do with them? Some handle them badly; some handle them well, just as in real life. Some seem to view them as their destiny, fulfilling their own family self-prophecies. Others are determined to do things differently—again, as it is real life.
But because it is a small town, the families are not just on their own, but the people of the town are interconnected by relationships, deaths, infidelity, and crime. We enter the show in the middle of a year-long frustration for Mare, for the town, and for Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), whose daughter, Katie (Caitlin Houlahan), was kidnapped. Mare hasn’t been able to solve the case, and the pressure mounts because Dawn (a former teammate of Mare’s) has taken things into her own hands, involving the press, as well as a leaflet campaign around the town. The perpetrator ends up being an outsider in many ways, who does not seem to run in any of the normal community circles in the town, whose business is closed, and whose crime has further split the town. In some ways, the solving of this crime is itself incidental to the plot, although its consequences are not.
I do not want to reveal the ending, but it is in the final episode that all the family and community bonds are fully revealed for what they are. And at the center of those ties, at least for most of the town, is still, surprisingly, the church—and, for the show, the center is even more specifically the sermon given by the deacon, who himself was partially implicated in the entire plot of the series. This thread of the plot plays on another expected cliché about priests and young people, but refuses to give us reason for easy blame. The deacon tells the congregation that people within the community haven’t made it out of the past year, that they find themselves outside a circle of which they were once a part. He says, you may think that those people’s transgressions make them undeserving of your mercy. But our job, he says, is not to judge whether they are deserving, but only to love. So go to them, he says, and love them, even if they try to push you away. Don’t let them push you away. And that is what the people in the town do, despite all their faults.
Families are tied to each other, despite what they might want. In Mare of Easttown, it’s not only the families but every member of the community who is tied to the others. When something happens to one member of the community, it happens, in some sense, to every other member, because the members of the community, besides being related, can’t avoid seeing all those other people in various places. Mare can’t avoid seeing Dawn, whose daughter Mare has failed to find for over a year. Nor can Mare avoid seeing her ex-husband, who lives in the house across her backyard, and is about to be married to another woman. Dylan’s parents can’t avoid seeing a child whom they once thought was their own grandson. The deacon no doubt sees the men who assaulted him. And everyone sees Lori, whose family has been rearranged and upended.
They are pulled toward each other inescapably, for both good and ill. In the end, after all the ill, it is mostly for good. As Siobhan (Angourie Rice), Mare’s daughter says to her, “You could never leave this town. And the town is better because you’re here.” For the main characters whose faces we see in the church, the same could be said for them. The familial and community ties that bind us together, even when we would rather be elsewhere or do otherwise, force us to do the hard work of love that is so easily cast off in an anonymous and often aimless culture. In that, Mare of Easttown gives us much more than a murder mystery.