The sheer number of television shows that can be described as “curmudgeonly detective solves a dead girl case while their personal/romantic life falls apart” is beyond counting at this point, but the trope is common for a reason. When done well, it makes for really good TV. The newest entry into the pantheon of TV cops with dead townies and big problems is Kate Winslet’s Mare Sheehan, the titular character of HBO’s Mare of Easttown. And yes, it’s one of the really good ones.
Mare of Easttown takes place in a grubby small-town Pennsylvania nowhere, the kind of place where everyone is kind of related or at least knows everyone else’s business. Within the first few minutes of the show, it becomes clear that Mare is more than a detective in Easttown’s police force — she’s a trusted figure who grew up alongside anyone she may have to apprehend. Mare’s home life is complicated by living with her sardonic mother Helen (Jean Smart), being a divorcee whose ex lives right next door, a mother to queer teen Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and a grandmother to a four-year-old boy born of Mare’s late son and his drug addicted girlfriend. In addition to her stress over retaining custody of her grandson, Mare is haunted by her son’s death and a year-old missing persons case she can’t get a lead on.
Kate Winslet embodies Mare’s weary pragmatism flawlessly. She moves like Mare’s every step is one more than the character wants to deal with and surveys crime scenes, rowdy bar crowds, and her own kitchen with an expression of exhausted competence. Mare has a lot on her plate and knows that nothing is ever going to come off it, which makes her dedication to solving crimes come with a single-minded (and very effective) “let’s get this done” efficiency. When one of Easttown’s many teen mothers turns up dead, Mare can’t help but doggedly pursue the truth at the expense of her mental health and relationships.
The show is as much of a family drama as a crime drama, except the entire town is the family and the crime strikes at their deepest secrets.
Into this mix comes Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), an up-and-coming gumshoe from a nearby district whose puppylike enthusiasm for partnering with Mare is initially a comedic interlude but becomes one of the show’s most interesting relationships. Peters is particularly good at playing a cop whose energy outshines Mare’s even as she demonstrates superior instincts, and watching him and Winslet squad up is a truly odd and endearing on-screen dynamic.
Mare of Easttown is the kind of detective show that throws in a twist at the end of each episode to keep you hooked, but the characters are all so compelling that being left hanging doesn’t feel cheap or contrived. Every character in the ensemble is well developed with their own motivations, which makes the web of family, friendship, and enmity that stretches across Easttown a fascinating tangle of suspicion and humanity.
Mare of Easttown feels like as much of a family drama as a crime drama, except the entire town is the family and the crime strikes at their deepest secrets. Anyone with a taste for HBO’s knockout prestige-plus-murder combo should find out what both Mare and Easttown have to hide.
Mare of Easttown is now airing on HBO Sundays at 10 ET.