There’s nothing like coming “home,” which could be said of Kate Winslet’s return to HBO in Mare of Easttown, one decade after her Emmy-winning turn in Mildred Pierce. This is also true, in a metaphorical sense, of Winslet’s title character in HBO’s new limited series, Mare of Easttown, although this character is living in a perpetual homecoming when she’s never left home in the first place. The show’s a lot of things: character study, world-building portrait of small-town life, and crime drama with (here’s the kicker) a sharp-witted dramedy embedded within the confines. It must also be noted that this show wasn’t exactly well-served by the show’s trailer. Sure, people expect a quality project when Kate Winslet is involved, but the trailer forecast yet another “gritty” cop drama focused upon a world-weary, probably hard-drinking, “complicated” protagonist. Yes, Winslet does embody that trope of a TV-cop, but this show ain’t overly gritty, even if the drab color palette would suggest otherwise.
Instead, Mare of Easttown, which is very serious in subject matter, is also quite charming at times. It will lure you in with a slow-burning first few episodes as we get to know our protagonist by how others perceive her, and then all (controlled) hell breaks loose. Kate Winslet doing a Philadelphia-adjacent accent then becomes only one of the main draws; she is thoroughly fascinating. Mare’s a hard-vaping cop with a mysterious tragedy scratching away at her underneath the surface, and she’s captivating to those who enter Easttown, although those who have known her forever tend to forget that she’s, well, human. Mare Sheehan never left her childhood stomping grounds; and although she doggedly serves the small town’s residents on a daily basis as a detective (who does it all, from chasing down apparent burglars to answering house calls for those who’d rather call her cell than the PD’s main line), she’s famed in the community for a high-school basketball shot. In this way, Mare’s a familiar face and comforting presence, but she’s still somehow an outsider within her own community.
The show spins an engrossing yarn while navigating an engaging mystery, as Winslet holds it together as a woman on the verge, who’s helping everyone but herself in a town that’s cannibalizing itself. I’d really like someone to let Mare have enough time to you, know, eat a damn sandwich in peace because that’s good for the soul, but that is not in the cards here. As if that wasn’t enough, Mare’s professional abilities are called into question, and her boss pulls in a young whippersnapper of a county detective to help clean up the mess. Evan Peters (who’s still pulling off the chameleon thing, as with AHS and WandaVision) turns out to be a friggin’ delight as Colin Zabel (yes, his name sure sounds like that of director Craig Zobel), whose audience-POV reactions to Mare and Easttown are one of the greatest pleasures of this series. He’s nearly aghast at how Mare is either related to or “friends” with everyone in this town, and how everyone casually treats each other terribly while also having each other’s backs.
Like Mare, the show’s a scrappy one, at once showcasing exhaustion while also intriguing viewers. This dual-naturedness is captured by writer Brad Ingelsby (The Way Back), who hails from Pennsylvania, close to where the series is set, and who takes great pains to authentically nail the often-claustrophobic feel of small-town life. Seriously, imagine being a detective who starts to unfurl a murder, and every piece of the puzzle points to someone you’ve known for most of your life. That’s Mare’s exasperating dilemma, and Ingelsby also clearly enjoyed painting Easttown, too, as a character while burrowing into a gruesome crime that rocks the close-knit community.
The mystery takes off. Mare of Easttown is at once a sprawling, take-your-time, seven-part series (for which critics screened five episodes) and an inferno. It’ll get suck you in and refuse to let you go, and even though the show dives into some bleak material, the series doesn’t emerge as anything resembling grief porn (and thank god for that). Winslet manages to both gamely and subtly portray the stereotypical cop who’s found in plentiful supply all over TV, and you know the type: too busy cleaning up the world, so their family life suffers, and their inner self crumbles. They inevitably f*ck up at home, over and over again; they can’t cope with the thought of maintaining a personal life after they lose what’s near and dear to them; and yes, this is not new. Winslet, however, fashions her character into a revelation. She’s got an arsenal of countless tiny gestures that, at once, tell us a lot about Mare but leave us wanting more. She’s much more than a f*cked-up TV cop who’s been on an unsolvable case for a year.
I’ve already mentioned Evan Peters as a wonderful side player, oh, and there are more. The show’s heavy on the HBO talent, given that it’s directed by Zobel (The Leftovers and Westworld), and the incredible cast includes Jean Smart (following up on Watchmen) and Julianne Nicholson (from The Outsider), whose characters both inform us of Mare’s personal life while observing how she responds to the show’s central mystery. Former Mildred Pierce co-star Guy Pearce surfaces as a love interest and an outsider and a one-time big-shot novelist. All are great here, but Smart, especially, is a natural treasure (although we already knew this from Fargo, Dirty John, and Watchmen). She brilliantly brings a necessary spark of comedy, and Jean Smart is the banisher of all things dreary. If she wasn’t about to star in her own HBO Max show (for Michael Schur), I’d already be calling for a “Mare’s Mom” spinoff.
Mare of Easttown is a pleasure to watch, with everyone in Mare’s orbit, and vice versa, as she circles in on the show’s main mystery. The horrific details of that puzzle are best left to your discovery, so that you can watch things unfold while Mare tries to extricate every local pain in her butt from sniffing around if they’re not indirectly tied to what happened. And it’s so much fun to watch Mare frustratedly deal with obstacles, despite the dark subject matter, and to watch Winslet piece together clues with the simplest of actions while there’s clearly so many inner workings underneath that surface. While standing still and doing nothing at all, while limping through a sprained ankle, and even while vaping, Winslet somehow does a lot. She’s a force of nature while eating some unappetizing pizza or stuffing a fancy hors d’oeuvre into a couch (please, someone get her a solid sandwich, because she’s earned it). All the while, Mare’s deconstructing herself and Easttown and working to save the soul of her community. I’m not sure that the residents deserve her, but HBO viewers deserve to get hooked on this series.
HBO’s ‘Mare of Easttown’ premieres on Sunday, April 18.