The title of the new HBO/Sky Atlantic drama Mare of Easttown (19 April, 9pm) is a bit confusing, because this show isn’t about a horse. It’s about – surprise! – cops, and the Mare in question is Mare Sheehan, a beaten-down detective sergeant who lives and works in a small, cold Pennsylvania town.
Mare is played by Kate Winslet who, for the purposes of the role, needs her roots doing so badly it looks as though the ends of her hair have accidentally been dipped in custard – and yes, some people will doubtless watch this series for her alone. But there are other reasons why you might want to give this show a try, not least Guy Pearce, who plays Mare’s love interest Richard, a one-time winner of a National Book Award who is in Easttown to teach creative writing.
Richard picks Mare up in a bar, and they wind up having speedy but satisfying sex next to his coffee table, on which are piled many copies of his sole novel. He seems not to have much baggage – he’s wry about his failure to finish another book; he doesn’t disagree when Mare suggests that “talking about writing” is a dumb way to make a living – and naturally, this makes me suspicious of his motives. Then again, I was on alert from the start. Richard. It’s one of those names, isn’t it? Will he turn out to be a Richard Nixon, a Richard Burton or a Richard the Lionheart? And yes, I know creative writing is now America’s third biggest industry, after tech and fried chicken. All the same, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Easttown has the time or the energy to unpick the stories of John Cheever.
Mare is working on a big, hard-to-crack case, and by the end of the first episode, things on this score are getting a whole lot more complicated (this is all I can say, though I must add that I could do without the gratuitous female corpse shots). But Mare of Easttown’s murder plot is not the whole story. Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay brings to mind a certain kind of small-town novel: something by Elizabeth Strout, say, or going back a bit further, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place. Here are bad jobs, relentless poverty and broken families; and here, too, are gossip and spite. Its real subject is quiet desperation: the kind of misery that can be signalled in the way someone devours a cheesesteak, or opens a bottle of beer. Comfort is scant in Easttown. A visitor from San Diego, boasting of sunshine, might have come from the moon.
More complicatedly for Mare, everyone knows everyone else. Buying petrol, she’s served by the mother of a victim. The father of a suspect pulls up outside her house in his truck and calls her name. Her daughter was present at the scene of a crime, as was just about every other teenager in the town. If Richard is burdened only by hand luggage and a rolled-up copy of the New Yorker, Mare’s hefty suitcases, bought in a job lot at Target, will barely fit in the plane’s hold. She is already a grandmother. Her ex-husband lives in the house right behind hers with his fiancée, whom she seemingly cannot stand. Her son is dead. Her daughter-in-law is an addict. On and on it goes. Families in Easttown are regularly reconstituted – they must be heated up, like canned soup – and hers is no different.
Mare is permanently exhausted. She vapes with the kind of commitment a musician would reserve for her oboe. But she also has a strange, tamped down energy. She is dogged, stoical, ever sarcastic. “I’m sorry, that’s too bad. Give it time,” she instructs Richard when he tells her that he’s newly arrived from Syracuse. She owns her life, in the same way that she owns her town (its police force is miniature, and thanks to this she is its queen, albeit a somewhat churlish, unpopular one).
I like Winslet’s performance. Its fearlessness might be predictable – doesn’t every actor long to look this bad, while sounding this good? – but her pugnacious attention to detail makes it very enjoyable to watch. There’s such fierceness in the way she does everything, as if even refrigerators must be bullied into revealing their secrets.
Mare of Easttown
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical