Review: Kate Winslet’s ‘Mare of Easttown’ is far better than any detective show should be

It’s hard to innovate a genre as old and well-trodden as the detective drama. 

And while HBO’s new “Mare of Easttown” (Sundays, 10 EDT/PDT, ★★★½ out of four) doesn’t go so far as to reinvent the detective story, it does offer a version of the tale more nuanced and thoughtful than the vast majority of its peers. Starring Kate Winslet as a small town cop just outside of Philadelphia, “Mare” is a mystery on the outside and a personal family drama in its interior. Its characters are deeply real and expertly drawn, its sense of place firmly established and specific, and its clues genuinely shocking. It’s an intense and satisfying to watch, going to places your average murder mystery wouldn’t aspire. 

Kate Winslet as Detective Mare Sheehan in "Mare of Easttown." (Photo: HBO)

Set in the depressed hamlet of Easttown, Pennsylvania, Mare, a detective with the local police, is investigating the recent murder of teen mom Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), which may be connected to the disappearance of two other young women in the small town. Soft spoken county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is called in to help with the case, and though Mare eventually warms to him, she is initially annoyed by the young, peppy cop following at her heels. 

As twisty as the mystery is, far more riveting are the turns in Mare’s life, battling trauma and grief while messily trying to do well for her family, which is complex and ingrained with tragedy. The 45-year-old actress plays a grandmother, her son having had a child young before taking his own life. Now a divorced Mare is raising her 4-year-old grandson with the help of her mother Helen (Jean Smart, an absolute treat as usual) and teen daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), trying to swat away custody claims by the boy’s mother Carrie (Sosie Bacon), who is battling addiction issues. Her ex-husband (David Denman) is newly engaged, which makes Mare slightly more amenable to the advances of new-in-town writer Richard Ryan (Guy Pierce). 

Kate Winslet as Mare and Evan Peters as Colin Zabel in "Mare of Easttown." (Photo: HBO)

It’s a lot, and Mare bears the stress of her home as best she can, if not entirely successfully, throwing herself into her cases with sometimes less than professional standards. 

Winslet’s utter dedication to the role, down to her near perfect assimilation of the regional accent (which, as a resident of Southeastern Pennsylvania I can give my stamp of approval to) enhances the already engrossing script. Mare is so inherently human, deeply flawed but deeply relatable. She occasionally does something so loathsome it would have made a lesser character in the hands of a lesser actress irredeemable, but Mare’s appeal helps soften the blow. 

Peters is Winslet’s equal foil, his Colin as bright-eyed as Mare is cynical, fully enamored of his crusty partner from the moment he brought her some Wawa coffee. The series is a surprising showcase for the actor, who finally gets a grown up role after years of playing teens and juvenile superheroes on series like “American Horror Story” and films like “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” 

The script is well-written by creator Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”), loosely inspired by his own upbringing in nearby Berwyn, Pennsylvania. The series was shot locally and it’s easy to tell, as the setting is so palpable and dynamic. Winslet is surrounded by a superb supporting cast. In addition to Peters, Smart is a joy in every scene she appears in, a disaffected older woman playing games on her iPad and cracking jokes at her daughter. 

Jean Smart as Mare's mother Helen in "Mare of Easttown." (Photo: HBO)

The greatness of “Mare” is unfortunately built on the same lurid violence against women that permeates other crime dramas. Occasional shots of Erin’s naked dead body or sex workers stripping for clients feel completely out of place with the more measured tone of the rest of the series. Only five of the miniseries’ seven episodes were made available for review, but its exploitative scenes so far feel more like an aberration than anything else. Crime dramas obviously necessitate a criminal act to investigate, but there have been quite enough sexualized dead women on TV screens for the past two decades. 

But “Mare” is the kind of show that is better than the sum of its parts (and that sum was already pretty good). Viewers may start it thinking they know where it’s going, feel like it’s a standard, cookie cutter cop show they’ve seen before, but they’ll be slowly and gently surprised by just how good it is. 

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