TV: Mare of Easttown

Who says Scandinavia has cornered the market on dark, twisty neo-noir mystery? If you were to dub Mare of Easttown into Finnish, it would slot in nicely alongside a show like Bordertown or Deadwind—grim, bleak, intense, a tale of small-town murder and mayhem featuring a broken but remarkable protagonist. Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet, deploying an effortless-seeming Rust Belt accent) is a tough, resourceful detective on the Easttown police force. The community is so small, however, and everyone’s lives are so closely intertwined, that it often complicates her work. She’s also been through the wringer lately: haunted by a missing persons case she couldn’t solve, reeling from the tragic death of her son, and struggling through a divorce made worse by the fact that her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) owns a house literally in her back yard. It’s under these less-than-ideal circumstances that Mare catches another high-profile case: the murder of Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), a young single mother with deep roots in the community. When Erin is found dead in the woods, it shocks the town and leads to concerns that Mare’s unsolved missing persons case may be connected. The state sends in another detective, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), to assist Mare, worried that she may not be up to the task. Reluctantly, Mare accepts this new partnership, but the various stresses of her personal life—intrinsically entangled with the people she’s charged with investigating—threaten to derail the case.

Mare of Easttown has a well-deserved reputation as a prestigious drama, but it’s essentially a Nordic Noir ported to the American Northeast, with all the earmarks: a compelling but messed-up protagonist, an out-of-town detective learning the local ways, an ominous small-town atmosphere, a brutal crime, and an intricately entangled suspect list. It’s an exceptional example of this type of story, anchored by Winslet’s impressive, layered performance. Prickly, argumentative, and prone to bending the rules, Mare is difficult to like initially, but as the big picture of her life comes into focus, she grows more and more sympathetic. This effective character work is teased out gradually through Mare’s nuanced interactions with Frank, Zabel, her mother Helen (Jean Smart), daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson), boss Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson), and a potential new love interest named Richard (Guy Pearce). Mare’s story is one of individual struggle in the face of unreasonable societal expectations, limited opportunities, and crushing, relentless grief—and fighting through each day in spite of it all. This personal, internal journey runs parallel to the external casework, which deploys similar themes amidst the tangle of locals and suspects with whom Mare interacts. It all adds up to a gripping, impeccably acted limited series as satisfying for its character work as for its dark mysteries.

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