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One Good Thing: Mare of Easttown is my new favorite murder story

The Kate Winslet-starring HBO miniseries ponders the double horror of peaking in high school and homicide.

Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

“So Kate Winslet is a mayor?”

That’s one of the questions I occasionally get asked these days. It’s my fault. I mumble sometimes, which means I really need to enunciate when raving about Kate Winslet in the seven-episode HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown — one of my favorite new TV showsso as not to give the wrong impression.

Alas, Kate Winslet is not a mayor.

Winslet is Mare Sheehan, a former high school basketball star turned bristly detective grandma of Easttown, Pennsylvania. Winslet, who spouts off a Delaware County (suburban Philadelphia) accent that turns “water” into wudur and “home” into hewam, is putting in a masterful performance as brittle and prickly Mare that’s reason enough to tune in.

But Mare isn’t just a Winslet acting exhibition, nor is it ever in danger of becoming a hollow A-list actor offensive like HBO’s last buzzy drama, The Undoing, was. It’s a riveting and messy family drama — bolstered by great performances from Jean Smart and Angourie Rice — that’s wrapped in a chewy and thrilling murder mystery. Setting it in blue collar, semi-rural Philadelphia heightens the mood, the fear, and even the show’s rare comedic moments. And that’s part of what makes it the most riveting show on television at the moment.

Mare of Easttown is a murder mystery that unlocks a story about another woman’s troubled history

Don’t lie to Kate Winslet, I mean, Mare of Easttown.

What makes Mare of Easttown work is how different it is from HBO’s glamorous, prestige murder story offerings of late like The Undoing and Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman starred in both. But the shows also had more in common that just Kidman. They were both about the glamorous lives of very beautiful, very rich women beleaguered by sociopaths, awful marriages, and homicide. Their privileged lives complete with plush homes, beautiful coats, and perfect handbags were part of the shows’ appeal; the women’s well-appointed kitchens, gorgeous fashion, and lives full of surreal opulence matched their degree of emotional terror and turmoil.

Mare has plenty of terror and turmoil; not so much of the rest.

Mare herself peaked in high school and lives with her mother (Smart), daughter (Rice), and grandson. Her house isn’t terribly handsome, and seems a little drafty — her mom usually has a blanket nearby. Her coat is more sack than clothing, barely enough to keep her warm in what seems to be an interminable, gloomy winter in Easttown. Her job as the town’s detective is the best thing she has going for her because it’s her one way to escape the more humdrum truths of her existence. Detective-ing is one of the few things she enjoys doing and one of the few things that lets her have some power and control in Easttown.

Everyone knows everyone in Easttown, which makes Mare captivating as its central protagonist. The people who ask her for help are friends of friends. The people doing crimes are also friends of friends. So Mare, by virtue of growing up in Easttown, already has an opinion about who seems suspicious. And even in spite of protecting her friends and the town she grew up in, she sometimes struggles to see people’s humanity beyond the scope of the law.

She knows how to use small-town gossip and politics in her favor. At one point, she embarrasses one of the town’s kids by arresting her at her waitressing job, knowing full well it’ll cause reverberations and rumors throughout the town.

The problem for Mare, though, is that her approach works both ways. Everyone in town knows Mare’s backstory, too.

When Mare of Easttown begins, someone’s murdered a local young woman named Erin McMenamin. Mare is on the case, and the longer it goes unsolved the more it dredges up the biggest question mark of Mare’s career to date: the abduction of Katie Bailey a year ago.

Mare never found Katie or her kidnapper, and everyone in Easttown knows it. The longer Mare’s investigation into Erin’s death goes on, the more people bring up that Mare couldn’t find Katie, and the more Mare feels like a failure. And Mare often seems more concerned about her ego and reputation than she is with Katie’s well-being. (“We’re never gonna find her. Never. She’s a needle in a thousand fucking haystacks,” Mare coldly tells a friend after said friend diplomatically explains that Katie’s mom has cancer and that when people mention the case, it’s not really about Katie going missing or animosity about Mare.)

Though the show could prove me wrong and become splashy and twisty in its final episodes (I’ve seen five of seven episodes, which were sent to critics to screen; three have aired so far) it doesn’t feel like Mare is particularly concerned with the depravity of its villain or villains, or like it’s gearing up to reveal an evil resident in Easttown’s midst. It could easily be that Katie’s and Erin’s cases were perpetrated by two different people and are simply two random and tragic crimes. And while the show has a few whodunit moments, it isn’t a thriller in that regard.

Instead, Mare of Easttown wraps itself around its title character’s complexities and struggles, and shows how this case eats away at the thin walls that separate Mare’s personal self from the public and professional selves she presents to the world. Winslet is mesmerizing as she allows us to see the ugliness Mare is capable of and how obsessive, perhaps even abusive, she can be when she’s threatened.

Suddenly Mare’s life becomes more ragged that it first seemed, and we first assumed.

Mare of Easttown is true to its name, unfurling into a history about a woman who has spent a lot of time avoiding her past and her obligation to the town that raised her. If I were Mare’s friend, I’d suggest moving away from Easttown, because opening up old wounds over and over again doesn’t seem healthy. But I don’t know if she’d actually be able to thrive beyond its borders, since so much of this Pennsylvania town is coded into her life. She doesn’t know any other way.

Hence, her desperation to solve this case is firmly, perhaps even selfishly, entrenched with the hope that if she succeeds, it’ll correct the other parts of her life. And though we all know better than that, it’s still enthralling to watch her try.

Mare of Easttown airs Sundays at 10 pm on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.