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Why Mare of Easttown’s latest episode is its biggest yet

Mare gets a huge break in the Katie Bailey case.

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.

This post contains spoilers for the fifth episode of Mare of Easttown.

There are two episodes left of HBO’s Pennsylvania murder show Mare of Easttown, and the fifth episode, “Illusions,” set the Kate Winslet drama speeding toward its finale.

For what it’s worth, calling Mare (which SNL brilliantly spoofed) a murder show cheekily undercuts it. The series has really been a slow-boil glimpse into detective Mare Sheehan’s messy existence, made messier by a murder. Each episode has shown us how there are no boundaries between Mare’s personal, social, and professional lives. They all bleed into one another. The longer the murder in Easttown goes unsolved, the more damage bleeds into the other parts of Mare’s life. And without question, a lot of that damage is self-inflicted, as Mare is carrying the trauma of divorce, grief, and guilt.

Perhaps that’s why this specific episode and its frenetic pace suggest the series is turning a corner.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Suddenly, Mare and Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) catch a huge break. They find a sex worker who survived what seems to have been an encounter with Erin’s killer, a man who might have also abducted the still-missing (and presumed dead) Katie Bailey and Missy Sager. She tells them about a cigarette-smoking client who tried to strangle her. Even better, she tells them about his blue van and gives them the first few letters and digits of his license plate.

Mare and Zabel have all they need to track down the culprit! Or so they think.

What they don’t know is that the man who kidnapped Katie and Missy might not be the same man who killed Erin.

The possibility that there are two different criminals in play is more obvious to viewers because we, unlike Mare and the rest of the Easttown police force, know what’s really happened to Katie.

Not realizing she’s still alive, Mare and the rest of Easttown have largely written Katie off. And because murders and kidnappings don’t happen often in Easttown, it seems to a lot of the town’s residents, including Mare’s boss Chief Carter, that it’s one person committing the crimes rather than multiple serious incidents happening in Easttown.

Mare and Zabel haven’t quite dismissed the idea of multiple criminals, but Mare’s connection to Katie’s case has her looking for clues and similarities in Erin’s murder and Missy’s disappearance.

There’s also been a lot of shady behavior from several Easttown residents, including Erin’s ex Dylan and her very sketchy priest friend who seem to be acting more suspicious by the minute while Mare and Zabel are following other leads.

Mare of Easttown, at its core, has been about how Mare pins her hopes, disappointments, self-worth, and identity on her ability to protect the people of Easttown and do her job. At the same time, it’s a show about how that job, unfortunately and ultimately, will never be enough to save her from herself. And sometimes, even the lucky breaks feel like losses.

Why Katie Bailey’s kidnapper and Erin’s murderer might not be the same person

Evan Peters in Mare of Easttown.

The past four episodes of Mare have worked hard to establish that Mare believes Erin’s murder and Katie’s and Missy’s abductions are all connected. That logic was emphasized in episode four, “Poor Sisyphus,” when we learned that Erin was thinking about dabbling in sex work through an app called Sidedoor. Katie and Missy, who were also part-time sex workers, used the same app.

This compelled Mare to see if she could find some leads with sex workers, even though she’d been stripped of her badge after planting heroin on her estranged daughter-in-law. In episode five, she and Zabel get the lucky break, as a sex worker basically describes the person they’re looking for and gives them all kinds of information about the vehicle he drives and even the cigarettes he smokes. They run what they have of his license plate, and [unbeknownst to them] arrive where Katie and Missy are being held.

But what kind of criminal have they really found?

Mare of Easttown has been purposely opaque about this man, withholding details about who he is, where he lives, and what his deal is.

What we know is that he’s held Katie Bailey for over a year and is now forcing Missy into the same captivity. Katie tells Missy in one of their scenes together that before Missy was abducted and thrown into the room, another girl named Hillary had been there with Katie. Hillary got pregnant and Katie says she doesn’t know what happened to her. It signals that this man has a pattern and history of kidnapping young women and using them as sex slaves, and he has devised elaborate plans to not get caught. Yikes!

And though the guy is clearly awful and demented, he doesn’t seem to match what we know about the person who killed Erin. He keeps his victims captive for very long stretches of time. After abducting Katie, he didn’t strike again for a year before kidnapping Missy. If he had run into Erin the night she was killed, it seems like he would have abducted her instead of killing her.

Mare and Zabel surprise him and engage in a shootout. Zabel takes a bullet to the head. After a scuffle, Mare is able to outmaneuver the kidnapper and shoot him before passing out herself. She doesn’t know who she’s found, nor been able to process that Katie, who she had written off, is alive.

Mare’s future feels awfully bleak, even if she does solve these cases

If you had told me after Mare of Easttown’s first episode that Mare eventually finds Katie Bailey, I would have been breathing a sigh of relief for my dear Mare. Mare’s detective job is basically the one place in her life that she can find closure and control over the events surrounding her.

I’d argue that Mare is better at protecting the people of Easttown than she is at taking care of her family. It seems like Mare’s inability to solve Katie’s case doesn’t just hurt her because it mirrors the grief of losing her own son, but because it also dredges up feelings of inadequacy and suggests she isn’t able to save the people who depend on her. Mare clearly believes that solving Erin’s case will in turn solve Katie’s case and that she’ll find some kind of absolution.

After the confrontation in episode five, absolution is probably not happening.

Mare shouldn’t even be pursuing this case; she’s been suspended and told to leave it alone. She has also, depending on how you view their relationship, been forming a romantic connection with Zabel to keep the investigation going. And now that Zabel’s dead, largely because of her relentless pursuit of the case, I can’t imagine how she’s going to live with herself.

Even if she did save Missy and Katie, she won’t be rewarded professionally and any semblance of emotional relief will be outweighed by Zabel’s death.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Erin’s killer is still out there.

We also find out in this episode that Dylan might not be as innocent as previously thought, as we see him visiting Erin’s old room and pocketing money Erin had saved up for their son’s ear surgery. He’s also been telling Erin’s friend Jess to lie to detectives, and he burned Erin’s journals.

Looming in the background is the always shady Deacon Mark — who saw Erin before she died, has her bike in his car, and has a previous allegation of misconduct with an underage girl. He’s probably the most guilty-seeming suspect on the show.

There are also suspects like John Ross, the husband of Mare’s best friend Lori who has been cheating on her, as well as fancy author Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce) who has all but disappeared after splashing into Mare’s life.

“Illusions,” with its gunfight and reveals, sees Mare of Easttown lean all the way into its twisty murder mystery. The people we thought were off the hook might be the biggest villains. The people we thought were doomed are actually still alive. But while it feels the show has cranked up the pace and soapiness, it’s worth remembering that Mare of Easttown has always been about Mare’s trauma and grief rather than whodunnit.

Earlier this season, Mare said finding Katie would be like finding a “needle in a thousand fuckin’ haystacks.” By the end of this episode, Mare defied the odds, lucked out, and found that elusive needle. And yet somehow her life feels worse off and bleaker than ever.