There’s a scene in Mare of Easttown in which Kate Winslet’s eponymous detective is settled on her sofa, sifting through papers and eating a sandwich. Suddenly, a large carton of milk smashes through the window behind her, showering her in glass and milk. Barely flinching, she puts down the paperwork, brushes herself off and then picks up her sandwich and wearily takes another bite. S**t happens, but she’s not going to let it come between her and her dinner.
Set in small-town Pennsylvania, Sky’s much-admired crime drama has all the hallmarks of a basic weeknight murder-mystery: a troubled cop; a dead single mother; multiple suspects; locals in need of a dentist. It also has a uniquely unprepossessing title that led me to wonder, prior to reading the blurb, if I was in for seven hours of equine drama. But there is a reason why this series, released quietly six weeks ago, has proved such a hit.
For starters, there’s the quiet subversion of cop drama cliche. There is violence and death, yes, but most of it takes place off-screen – plus you won’t find fetchingly porcelain-skinned ladies on the mortician’s slab being poked by men in lab coats here. The series also provides a corrective to the male-dominated detective show, which invariably features a cop crossing ethical lines with impunity because he is, naturally, a sleuthing genius.
Instead, Mare of Easttown is led by a complex, believable, and not always likeable female protagonist. Mare is decent at her job but is also fallible, as illustrated by the case of a missing local girl in which she has so far failed to come up with answers. She also has multiple burdens: a teenage daughter, an elderly mother, an infant grandson, and a son who died by suicide. While the show’s writers have arguably gone overboard with Mare’s suffering (did they really need to install her ex-husband and his fiancee in the house behind hers?) she represents the difficulties that so many women face in middle age, from angry teens, to divorce, to bereavement. It’s no wonder she looks knackered.
Winslet’s Mare Sheehan is the type of role that, until now, has been occupied almost exclusively on the small screen by Sarah Lancashire, an actor who has cornered the market in weary exasperation. Indeed, there are more than superficial similarities between Mare of Easttown and Sally Wainwright’s rural thriller Happy Valley, in which Lancashire starred, and where addiction, abuse and death were woven into the fabric of life. Much like Lancashire’s put-upon police sergeant Catherine Cawood, Mare is resourceful and empathetic, but also short-tempered and impulsive. She can be funny, too – a characteristic she apparently gets from her mother, played by Jean Smart, who gives the show its rare flashes of levity (someone give this woman a spin-off!).
Meanwhile, Mare’s bravest moments, which require her to walk into crime scenes unprepared or, worse, unarmed, are acted in an unshowy, roll-your-sleeves-up fashion. Without saying a word, Winslet’s face can do the work of 10 pages of script. If you need a job doing, do it your bloody self, it seems to say.
The show’s timing is perfect, too. After 14 months during which we have all suffered in different ways, Mare’s hatchet-faced understanding that life is not a box of chocolates but a massive pit of slurry in which we are all wading – some of us up to our ankles, but others neck-deep – rings particularly true. Bleakness is everywhere in Easttown: in the peeling and crumbling buildings, the slate-grey skies, and the pasty complexions of the town’s residents. And while I don’t wish to make my admiration for this series about a woman’s appearance, there’s something reassuring about seeing Winslet stripped of her customary sparkle and dressed in comfy utility wear. The baggy sweatshirts, big socks and acres of flannel that make up her wardrobe have been our must-have items at home in lockdown. That Mare can wear them out and about without judgement surely means that we can too, goddammit.
I like that the series has been going out weekly, rather than being released in a single dump, meaning the suspense is stretched out, along with the inevitable theorising regarding the murderer’s identity. (Line of Duty pulled off the same trick, taking us back to the days of linear programming – though in terms of depth and atmosphere, Jed Mercurio’s show isn’t fit to shine Mare of Easttown’s shoes.)
But while the whodunnit aspect is undoubtedly intriguing, my investment in Mare of Easttown comes mostly from watching Winslet. I love her portrayal of a woman who is umbilically attached to her vape pen, who doesn’t eat sandwiches daintily, and who can’t always be arsed to wash her hair. I bow down to her refusal to crack a smile when social conventions dictate that, largely to soothe male egos, she should. Most of all, I love that, despite experiencing traumas and tragedies that could finish a person, she keeps on going in the knowledge that her work and her existence are ultimately worthwhile. The overall message? Be more Mare.
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