Kate Winslet’s HBO limited series manages to bring all of these disparate elements together for a satisfying conclusion that values both the mystery and the people.
[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for Episode 7 of “Mare of Easttown,” “Sacrament,” especially the ending.]
In HBO’s buzzy criminal drama, two seemingly opposing aspects from the two loosely related sides of “Mare of Easttown” find harmony. The red herrings, or red mareings, as my editor insisted on calling them, are the first element. (I’m sorry, but I can’t help myself.) Brad Inglesby, the show’s creator and writer, filled his seven-part limited series with clues, many of which turned out to be false, in order to create an intriguing whodunit for home viewers. Closure is the second aspect, which is in direct contradiction to the first. No matter how shocking the big discovery is, a murder mystery will break apart if the viewer feels too jerked around during their lengthy search for the perpetrator.
But the actual case is only one side of “Mare of Easttown,” and our titular hero’s own path toward salvation had already begun leading up to the Episode 7 climax. When Mare (Kate Winslet) put drugs on her former daughter-in-law, Carrie, she hit rock bottom as a cop and as a human (Sosie Bacon). She’s pulled herself up by her (actual) bootstraps since then, thanks to counselling and good old-fashioned cop work. If she had been using her cases to hide from her own pain, as her therapist suggested last week, addressing her son’s suicide spurred her to confront the reality at work as well. Mare couldn’t ignore the past, no matter how painful it was, and she couldn’t ignore what she was learning now for the same reasons.
For Mare, the murder mystery and human drama went hand in hand, and they ended up balancing out “Mare of Easttown” as well. As absurd as the truth may appear when taken out of context — “the youngster is the killer?” — “Sacrament,” the seventh episode, managed to wrap up far more loose ends than I had anticipated, and in ways that grew increasingly satisfying with subsequent viewings. The ending avoided going off the rails — a la the crash-and-burn hysteria of “The Undoing’s” atrocious conclusion — and even proved more moving than a show with this many fake outs has any right to be, thanks to wrenching human performances (shout-out to Julianne Nicholson, HBO’s supporting MVP in “Mare” and “The Outsider”).It’s interesting noting how many there were, if only to get a sense of how many of them were given good explanations. The sheer quantity of red mareings thrown out through the first six episodes — and even into the finale — might have kept Easttown anglers busy until winter. The prowler was first seen by the Carrolls in the first episode of the series. On the night Erin died, we saw Brianna Delrasso (Mackenzie Lansing) beat the crap out of her. Katie Bailey’s kidnapping drew everyone’s attention away from the murder investigation for more than 70% of the season, making it difficult to believe Wayne Potts (Jeb Kreager) had nothing to do with the subsequent homicide. Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce) was a sweet (too sweet? ), if libidinous (foreshadowing betrayal? ), suitor who came into Mare’s life at just the perfect (suspicious?) moment. Dylan Hinchey (Jack Mulhern) was a jerk, threatening Jess (Ruby Cruz), setting fire to evidence, and generally behaving badly. Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle), the suggested paedophile, tossed Erin’s bike in the river, Billy Ross (Robbie Tann) was found drenched in blood the night of the murder, and you’re telling me none of these guys killed Erin?!
It takes a certain amount of audacity to throw out so many red herrings and yet feel you can pull off a shocking and gratifying climax, but Ingelsby does it — and with “The kid did it” as his ultimate hook. Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann) is, indeed, the assassin. The enraged son of John (Joe Tippett) and Lori received a text intended for his father, who was having an affair with Erin (as evidenced by the photo teased last week), and proceeded to the woods to threaten her, intending to keep his parents together by scaring away his father’s new mistress. When things went wrong, John and Billy were sent to clean up the mess, and the rest is history. Placing the blame on the child is an inherently difficult finale for any crime thriller, and some scepticism ought to be expected at the onset. When Mare initially learns that Ryan is the one mowing Mr. Carroll’s lawn, she displays a mixture of frustration and sadness when she observes Lori’s child emerge from the woodshed on video. But Ingelsby skillfully builds Ryan’s conviction from there, allowing the young child to confess in his own words while simmering tension zips across the interrogation room between Mare and the best friend who lied to her — between Lori and the best friend who imprisoned her family.
The outpouring of rage and hurt from both sides over the next few days and weeks is what propels “Mare” to its emotional finale. Both ladies felt they had been mistreated, as if they should have known better than to expect that, and their first agitation is as reasonable as their final kindness is therapeutic. After all, it wasn’t that long ago (Episode 4) that Mare was devastated and lost, admitting she was driving everyone close to her away. Lori promises she’ll never abandon Mare, and in the end, she doesn’t – granted, it’s more of a role reversal, as Mare could have fled away from Lori and instead had to demonstrate the same degree of loyalty.
Still, this is only one way Ingelsby and the rest of the “Mare of Easttown” crew were able to tie up all of the loose ends. In the final episode of the kidnapping arc, Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan) inherits the house Beth Hanlon (Chinasa Ogbuagu) couldn’t bear to own after her brother’s death; DJ gets the ear surgery that was hotly debated in Episode 1; Lori struggles to accept being the mother to her husband’s illicit son; and Richard Ryan rides off into the sunset, despite his wife’s protests.
Looking back on the first episode, which spent so much time establishing individuals and so little time on the mystery, it’s amazing how many plots have gone full circle to become pivotal events in the series. That makes for a wonderful foundation for a murder mystery, but it also makes for a fantastic foundation for a character drama. Not every storyline worked – it’s still questionable whether Easttown should really welcome back the Deacon, given his previous parish’s earlier allegations, and Dylan’s large donation for DJ doesn’t totally excuse him frightening Jess with a gun. — and all those red mareings, combined with Mare’s terrible flashbacks, have the potential to turn the pulpy mystery thriller into melodrama (not to mention the on-the-nose final shot of Mare crawling into the attic). Nonetheless, it’s worth praising how “Mare of Easttown” managed to honour all aspects of itself in the end, especially when previous recent efforts into comparable area ended up empty on both counts. More shows should work as hard as this to marry their goals. Ambition is always welcome at work and at home.