The new HBO series Mare of Easttown, created by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Craig Zobel, is a riveting crime drama that reveals both the darkness and light residing in the soul of America these days. The show is reminiscent of the superb British series Broadchurch, and it focuses on the murder of a poor teenage mother and the earlier disappearance of two young prostitutes.
Set and filmed in Delaware County outside of Philadelphia, Mare of Easttown is disturbing and inspiring. The actors’ eastern Pennsylvania accents are impeccable, and I could just about feel a cup of Wawa coffee in my hand. The multiple plotlines related to opioid addiction represent the demonic gloom that has settled over countless communities in the so-called “rust belt” and Appalachia. The biggest point of pride in Easttown is the memory of a high school state basketball championship; and Mare Sheehan, played by Kate Winslet, is the forty-something divorced grandmother who is still famous for hitting the winning shot all those years ago.
As a small-town police detective, Mare embodies the pain of the people she cannot help but love. With the nature of policing under intense scrutiny these days, Mare is deeply compassionate about the needs of her neighbors (when we meet Mare, she is helping a junkie get to a church shelter, instead of taking him to jail), and she is subject to a high degree of accountability from them, precisely because they know and love her too. At the same time, Mare faces a public relations crusade led by an old friend, whose missing daughter Mare has not yet succeeded in finding. It is an excellent depiction of the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity: there is no nameless, faceless force here, but rather justice tempered with mercy at the local level. It is messy, but no one in Easttown seems to want it any other way.
Similar to Broadchurch, a police officer from a larger jurisdiction is called in to assist Mare’s stalled investigations. Here we see the Catholic social teaching of solidarity at work, as Mare’s young partner, Colin Zabel, becomes transformed by the people of Easttown while he works for their welfare. Moreover, Mare has a painful but ultimately therapeutic experience of mentorship and friendship with Zabel. She tells him, “Doing something great is overrated. Because then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is you’re just as screwed up as they are.”
Mare is wise and self-sacrificing, but she is no flawless heroine. Amid her combative relationship with her mother (played with great pathos and equally great comedic timing by Jean Smart), Mare buries her grief over the suicide of her son. She is also deeply, and perhaps unfairly, bitter toward her grandson’s mother, who is battling addiction. When Mare is off duty, she drinks one Rolling Rock after another, and she engages in an off-and-on fling with Richard, an itinerant writing professor, played by Guy Pierce. And Mare cannot stop herself from committing one particularly malicious act of sabotage.
Everyone in Mare’s life is deeply troubled, including her same-sex attracted daughter, Siobhan, who is talented and big-hearted but whose traumatic life experiences have left her as angry, rebellious, and broken as anyone. But when she departs for a college on the other side of the country, we have a reasonable hope that with God’s grace and some time away from Easttown, Siobhan may become a whole new creation someday.
The depiction of the Church in Mare of Easttown is refreshingly fair. In a time of continuing concerns about the history of sexual abuse cover-ups, viewers are rightly predisposed to suspicion toward the priest and deacon who are featured among the characters. But the show also assumes that most of the townspeople have at least some historic, positive connection to Catholicism, including Mare. Her cousin is the local pastor, who often visits for cocktails with Mare’s mother. (Practicing Catholic viewers, however, may find one or two details odd, including the highly unusual circumstance of a permanent deacon being depicted as a celibate man who lives in a rectory.)
Pro-life threads run everywhere through Mare of Easttown. The preservation of the lives of young people, as well as justice for young lives lost, are among the show’s major themes. When a junkie dies, his end is met not with a shrug but with real regret and grief. There is a significant character with Down syndrome, as well as multiple unwed young mothers who have chosen to keep and raise their children, and receive support from their families and friends. At one point, a morally dubious character mentions how he unsuccessfully tried to pressure his girlfriend into an abortion.
In the final episode, called “Sacrament,” the Church is the place where the whole community is gathered and encouraged with the words, “We’ve finally come out of a tunnel and arrived at the next level of healing.” In the homily, the close-knit town hears, “Our job is only to love,” which sounds at first like the ubiquitous pablum of cheap grace that undermines the hard road of the cross, until we take another look at Mare, whose name is significant. In one of the final scenes of the series, Mare holds a grief-stricken friend on the floor of her kitchen, posed similarly to Michelangelo’s Pietà. As a sort of mother to the whole town, Mare’s love bears the weight of others’ hurt—on top of her own. A sword has pierced her heart and graces flow through her wounds.
In the final moments, the grey gloom of winter gives way to a warm summer glow. Easttown comes back to life, and Mare undertakes a literal ascent, which we are led to believe will result in deeper healing.
The solution to the murder mystery will satisfy most armchair sleuths, but Mare of Easttown is much more about what one discovers in the soul than in the crime lab. It is finally a show about hope for American families and communities on the other side of despair.
Mare may be of Easttown, but her story is playing out nearly everywhere we look, in small Appalachian towns and big cities alike. There is violence, drug abuse, and sexual themes throughout, but none of it gratuitous, and mature adults may end up feeling both moved and better informed for the watching.