Mare of Easttown Is a Welcome Addition to the Small-Town Murder Mystery Genre

HBO’s Mare of Easttown is constructed around a familiar, virtually surefire plot: a shocking crime in a small town leads to an investigation that ultimately reveals every major local scandal in an astoundingly errant community. And it works.

Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown. (Courtesy HBO)

In Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBO Max series, Kate Winslet plays a cop for the first time in her career. Every actor in America has to play a cop eventually; it’s in the guild rules. And there are so many cop-centered movies and TV series, the odds of getting a cop role are excellent.

Admittedly, Winslet does a good job because she’s a fine actor, even mastering the tricky local Pennsylvania accent. As Mare Sheehan, she’s packed on some pounds and had her hair dyed a brassy reddish blonde so it could grow out and show several inches of dark brown roots. She wears mom jeans and shapeless sweaters and baggy utilitarian coats to ward off the raw autumn cold, because she’s playing a harried, burned-out cop in a grim, blue-collar Northeastern town where everyone knows everyone, generally to their sorrow.

The show was shot on location near Easttown, Pennsylvania, creating a fictionalized version of the place that emphasizes the dark atmosphere of economic as well as personal depression seeping into everything. Other than Winslet, whose good looks had to be dulled down considerably, everyone in the cast looks like actual working people in such towns — tired, anxious, and podgy from the effects of rotten diets and alcohol consumption. They’re an unglamorous bunch, to say the least. They generally know it, and they make self-deprecating cracks to any newcomer who shows up in town.

Guy Pearce plays the newcomer Richard Ryan, an author with a visiting professorship in creative writing at a local college, who gets involved with the spiky Mare. It makes sense that he brings his chiseled bone structure from the world of urban culture and money, though its full effect is tamped down a bit by his scraggly gray hair. Richard asks Mare why she’s called by the nickname “Ladyhawk,” which she hates, and she explains that it’s because she’s a former high school basketball star who was on a team called the Ladyhawks, and twenty-five years earlier, she won a state championship game by making a spectacular shot.

“Must’ve been some shot,” he says.

“Other places, no,” she says, bitterly. “Around here, yeah.”

I know all about this kind of Nowheresville jadedness, coming from the Rust Belt myself. When I moved back to my old stomping grounds after many years in the Bay Area but still had my old California ID, nearly everyone I showed it to in the first several months — grocery store cashiers, bartenders, people at the DMV — would exclaim, “You used to live in California, and you moved here? Why?”

Then they’d answer their own question: “You got family here, right?”

It didn’t occur to anyone that someone might want to move back to a Rust Belt town for the place’s own sake, or that California, which is on fire one-third of every year and completely unaffordable all the time, ain’t exactly paradise anymore. That jaundiced lack of local pride is another thing Mare of Easttown gets right.

The cast of Mare of Easttown. (Courtesy HBO)

Mare of Easttown is constructed around a familiar, virtually surefire plot. A shocking crime — generally a murder — in a small town leads to an investigation that ultimately reveals every major local scandal in an astoundingly errant community, whether it’s directly related to the murder or not. As Mare says, at a point of barely repressed rage: “I’m gonna find out everything. Every. Thing.”

We know this basic plot well, and we like it. It worked in Kings Row (best-selling 1940 novel, hit 1942 movie); it worked in Peyton Place (best-selling 1956 novel, hit 1957 film, successful 1964–69 TV series); it worked in Twin Peaks (sensational, groundbreaking TV series from 1990 to 1991 and a thrilling decades-later 2017 follow-up); it worked in Broadchurch (hugely popular 2013–17 British TV series that crossed over so well in America, a 2014 American-made follow-up series, Gracepoint, was made).

And now it works in Mare of Easttown.

A key component of this successful formula is the oddity of the main investigator. What’s up with FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), for example, the charmingly peculiar, cherry-pie-loving, paranormally inclined investigator assigned to solve the murder of prom queen Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks? And what’s the problem with that bizarrely difficult and antisocial police detective Alec Hardy (David Tennant) in Broadchurch, brought in to help down-to-earth local cop Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) find the killer?

For viewers, Mare Sheehan’s brusque personality, edgy vaping, perpetually simmering anger, and alienated relationship to most of her family, friends, and community will also have to be investigated. Plus, this time, she’s saddled with an outside partner, a county detective named Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), assigned to the new murder case because Mare never solved the town’s earlier major criminal case, another young local woman meeting a bad end. It’s a slight twist on the subgenre that the investigator from outside the town is wholesome, open, and friendly — no mystery there — while the hometown investigator is a seething mass of antisocial behaviors.

Mare’s creator and showrunner Brad Ingelsby hails from nearby Berwyn, located within Easttown Township. This accounts for the series’ compelling sense of place despite the fact that it was filmed mostly around the Philly suburbs. It’s probably a wise move on Ingelsby’s part, not shooting in the exact community where the show is set. “The people of Easttown are going to be mad at me,” joked Ingelsby.

Recently, Ingelsby claimed he was leaving the West Coast at the end of the year and moving back to his hometown of Berwyn with his wife and kids, because “I love coming home . . . Every time I land, I say, ‘This is where I belong.’”

And I bet when he gets there, everyone will say, “You used to live in California, and you moved here? Why? You got family here, right?”