So many people sat down to watch the Mare of Easttown season finale that WarnerMedia's streaming service broke and went offline for 25 minutes. As we discovered in the Slack channel this morning, half of the Stranger's staffers counted ourselves among the group of viewers anxiously waiting to find out who murdurd that jagoff's durdur in a small town east of Philadelphia.
While none of us had tons to say about the crime drama's surprising twist, we did have a few things to say about the show's almost acrobatically parodic display of working-class whiteness, its debts to the Catholic church, its conservative values in general, its queer panderings, and whether any of that ultimately negated the joys of a soapy, character-dense murder mystery.
The show is pure Irish Catholic propaganda
Fox News is a machine of GOP propaganda. CNN is a machine for State Department propaganda. Mare of Easttown is a propaganda machine for the Catholic church. How does the third-mentioned machine operate? It is, first, a detective drama, meaning there is a mystery that, in the language of Jorge Luis Borges, "exercises the daring perspicacity" of a police officer.
To clear the mystery, the officer must have their wits about them, conduct interviews, discover and connect clues. With the Mare of Easttown, the detective is a white working-class mother with Irish blood, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet); and the mystery surrounds the murder of a young woman from a white working-class family with Irish blood, Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny). The first question the detective must answer: Is the murder connected with the disappearance of another young woman? Meaning, is there a serial killer working Easttown? And could this serial killer be a local Catholic deacon, Mark Burton (James McArdle), with a dark past that's protected by the secretive church? Or is it just a regular serial killer?
*[Spoiler Alert]*, the killer turns out not to be the priest, and there isn't even a serial killer but a rapist who abducts and imprisons young women behind a bar or something that looks like the combination of a bar and house. It turns out that this rapist/kidnapper has nothing to do with the murder of the single mother, and we never learn much more about him than he's just your regular white, middle-aged rapist/kidnapper. But the exonerated priest is permitted to deliver a self-righteous sermon about the sin of jumping to conclusions to a congregation that still pretty much thinks he is a creep. The film ends with this message: The greater good is the church, and the church's goal is to keep the family together—no matter what crimes have been committed. Did a bunch of priests write this script in their sleep? CHARLES MUDEDE
A parody of working-class whites
To account for the predictable nature of murder mysteries, writers tend to luxuriate in aesthetics and character development. (Neil Simon's Murder by Death has a lot of fun with that tendency.) That impulse can refresh the tired genre and, importantly, add a few more puffs of smoke and a few more mirrors to the elaborate world the writer needs to build to pull off cool plot tricks. So there's actually a pretty thick line between projecting authenticity and producing a full-on parody when working in this form, but the series' writer and producer, Brad Ingelsby, leaps right over it.
As Mudede mentioned, Ingelsby lays down an almost comically thick layer of Irish Catholic schlock. A widely circulated Saturday Night Live skit from a few weeks ago touched on several other overwrought aspects of the town’s character: the actors' at times desperate attempts to approximate the "very specific" Philadelphia accent, the writers' maximalist approach to inserting regionalisms, and the genetic ties connecting nearly every person in town.
To this already solid list I'd only add a few details: the moment Mare plops down at a multigenerational kitchen table and squirts a pile of Cheez-Wiz on a Ritz cracker to eat for dinner, the constant implication of incest, all the early childbearing, the endless bottles of Yuengling, old trucks and the obsession with creeks. At a certain point the sheer whiteness oversaturates the picture and becomes laughable.
We see the negative of this over-the-top working-class whiteness in Ingelsby's use of the "magical negro" trope, a rightly maligned literary device wherein one-dimensional Black characters use special (and often non-Christian) powers to save white characters before basically vanishing into the air. John Douglas Thompson, who plays Chief Carter, only serves to straighten out Mare's professional life through a tough-but-fair application of discipline. As Mare's therapist, Gayle Graham (Eisa Davis) exists only to sit in a soft-white room and help Mare process her grief via cartoonishly obvious questions. Then there's Kiah McKirnan, who plays Ann. She exists only to help Mare's daughter, Siobhan Sheehan (Angourie Rice), realize that she needs to get the hell out of the house and go to Berkeley. Though the actors turn in powerful performances, Ingelsby doesn't give them much to work with. RICH SMITH
Winslet almost makes it worth it
I love the way Kate Winslet nestles into characters, wiggles into their traumas and shortcomings to construct a person who feels real, although deeply flawed. In Mare of Easttown, a big part of the appeal—for me—was watching Winslet as Mare, slippery Delco accent and all. Her husky walk and decidedly uncool vape habit. Her inability to properly communicate any vulnerability. Her combative but loving relationship with her mother played by the always wonderful Jean Smart. Her hesitancy—and interest—in the Hot Dude Professor (Guy Pearce) and Hot Idiot-Partner Sent Over From County (Evan Peters) despite her obvious trouble with intimacy. Her profound struggle with her grief over the suicide of her son.
And, of course, *[Spoiler Alert, although at this point, it's been spoiled]* there's the moment in the finale when Mare embraces her sobbing friend, Lori (Julianne Nicholson), on the kitchen floor after arresting her husband and son for the murder of Erin. It's a scene that works primarily because of Winslet's ability to believably layer a thousand different emotions on top of one another—anger, hurt, love, confusion, care, grief, empathy—while comforting a friend who betrayed her.
Also, it kinda felt gay, lol.
We've seen shows like Mare of Easttown before, and we're likely to see them again, but Winslet is the glue here that makes it worth a watch.
But yes, obviously, Mare of Easttown is classic copaganda. Sure, Mare is complex and contradictory in a way women characters are rarely written and acted, but she wields her power as a cop in alarming ways. She intimidates suspects, squirrels away evidence from her partner, does cop stuff after being suspended from doing cop stuff, and—shockingly—plants heroin on her grandson's mother to retain custody. The show seemingly forgives Mare for these transgressions, as they all work in the service of her quest to find the killer, and because cops protect the public good, you dummies! Who cares about a little civil rights violation here or falsified evidence there? Mare FOUND THE MURDERER, so it was all worth it. Unfortunately, I think the girl-bossification of TV antiheroes is here to stay. JASMYNE KEIMIG