Mare of Easttown (Sky Atlantic) is a millefeuille of misery, as exquisitely layered and as moreish as the real thing. In rural Pennsylvania, we meet a small-town cop, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet). World-weariness, the weight of professional responsibility and – we discover later, although the clues are there – family tragedy show in every line of her body, every heavy step she takes. She rarely smiles. She is not surly or grumpy – she just doesn’t have the energy for anything else, after doing her job and taking care of her family.
Life takes out of Mare more than it puts in – especially since 19-year-old Katy Bailey, the drug-addicted daughter of Mare’s high-school friend Dawn, disappeared a year ago. If you can have a defining performance this late in a career, this is surely Winslet’s. She is absolutely wonderful – and ably supported by the rest of the cast.
This is a defiantly unglossy US. Easttown is a bleak, impoverished place, full of overlapping sadnesses. As the tiny, tight community’s police detective, Mare sees and deals with most of them. Drug and alcohol addiction is rife. One of the earliest scenes shows Mare attending the scene of a burglary – another burglary, we understand – at the house of a woman called Beth Hanlon (Chinasa Ogbuagu, in a small but heartbreaking role; she is due to return in later episodes). It is her brother, Freddie (Dominique Johnson), on the hunt again for things to sell for his next fix.
When Mare tracks him down, Beth punches him publicly, cries to Mare privately (“God forgive me, but sometimes I wish he would just fucking die and get this over with”) and declines to press charges. Mare tells a junior officer to phone the company that has illegally cut off his heating to get it restored and – limping on the ankle she sprained chasing him down – gets on with her day. It is an interlude that does little to further the plot, but is the essence of the series in microcosm:fully realised characters with deep, conflicting emotions, united in the face of encroaching forces greater than themselves.
The main arc weaves through this perfectly conjured study of a community and how it endures. Neither seems secondary to the other. Mare of Easttown is as much about the psychology of terrible events and how they are absorbed by – and affect – those around them as it is about solving the crime at its heart.
Erin (Cailee Spaeny), a single teenage mother (although, again, nothing like the TV drama stereotype) is found dead after the town’s young people congregated for a party in the woods. Erin had left early, having been beaten up by Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing, the vicious girlfriend of her baby’s father, Dylan) and stumbled away to her unwitting doom.
The town, now with one missing and one murdered girl, is deeply disturbed. A new investigation into the former is ordered alongside the new murder case and a county detective, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters, in an impressive change of pace since he was seen as Pietro in WandaVision), brought in to assist Mare. Through him, we see the limitation and the flaws in the policing and practices in a small town, as well as the benefits. It is another layer of complicating interest in a show that has already generously provided.
Add a love interest for Mare, in the form of the writer and guest lecturer Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce, playing him with just the right amount of easy, intelligent charm); Mare’s daughter, Siobhan, keeping her sexuality a secret from her overstretched mother; and Mare’s ex-husband, Frank, getting engaged to his girlfriend and there is almost too much to enjoy.
As the twists and turns of the cases are revealed, it becomes a show greater than the sum of its already considerable parts. By the time you get to the revelation at the end of the second episode, you become less stunned by the news itself than you are by the computation of what it will mean for all involved. Everything and everyone is real and you care about every tiny part. Wonderful.