Mare of Easttown
Zobot Projects, 2021
📷 : Used with permission, HBO
Mysteries or whodunnits
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Several elements contribute to the power of film productions. In addition to story structure and strong acting, cinema exerts its influence through the representations of groups and the relationships between characters of different race, class, gender, generation, and other categories. Mare of Easttown exemplifies the power of these images on-screen, which seem benign—yet passively teach us about ourselves and how we think of others.
Set in the fictional, small town of Easttown, Pennsylvania, this 7-part series follows Detective Mare Sheehan while she investigates a missing persons/murder case. The detective, played by Kate Winslet, is self-effacing and neither crude nor cruel. She is, however, unpretentious in her interactions, be they with suspects, friends, family, or lovers.
A bit of a maverick, Detective Sheehan insists on working alone as she tirelessly investigates her cases. Undeterred by passage of time, injury, personal relationships, or even station politics, she relents only when she arrives at the most granular level of truth. As she finds though, this approach can also lead to tragic and regrettable consequences.
A working-class area where people earn a living standing on their feet and working with their hands, Easttown feels straddled on the boundary between urban and rural. About half of the scenes are set in an urban working-class neighborhood with modest, closely situated two-story brick homes. The other half is set in rural areas peppered with small isolated, frame farmhouses that have dimly lit interiors and require long country roads to reach. Fall is signaled with near-constant overcast skies and thick clothing, which together give the feel of cool temperatures, short days, and damp weather.
Although not snowy, Mare of Easttown moves much like Wind River. The story and dialog are Andante‑paced with strong actors who hold the camera and mouth telling dialog that immerses viewers into their characters’ lived experiences. As one character admits to her adult child “Truth is, I was angry a lot. That your father wasn’t the person I thought I’d married and I was angry I couldn’t fix him. And I took a lot of that out on you. And I’m sorry. …”
Divorced and the single mother of a teenager, Detective Sheehan is obsessed with her work and simultaneously juggles it with maintaining custody of her young grandson and dealing with some long‑buried feelings of guilt. Although her specialty is crime investigation, the detective’s life is so intertwined with the lives of those in her lifelong community that they rely on her for more than her policing prowess. Here, neighbors and friends call “Mare” day or night for everything from checking their security system, tracking down relatives they have not seen in the usual day or two, to investigating a young neighbor leering at them. “I wanted to make sure you knew about this right away so the community’s safe in case this pervert’s still on the loose.” This level of comfort reaching out to the detective alludes to the residents’ decades-long familiarity with, and reliance on, one another.
Indeed, most people of Easttown are lifelong residents as evidenced by a big celebration of the town’s high school basketball victory 20 years prior, where many of the female characters were teammates. The disproportionate number of retirees in the series and the age variation of the cast bring to mind the 1991 film, Fried Green Tomatoes. Released when Millennials were still being born, conceived, and considered, the film stars Generation-X actress Mary Stuart Masterson, Baby-Boomers Kathy Bates and Mary-Louise Parker, and Traditionalist, the late Jessica Tandy. As with Easttown, an appreciation grows for their close-knit relationships, reminiscent of those in small towns like Easttown and even Carlinville, Indiana as depicted in the 2014 film, The Judge.
In a scene with his young daughter asking to come with him to his mother’s funeral, Hank, played by Robert Downey Jr., quips, “Trust me, nobody wants to go to Carlinville, Indiana. Everybody wants to leave.” Some in Carlinville, though, appreciate the small-town feel of the place, as Hank’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha Powell (played by Vera Farmiga), later retorted, “I am never leaving Carlinville. I love it here.” Most residents of Easttown fall into the latter group, appreciating the familiarity and valuing the relationships that small-town life can bring. However, we learn in Mare of Easttown that this is not for everyone, as a character grapples with staying for the virtues offered by the town, or like Hank, leaving for something different.
Although Easttown is predominantly White, it depicts a smidgeon of racial diversity. It comes in the form of a couple of passing characters as well as two Black/African Americans with more substantial on‑screen presence. They include her police chief, played by John Douglas Thompson (The Bourne Legacy, 21 Bridges), and Beth Hanlon, played by Chinasa Ogbuagu. Other dimensions of diversity are represented in terms of sexual preference, disability, and age. All of these go beyond just representations in the series, but work to chip away at many long-held stereotypes associated with them.
Mare’s teenage daughter, Siobhan, played by Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, Spiderman), is a lesbian who shatters the “butch” stereotype often associated with women who prefer same sex partners. Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, Black Mass) plays Mare’s best friend, Lori Ross, whose daughter Moira, played by Kassie Mundhenk, has Down Syndrome. Unlike many shows of the past, Moira’s character is weaved naturally, yet realistically, into her family setting, school, and outside activities. Finally, Jean Smart plays Mare’s retired, enabled, incredibly smart, bold, and funny mother who lives with her, but with whom she often finds herself at odds.
The series challenges the identities of lesbians, persons with congenital disabilities, and older adults, and even humanizes people in traditional working-class occupations and communities. However, it falls short on impugning popular cinematic tropes of Blacks as drug addicts and thieves. Structural explanations for drugs and crime in working‑class communities notwithstanding, for now, it is simply important to note that their prevalence in these areas requires a semblance of illicit activities in Mare of Easttown to maintain cinematic authenticity. But connecting them with one of the few Blacks in Easttown is problematic given the plentiful options for associating the activity with one of the many White residents in the community. So, while the series works to challenge the identities around some social categories, it falls back on the age-old stereotypes of race, specifically, Black. Seeming to apologize for this boondoggle, the filmmakers strive to balance this negative depiction with the town’s Black police chief.
Mare is considered by her boss, Chief Carter, to be very good at her job, but due to her difficulties with a case, he requests a federal agent for additional support. Seeing a Black man cast opposite a White woman on-screen is rare. Indeed, I remember the uproar when Idris Elba was cast opposite Kate Winslet in the 2017 film, The Mountain Between Us. A fair number of Rotten Tomatoes reviews downgraded the piece, describing it as “unconvincing,” “unrealistic,” “horrendous,” and “[the] castings feeling VERY wrong, and out of place.” Keep in mind though, that movies are typically neither produced nor viewed in isolation, but rather against the backdrop of the political and social climates of the time. Given the tumultuousness of the period in which the film was released, it is likely that these elements colored the audience’s perceptions of Winslet and Elba in the film.
At one point in Mare of Easttown, Chief Carter, a consummate professional, stands in Mare’s personal space and calmly berates her for doing something quite out of bounds: “Cut the bullsh*t Mare. I know it was you…Part of me wants to make sure you never wear a badge again…” Interestingly, I have been unable to find any backlash online. Hmmm. Could the changing political and social dynamics explain this absence?
Overall, Mare of Easttown makes a valiant effort to strike a balance with diverse representations and goes further to break the mold in some. It is imperfect in this regard, but it does signal the filmmaker’s conscientiousness about identities and representations. Wrapping them in an immersive small-town story helps the series along and could keep you engaged. If you are sensitive to representations and you like small-town mysteries set in the fall, you might be interested in cuddling up in a blanket for this one.