What Makes HBO’s’Mare of Easttown’ So Watchable

Set in the area just west of Philadelphia known as Delaware County, Mare mines its topography as intentionally as it casually drops in Eagles logos, hoagies, and references to Wawa. Its actors even mimic the forbidding accent, which my husband, who grew up in Delco, likens to speaking with a broad, fixed grin on your face , so “oh” becomes “eaux,” and “water” becomes “wooder.” As a character, Mare embodies her surroundings—she’s gloomy and stoic, mostly understated in appearance. Her propensity to reach for a Rolling Rock becomes one of the show’s running gags. But she also knows better than anyone else the fault lines of the town where she grew up—its hiding places and trouble spots and vulnerabilities.

Mare is charged with investigating the death of a teenage mother named Erin (Cailee Spaeny), and paired with Colin, a young detective (Evan Peters) whose instincts pale in comparison with hers. More often than not, Mare knows before she begins a case who committed a crime, and why, and she has her own metric for deciding which transgressions merit a fiercer response. Chasing a burglary suspect who’s an old friend’s brother with a drug addiction, she exasperatedly waves away a fellow cop’s drawn gun and ends up taking the burglar to a shelter. But when footage leaks online of Erin being attacked before her death, Mare arrests the teenage suspect in full view of a restaurant crammed with people. “She beat the shit out of Erin in a forest full of kids,” Mare tells Colin. “Let’em watch.” The flip side of Mare’s closeness with the people she polices is that she often positions herself as the arbiter of justice in a way that oversteps her role, and the show makes clear that she’s far from i mpartial.

Detective characters like Mare—resolute, undemonstrative, frequently derailed by personal bias but intimately connected to their community—don’t come along often on American television, but they’re a staple in Britain. Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, of the BBC series Happy Valley (which found an eager audience on Netflix), seems most reminiscent of Mare. Both characters are grieving children lost to the murky realities of the places they try to police, both are raising their grandchildren with stern affection, and both have a painful understanding of what addiction can do to families. Some early reviews of Mare of Easttown have focused on an egregious thing Mare does midway through the series that supposedly makes her hard to root for—a metric we tend to apply disproportionately to women. But the most interesting characters aren’t the ones who always do the right thing. Far from presenting Mare’s actions as defensible, the series nods at the countless ways in which cops can abuse their powers. It’s especially surprising to watch Winslet, with her history of inhabiting rosy ingenues, disappear into the colorless drudge of Mare, with the character’s six-inch dark roots and clumsy physicality. Never has the actor minimized herself in a role quite like this.

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