REVIEW Mare of Easttown (S1 E1/7)

Whilst most of us here in the UK were glued to our screens this past Sunday watching a certain show full of frenetic twists and turns, over the pond in the US, viewers were enjoying a new crime drama with a much more sedate pace in terms of narrative – but no less gripping – the slow-burn murder mystery Mare of Easttown.

As has quickly become tradition with flagship American dramas, this latest offering from HBO is quite the starry affair, headed up by Oscar winner Kate Winslet in a rare television show appearance as the titular heroine alongside a veritable who’s who of great character actors.

And this is a show definitely all about characters – not least the town itself, which acts as a dramatic facsimile of blue-collar modern America and all the myriad issues it faces, from unemployment to opiate addiction and beyond. Easttown is well and truly down on its luck, with a tight-knit community circling the edge of poverty trying to find their way in life through tough times.

Presiding over the town is Mare Sheehan, a scrappy Pennsylvanian detective who spends most of her time wrangling the various petty complaints of her fellow townsfolk – they call her phone directly rather than the main Police line, because they know things will get done. She’s tough but fair, and Winslet plays her pitch perfect with an air of world-weary resignation – somebody who’s seen it all before, but still has a morsel of compassion ready when it’s really needed. For the most part, the town is a dour but peaceful place – except for one case that has continued to haunt Mare, the disappearance of her friend Dawn’s teenage daughter Katie a year ago.

So far, so rote – but the show does a great job of slowly layering in a considerable number of characters and narratives across it’s run time to pull the viewer in, borrowing some of the ‘second story’ elements from nordic noir to generate a genuine investment in what’s happening on screen.

And for the most part, not much does happen.

Instead, the show takes it’s time to build up to it’s one big moment, navigating around the town’s various characters to explore the grim minutiae of their lives. We navigate the chaotic home life of Mare’s extended family, with her acerbic mother Helen (played with sparkling energy by the inimitable Jean Smart), smart and organized teen daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) and cousin Father Dan Hastings (Neal Huff) all seemingly more invested in Mare’s ex-husband Frank’s (David Denman) happiness with new partner Faye (Kate Arrington) rather than Mare herself. But this might be because Mare is definitely hard to love, a bitterly caustic personality who’s immutable honesty tends to deflate and distance those around her, as evidenced when local teacher Richard (Guy Pearce) tries (and fails) to pick her up in a bar.

Unusually, the show also devotes a good portion of this opening episode following the central victim before their untimely end, which makes their demise all the more heart-breaking when it does inevitably arrive. Erin McMenamin (excellently played by rising star Cailee Spaeny) is a downtrodden teenage mother, devoted to her son but surrounded by hateful detractors – not least her ex-boyfriend Dylan and his psychotic lover Brianna, or her own father Kenny, who is an abusive drunk resentful of the financial burden she places on him.

It’s a desperately unhappy situation, made all the more worse by an exceptionally cruel manipulation from Brianna that leads Erin into a violent assault. Crucially, this incident is bookmarked by encounters with various characters which affords the story a classic whodunnit feel that has you gripped immediately, mentally rewinding scenes from the night before her death for clues. The closing shot of her broken and bruised body neatly draped over babbling brooks reminds of a similarly sinister yet serene reveal in how Laura Palmer was discovered in Twin Peaks. And whilst Mare of Easttown doesn’t share that show’s surreal stylings, they both start with a dead girl being the key that unlocks the Pandora’s box of a town’s darkest secrets.

Andy D

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mare of Easttown is currently showing on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK