Mare of Easttown Offers A Lot But Will It Deliver?
Kate Winslet Shines In Yet Another Procedural
Is Kate Winslet the greatest actress working today? Yes, I’m well aware of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and Frances McDormand and Julianne Moore — that’s more contenders than I actually thought I’d start with, but Winslet may be the closest equivalent to Meryl Streep than any other actress there is. Winslet had gotten five Oscar nominations before she was thirty — Streep hadn’t gotten her first by the time she was that old. And Winslet seems to rival any actress there is in her ability to conquer any accent imaginable. I don’t just mean being able to do German or Irish or even American; at this point, she’s actually managed to do state dialects better than so many of others. Of course, anyone can do New York or Boston, but how many would even try to do a Philadelphia accent, one considered so difficult to master not even films made in Philadelphia have their cast try to do it.
But here we are in HBO’s newest limited series, Mare of Easttown with Winslet in the title role doing it so easily that you might have trouble doubting she was from Philly. Mare Sheehan is a detective-sergeant working the poor section of a crappy town. And I think its save to say she hates every aspect of her life. It’s not just the grind of doing day to day work — chasing down a man who stole his sister’s Parkinson’s medicine again, then forcing him to go to a shelter because the gas company turned off the heat in his house. It’s everything in her life. She’s in her forties and already a grandmother and taking care of both her daughter and grandson, who’s autistic and barely able to concentrate on anything. She lives with her mother (Jean Smart, continuing a remarkable late career renaissance) who barely seems able to tolerate her and doesn’t bother to tell her that her ex-husband is remarrying. It’s not just that her daughter cares for her father more; it seems her entire family does — they’d rather attend his engagement party than go to an event honoring her.
To be fair, Mare doesn’t seem to like that any more either. Twenty-five years, she made an impossible basketball shot that won her high school team a championship. Not only has everything in her life been downhill since then, but she actively seems to resent that she did in the first place — it seems to have raised expectations that she never met and doesn’t seem to have wanted to achieve in the first place. Even the few friends she has have a hard time tolerating her, and it’s telling that the only person she seems able to open up to is a stranger’s whose arrived in town: Richard Ryan, an author who has also peaked early — he wrote one great book young and has never been able to write another since. (We shouldn’t be surprised that Guy Pearce and Winslet have chemistry; a decade ago they heated up the screen in HBO’s adaptation of Mildred Pierce.)
You want to believe that Mare of Easttown will be a great series — it certainly has the cast for one (among the already listed talents are such solid TV performers as Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson) and there are a lot of interesting stories going on. Unfortunately, because Mare is a cop, it is inevitable that there will be a murder, probably a horrific one that shocks the town to its core. And sure enough, at the end of the first episode, a teenager mother who we’ve seen being verbally and sometimes physically abused by her boyfriend, her father and a lot of teenagers’ shows up in a river dead. This whole small town mystery was becoming a trope well before True Detective premiered, and to say it’s getting tired is an understatement. Were it not for the presence of so many great actors, I probably wouldn’t give it the time of day. And I do care about what’s going on in Mare’s life and why everything has gone to hell so quickly. I just wish we didn’t have go down the procedural path that we have so many times before with increasingly diminishing returns.
Ultimately, I think Winslet might be able to carry the day. Everything about Mare makes you disposed to dislike her and yet Winslet plays her with such tenderness that you find yourself caring for her character anyway. She plays someone who has been driven into the ground by life, and yet finds the strength to keep going, something we don’t see as often as we should even in the era of Peak TV. You want to know more about Mare more than you do about the case and the darkness she will inevitably be drawn into. I hope the writers don’t make that same kind of mistake.
My score: 3.75 stars.