Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a critically acclaimed if not award-winning actress plays a small-town cop with a predilection for sloppy ponytails, oversized sweaters, neutral colors and a complete aversion to a skincare routine, but underneath her gruff, unpolished exterior lies a complicated woman with a painful past who just wants to do right by her secret-filled commu– hang on. Dead naked girl in a creek.
From the kitsch-and-Costco-filled working class homes to the almost total lack of direct sunlight (Why do these murder-towns always look so moist onscreen?) to the sense that literally every person Kate Winslet’s Mare Sheehan meets is keeping secrets from her (including her own family members), Mare of Easttown, the limited series that premiered on HBO last night, isn’t exactly the freshest take on the small-town murder mystery genre. While there’s a big part of us that would like to let that assessment hang as a criticism, we think it’s perhaps a bit more nuanced once you look past the surface and get through all the narrative boxes that get ticked off in this first episode.
Perhaps not first on the list, there’s the dubious pleasure of watching Kate Winslet wrestle with the infamously terrible and hard-to-replicate Philadelphia-area accent. To us, it’s the sound of our own friends, our own families, our own selves (Tom’s Philly accent was much commented-upon when we first launched our podcast), which makes it a lot of fun to hear and even more fun to pick apart. For the record, Winslet does a fantastic job when you consider how far her own British RP accent is from the nasal sounds and slurred consonants of the Delco (Delaware County, a suburb of Philly and the setting of the series, even though the real Easttown is in a neighboring county) accent. She hits those rounded Os a little too hard sometimes and we’ll go to our graves defiant in the belief that Philadelphians call H20 “wudder,” not “wooder,” but when she yells out a nasal “MA!” at the pitch-perfect (as always) Jean Smart or drops roughly half the consonants in a sentence, you can hear how hard she worked to get this right.
Second, there’s a deep sense that this is a story specifically about women in a community and the silent ways they support each other and clash with each other. The “local cop is a former local sports hero” device is older than dirt, but there’s genuinely something interesting and appealing about seeing this much-repeated character trope embodied by a woman. Winslet’s Mare Sheehan bears the weight of a famous-to-the-locals championship-winning shot that she can’t escape, although there’s more than enough evidence that she doesn’t really want to. Easttown is a town where women raise their babies alone or raise someone else’s baby because there’s no one to do it. It’s a town where women call on other women to deal with prowlers or addict brothers or help to do their makeup before a date; not necessarily because the men are terrible (although plenty of them are), but because that’s how women survive in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. This is especially evident when the scene of Mare’s basketball anniversary reveals that most of the other women you saw in the story are her high school classmates or when Mare’s daughter Siobhan comes to teen-mom Erin’s rescue as her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend leads an attack on her. In this town, women raise the kids, clean up the messes, deal with the fallout, hold whatever families they have together – and get punched in the face or murdered. Series writer Brad Inglesby and director Craig Zobel are to be commended for the subtle ways they underline or accentuate these themes without being heavy-handed about it.
The body of a teenage girl is found naked in the woods of a small town. That’s not a spoiler; that’s the story – and there is no question who the victim will be from the second you meet her, because the show heavily layers a sense of doom over all of her scenes. She may as well have been sporting a t-shirt spelling out VICTIM on the front for the whole hour. But it occurs to us that any complaints about this show not being fresh in its approach or shocking in its revelations are somewhat missing the point. Genre pieces have genre conventions and at this point “A small-town female cop unearths secrets in her community after a body is found” is such a strong and often-repeated type of story that there’s a built-in audience who tunes in just to see those tropes ticked off. Think of it like one of those “murder mystery in an English country manor” tales in the Agatha Christie mode. They all share similar characters, similar beats, similar revelations. If the story is sharply written and well cast, the lack of originality shouldn’t matter. We’ve probably seen enough of this particular type of story that we can’t get truly excited over these conventions anymore, but Mare of Easttown‘s direction is sharp, its writing is observant, and its star is giving yet another fantastic performance. This opening episode may not have offered us much new, but a good actress with meaty material is never not worth your time.
[Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO]