Kate Winslet plays a troubled cop in HBO's miniseries.

By Darren Franich
April 15, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Never judge a book by its cover. But, like, really: Mare of Easttown? That's a confidently terrible title. A network only lets something like that slide by when they believe in the material — or if the only name that matters is the star. Kate Winslet leads the HBO limited series (debuting Sunday) as Mare Sheehan, a difficult detective in a distressed Pennsylvania township. She's tormented by a missing-teen cold case, which might be the tip of a serial-killer iceberg. She's also tormented by, well, everything: broken dreams, divorce, old friends who look at her funny, multiple Rolling Rocks consumed daily, the possibility that suicide is her family's pastime. Can she solve the mystery? Can she solve her emotional issues? Both questions have the same exasperating answer: Probably, eventually.

Winslet helped launch the movie-stars-on-television trend with 2011's Mildred Pierce. That HBO series came out not long after her Best Actress Oscar, and set the stage for Matthew McConaughey's True Detective renaissance. Now Mare creator Brad Ingelsby sets this seven-part saga in a very True Detective-ish landscape of emotional ruin, where the details of the case matter less than a bleak general mood. Addiction, teen pregnancy, mental disorders, and poverty run rampant. It takes one whole episode for a dead body to show up. By episode 2, everyone seems like they could be the killer, but only because no reveal is too ridiculous to be possible.

Mare of Easttown
Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO

Mare begins one year after the disappearance of a local teenager. The victim's mom, Dawn (Enid Graham), keeps going on TV to insult Mare's detective work. Awkwardly, Dawn and Mare are old basketball teammates, reuniting in the first episode at a 25th anniversary celebration for their squad. Mare is a local hero, haunted by the legend of her game-winning basket. That's a lot to live up to. And, almost 25 years after Titanic, Winslet has great fun living down any notion of aristocratic glamour. Her default expression is an exhausted frown. She sucks on a perpetual e-cigarette, which will never look cool on anyone. The Brit also throws herself into the regional accent — "water" as wood-er, "on" with two syllables — and lets her flannel do the talking. When Mare busts her ankle chasing a junkie, Winslet adopts a magnificent limp that maps a whole psychology. Every step seems to say: Christ, another thing to deal with.

Then another teen girl turns up, not missing but murdered, her corpse missing one finger and most clothes. She has a connection to deadbeat Kenny (Patrick Murney), whose cousin is the husband of Mare's best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson). And Mare's daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) was one of the last people to see the victim alive. And Mare's ex-husband Mark (David Denman) was the victim's teacher. "There anybody you're not related to?" hotshot county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) asks Mare, when their case circles once again into her social circle.

Pairing Peters' bright-eyed outsider with Winslet's dour local suggests a spiky procedural. But the miniseries is more interested in exploring its protagonist's home life. Mare is, in fact, a grandmother, raising 4-year-old Drew (Izzy King) while suffering from visions of her dead son Kevin (Cody Kostro). Mare gets a little help and a lot of grief from her own mother, Helen, played by the ever-splendid Jean Smart. Winslet plus Smart equals a megazord of intimidating acting talent. But Rice (Betty Brant in the recent Spider-Mans) holds her own as a high school senior juggling personal discord with her own dreamy ambitions.

Mare of Easttown
Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO

Siobhan has a band, Androgynous, whose career I have become very invested in. We see them play a college radio set at Haverford, hosted by a way-cool DJ named Anne (Kiah McKirnan). Anne flirtatiously offers Siobhan a ticket to see Boygenius at the Met, even though Siobhan's in a relationship with her bandmate. Drama! Meanwhile, great-grandma Helen sips Manhattans with her priest nephew (Neal Huff) and merrily swipe-slashes her iPad games. Then Drew's addict mother (Sosie Bacon) arrives, freshly-rehabbed, to demand sole custody of her child. Did I mention that Mark lives with his fiancé in the house right behind Mare's? Romantic intrigue swirls around the Sheehan women. Mare escapes her family on dates with Richard (Guy Pearce), a briefly famous and very handsome novelist who just moved to town for a teaching gig. Pearce was in Mildred Pierce, too, and his onscreen reunion with Winslet sizzles; you believe that these two very different people would hook up immediately. "Did I f--- like a grandma?" Mare asks Richard in the premiere — a line that's either super badass or super campy, I'll watch 50 more times to decide.

Oh, and right, yes: The murder. Mare's investigation unfolds with dull familiarity. Something happens at the end of part 2 that shocked me, but then part 3 walks back that shock immediately. There is an episode-ending cliffhanger that so completely points a finger at one suspect you are forced to conclude they're innocent. In the five episodes I've seen, two characters with major plot prominence have nothing to do with the missing-girls story. I don't know whether to credit the series for ambient atmosphere, or criticize it for so obviously hiding final twists in plain sight.

I'm talking around some plot developments, and I am invested in finding out Who Did It. Just know that the mystery moves at a glacial pace. The material strains for twisted Opioid Gothic social resonance. Although director Craig Zobel finds light humor in the family dynamics, he mostly films with a bland strain of mopey premium-cop tastefulness. You feel the lineage of The OutsiderTrue Detective, Broadchurch, and The Killing — a whole genre style that is way past self-serious parody.

Zobel made last year's blow-em-up satire The Hunt. I could've used more of that kitchen-sink verve. Four generations living under one roof while the ex lives next door: That matriarchal set-up suggests a quirky-detective TNT drama. But when Mare's boss sends her to multiple episodes of therapy, the series turns "personal" in the worst way, rendering crimesolving into an act of self-realization for our troubled-yet-wonderful hero cop. "This isn't about you, Mare," Siobhan tells her mother. "Not everything is." Someone tell the show. B-

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