In the waning days of the great pandemic of 2020-2021, something surprising happened: the nation fell in love with Mare of Easttown, a depressing television series about a burned out town, an unsolved murder, and, as the Saturday Night Live parody nailed it, a “grizzled lady detective,” named Mare Sheehan, played with astonishing verisimilitude by Kate Winslet.
The show has become a national addiction. As one Buzzfeed culture writer swooned, “my favorite thing is actually my own obsession with it.” Week by week fans have tweeted their guesses about whodunnit. There have also been memes. For many, Mare of Easttown was over way too soon.
It’s pretty weird, actually, that America fell in love with such an ugly town and such an unlovable cast of characters. Mare is unkept and rude. We’re not sure how good she is at her job. Her mother (Jean Smart) is rude, too, calling Mare “stupid” and “idiotic.”
Mare’s ex-husband exudes a fuzzy bear likability, but, for at least one episode, we’re pretty sure he’s the killer. Mare’s best friend Lori is married to a guy who is cheating on her. Mare’s African American friend Beth has a brother who is a heroin addict—and who steals from her. Mare is investigating the murder of a young woman, Erin McMenamin, who, when she was still alive, lied about who her baby’s father was.
The list of unlikables goes on and on: there’s an arrogant author who is courting Mare, a taciturn, African American Chief of Police, a naïve younger cop who has a crush on Mare, a town mother who hates Mare for not solving her own daughter’s disappearance, and another Mare-hater who throws a gallon of milk through Mare’s living room window.
Perhaps what has made Mare of Easttown so popular is its lovingly crafted portrayal of a very specific place—the exurbs of Philadelphia located in Delaware County. According to HBO’s behind the scenes featurette, producers sent pictures of people in line at Delco Wawas, an iconic East Coast convenience store chain, to the show’s costume designers. Kate Winslet says she left her show clothes balled up on the floor of her trailer overnight and was not allowed to comb her hair. For extra realism, she muted her British accent and worked arduously on her DelCo accent.
The hyper-realism of Mare of Easttown was brilliantly satirized by Saturday Night Live. In its faux trailer for a series called, “Murder Durder,” poking extra fun at the accent (durder = daughter), the SNL team displayed wicked insight into how journalists TV reviewers write about shows like Mare of Easttown: “’Highly accurate’ says The Delco Daily.” “The writers clearly Googled.” Then a faux quote from The New York Times: “So authentically Pennsylvanian. I’m assuming.”
Unlike many of the superfans of Mare of Easttown, I found the hyper-realism of the series distracting. Winslet seemed strained and at times even contorted in the role. Worse, many of the working-class portrayals seemed almost like a sort of minstrelsy, using “class face” instead of blackface.
At the same time, I certainly love to see movie stars of Winslet’s caliber looking their age. As one of my friends quipped, “give us more competent middle aged mothers on TV.” Winslet looked like a real woman, rather than a movie star. Winslet wanted her character’s bit of “bulgy” belly to show during her sex scene with Guy Pearce. Winslet wouldn’t let the marketing folks airbrush the posters for the series with her face on them. “Put the wrinkles back,” she instructed. Likewise Jean Smart, playing Winslet’s mother, asked the costume department for padding to make her look bigger than she is.
Here’s another possible explanation for the appeal of The Mare of Easttown: we are drawn to the show because the characters are dealing with the same struggles so many of us are facing—especially as we claw our way into the fifteenth month of the pandemic. For example, Mare’s African-American friend Beth is distraught when she can’t save her drug addicted brother. Though Beth makes several attempts, her brother dies alone, in a house in which the heat and the electricity have been shut off, with a needle in his arm. The soon to be murdered young mother, Erin, can’t afford the ear operation her baby desperately needs. Unemployment is epidemic. There are too many guns, and too many guns drawn. No one prepares healthy meals in Easttown –except for the local date night joint, Easttown is a food desert. Mare’s daughter-in-law has to work two jobs to afford her apartment, and her son nearly dies when she falls asleep giving him a bath. Mare’s son commits suicide—after having struggled with depression and mental illness for many years.
Easttown is not really a specific town in Pennsylvania. Easttown is Everywhere, USA. Its residents are underpaid. They can’t afford healthcare. They are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They suffer from generations of family trauma, mental illness, gun violence, and, in a few cases, rape, and incest. Though one of the plot lines sensationalizes stranger danger, in Easttown you are most vulnerable in your own home.
Mare of Easttown also relates to the year-long conversation we’ve been having about policing since the murder of George Floyd. In many ways, it is a sneaky piece of “copaganda”—cop + propaganda—a genre as old as television itself, that reveals the cop characters to be the most complex, real, and sympathetic people in stories of crime and struggle. Mare is a mess, but she’s the character we’re most interested in. And, as so often happens in copaganda, a working police officer from the real-life town of Easttown, PA, was hired as an advisor to the show’s creators.
Perhaps unintentionally, then, the show makes an argument for the core claim of Black Lives Matter: defund the police. Mare of Easttown misses an opportunity to talk about the larger systemic reasons why the residents of Easttown are so miserable. Instead, the series locates the evil done in a dozen damaged men—and the women who cover for them. It doesn’t accuse the real criminals in our current system—the billionaires, the cops, the anti-labor law makers, and the healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. Instead, Mare of Easttown tells us, dejectedly, that a pretty good cop is the best we can expect.
But what if real change came to Easttown? Imagine something like what Alec Karakatsanis defines as abolition: “transforming a mindset of individualized blame and punishment into a society that invests in the kinds of bonds and relationships that not only effectively prevent harm but that also enable meaningful accountability when harm does occur. It’s about whether to accept structural violence or to create truly safe places to live, learn, and love.”
Don’t get me wrong; if there’s a second season, I’ll be watching. But I would love to see the series break out of some of its generic conventions and offer a vision of justice for Easttown — and for us all.
Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University