Kate Winslet Shines in HBO’s Murder Mystery

“Doing something great is overrated, ’cause then people expect that from you… all the time. What they don’t realize is that you’re just as screwed up as they are.”

This telling line from Episode 5 of HBO’s riveting new crime series Mare of Easttown explains everything you need to know about Kate Winslet‘s titular Pennsylvania detective. Greatness is often thrust upon us, and it comes at a cost.

Mare Sheehan was great once upon a time. As a high school basketball player, she hit a last-second shot that brought Easttown a state championship, earning her the forever nickname of Miss Lady Hawk. 25 years later, she’s a grumpy detective who spent the past year investigating the disappearance of a local girl named Katie Bailey and is no closer to solving it, much to the public’s chagrin. Everyone in town knows who she is, and she knows everyone in town. By the end of the first episode, it feels like we do, too.

Let’s jump in together! One, two, three…

We meet 17-year-old Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) and her baby daddy Dylan (Jack Mulhern) as well as his volatile new girlfriend Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing). All of them frequent the woods where the town’s young people congregate, including Mare’s daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and her friends/bandmates. Poor Erin is found the next morning in those same woods, dead. Could her murder be linked to Katie Bailey’s disappearance? That’s for Mare, and her new hotshot young partner Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), to decide. After all, he’s the hero cop who solved the case of a missing girl in a nearby town. But as with any good mystery, looks can be deceiving.

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Image via HBO

RELATED: ‘Mare of Easttown’ Trailer Sees Kate Winslet Caught Up in a Small-Town Murder Investigation

Creator/writer Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) and director Craig Zobel (Compliance) do a great job of setting up the chess pieces on the board, introducing you to the people of this community and their many, many problems. There are multiple characters referenced with cancer, multiple drug addicts, multiple affairs, multiple teenage prostitutes, multiple suicides, and though it may sound pretty grim, Mare of Easttown never feels like overkill or “tragedy porn,” as they say. Instead, sadly, it just feels nauseatingly realistic. There’s a saying along the lines of “everyone has their own shit to deal with,” and this series proves that adage true.

A bright spot in Mare’s somewhat depressing life is the arrival of new love interest Richard (Guy Pearce), a writer who feels sorely out of place in this community, though never to a suspicious degree. Despite this series’ overwhelming number of red herrings, Pearce’s character is refreshingly never positioned as such. He’s a charming light in Mare’s otherwise dark life, which may be why she’s reluctant to fully open up and share it with him.

As Mare and Colin’s professional partnership deepens, some romantic tension develops, though it always feels a bit stilted, and Colin eventually sees the situation for what it is — Mare’s attempt to stay connected to a case that could have implications for her own young daughter. See, Mare has already lost one child, and may be forced to give up custody of her own grandson, so she can’t bear to lose Siobhan, and even though the character hasn’t really been put in danger through five episodes, the threat of violence always looms for young women in Easttown. For at the end of the day, this series revolves around the murder of a young woman, and about mothers dealing with grief, from Mare herself to the drug-addicted mother (Sosie Bacon) of her grandchild, to the cancer-stricken mother (Enid Graham) of the missing girl.

Ingelsby is right in his element here, as he hails from Pennsylvania and has a good sense of not just how these people talk, but what they talk about. He has a knack for capturing the real-world struggles of blue-collar Pennsylvania, and though this’ll sound hacky, Easttown truly is a character unto itself here. Meanwhile, director Craig Zobel delivers the same stomach-churning suspense he brought to Compliance and grounds it in the same kind of working-class ethos that made HBO’s limited series I Know This Much Is True feel so authentic. I mention that series, directed by Derek Cianfrance, because the tone of Mare of Easttown is similar to that one: There’s a melancholy fog that hangs over this series, as if the recovery of the missing girl or the identification of the other girl’s killer will hardly make a dent in the town’s general unhappiness, for another tragedy surely lurks around the corner.

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Image via HBO

RELATED: New ‘Mare of Easttown’ Trailer Sees Kate Winslet Facing Intense Conflict as a Small-Town Detective 

Winslet is absolutely dynamite here. Her Pennsylvania accent is sometimes on point — she pronounces “water” as “wooder” — and sometimes all over the place, but you can see the pain in her eyes and the scars that she carries. She allows you to see Mare when her pride is wounded by Richard, who ignores her after inviting her to a party, and how much it hurts when someone brings up her son in the middle of an interrogation, as well as the elated joy she feels when one of her mother’s secrets is exposed. It’s both a physically and emotionally demanding role, and the certifiably excellent Winslet delivers an Emmy-worthy performance if there ever was one.

The supporting cast is solid across the board, if a bit underwritten due to the focus on Mare and the sheer breadth of the ensemble. Spaeny makes the most of her ill-fated role, and Smart is a delight as Mare’s mother, who makes a meal out of lines like, “I think I do a little more than that” when her daughter brusquely questions her contributions to the household. Elsewhere, Rice is a true star in the making despite being saddled with a distracting love triangle storyline, Graham brings a heartbreaking sadness to her role as Katie’s mother, and Patrick Murney radiates palpable rage as Erin’s father. As for Peters, he delivers a really good “young detective” performance, the kind of thing that suggests he could be a movie star in the vein of Ethan Hawke.

Every good murder mystery must feature a range of viable suspects, and Mare of Easttown does a great job of establishing a handful of red herrings both expected and not, but even if Mare gets her man (if Erin’s killer is, in fact, a man — I’m just playing the odds here), the show seems to suggest that we all become saints after we die, including the guilty among us.

Mare is certainly no saint herself, but regardless of what happens over these next two episodes, she seems destined to be remembered as a good person who everyone loved. Because in Easttown, it’s better to print the legend than the truth. As I said before, the truth is that Mare Sheehan was great once, making the real mystery of this series whether she’ll dare to be great again.

Grade: A-

Mare of Easttown debuts Sunday night at 10 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max. 

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