Kate Winslet stands in front of a police station in a winter coat.

Mare of Easttown: Not Just Another Dead Girl Show

The HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown captivated viewers, who flocked to social media with theories about who killed Erin McMenamin. The show follows detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) as she investigates this and other cases in Easttown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Billed as “an authentic examination of how family and past tragedies can define our present,” the plot focuses as much on the drama of its interconnected characters as it does on criminal investigations. Everybody is connected to everybody else in Easttown, often in devastating ways. The show’s setting in Delaware County, an area colloquially known in real life as Delco, became a character in its own right with its quirky accent and hoagies-and-beer, working-class ethos. The discourse around the show tends to focus on the authenticity of Winslet and the other actors’ portrayals within the show’s gritty locale. To be sure, the whodunnit aspect kept me watching along with everyone else, but for me, it also became the least interesting part of the show.

Assessing the Damage

When we first meet Mare, she is an exhausted but devoted detective, worn down by her neighbors’ seemingly petty concerns and unable to make progress in solving the disappearance of Katie Bailey, her former high school basketball teammate’s daughter. Mare of Easttown contains all of the elements of a murder mystery novel, from procedural work to a twist ending, with dashes of humor mixed throughout for levity. Like other fictional towns in crime drama, Easttown recalls how a woman’s surroundings are often a threat to her survival. Mare also falls within the trope of the “Dead Girl Show,” defined by Alice Bolin in 2018:

All Dead Girl Shows begin with the discovery of the murdered body of a young woman. The lead characters of the series are attempting to solve the (often impossibly complicated) mystery of who killed her. As such, the Dead Girl is not a “character” in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.[1]

Here, the Dead Girl is Erin McMenamin, a young single mother, who is found murdered after attending a party in the woods. Other aspects of Bolin’s theory include untrustworthy fathers, sexual assault and incest, victim-blaming, and misogyny.

Although Mare of Easttown proceeds within these predictable boundaries, it also gives audiences a unique main character: a complex woman whose path to redemption is fraught with character flaws and personal demons. We learn that Mare’s son Kevin died by suicide two years earlier in Mare’s attic. Her inner turmoil and its effects on her life and work are subsequently given an importance rarely seen in this genre of television. Erin is also not merely a memory; we get to know her in the first episode before her death and in flashbacks throughout the series. This focus subverts Bolin’s theory in the show’s overall emphasis on the lives of its female characters rather than portraying them only as victims.

In an early review for The New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix characterized the show as “explor[ing] the repression of the American male of a certain class and race,” noting that “it is the women who manage the masculine tempers in their neighborhood.” This mischaracterizes the show because although it is men who are the perpetrators of violence here, they are not the central male authority figures of the typical Dead Girl Show. Another detective, Colin Zabel, is brought in to help Mare with her caseload in the second episode. Zabel is initially described as a hotshot who solved another difficult murder case, but he later confesses to Mare that a private investigator actually did the work. Both Mare and Zabel are damaged by the expectations of their pasts and struggle with emotional vulnerability. In these ways, Mare of Easttown wrestles less with “the mess, the calamity, and the obscurity [of] the consequences of misogyny” than other crime dramas by enabling its characters to live more fully realized lives.[2]

Characters from Mare of Easttown congregate in a kitchen. Kate Winslet holds a beer and looks surprised.
Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, and Neal Huff in Mare of Easttown. (Photograph by Michele K. Short/HBO)

Wound Dwellers

Kate Winslet has described her character as being a “wildly flawed, messy, broken, fragmented, difficult woman.” These were the qualities that I liked about Mare. I cringed while watching the third episode, when Mare steals drugs from an evidence locker at the police station and plants them on her grandson’s mother in an attempt to prevent her from regaining custody, but I also appreciated it as an honest moment of desperation. When you are a mother still haunted by the wounds of your past, what wouldn’t you do to try and protect your chance at healing the future? Mare’s mistake highlights how this show centers the pain of its female characters where other Dead Girl Shows have often obscured it.

In her wide-ranging essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison explores representations of pain and victimhood in the context of the wounded woman stereotype. Jamison writes that women are often consigned to the experience of pain while languishing within a double standard that diminishes their emotional responses to it, labeling them both victims and overly emotional. She posits that “while wounds open to the surface [and] damage happens to the infrastructure – often invisibly, irreversibly . . . the cause of injury is in the past but the healing isn’t done.”[3] The Katie Bailey and Erin McMenamin cases provide the perfect foils for Mare to continue dwelling in her wounds and grief until she finally begins seeing a therapist as part of her suspension. In depicting the therapeutic process and Mare’s initial resistance to it, the show opens up a new “way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain – a self that grows larger than its scars without disowning them.”[4] After all, how can there be scars without wounds? In this genre of television, as in Jamison’s theory, there is no catharsis for female pain without some amount of bloodletting. Throughout the series, we also see Mare dealing with physical pain on top of everything else; a twisted ankle in the first episode is followed by a gunshot wound and a broken wrist by the end.

Finally, the title of the show’s sixth episode, “Sore Must Be the Storm,” a line from the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” reflects the literary connections throughout Jamison’s theory. From Miss Havisham to Sylvia Plath, Jamison elaborates the ways that women have been stereotyped for being too dramatically expressive in their post-wounded states even as they are expected to maintain the status quo. Grief is for the living – taunting us with the hope that we will get through it to experience some other less consuming state of being. In contrast, Mare is walled off from her emotions about her son’s death during most of the series because her livelihood requires it. She carries the burden of hope for everyone in Easttown that she can solve two tough cases. Although Jamison notes that stories of similarly stoic women are also commonplace, she concludes that “the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it.”[5] That Mare of Easttown does not sit easily within typical gendered expectations is a big part of what made the show a uniquely successful standout in its genre.

All Truths Come to Light

Keeping viewers in suspense, the show’s finale was the most-watched episode of any original series on HBOMax. Although it falls back slightly on the incest trope of the Dead Girl Show in having a “bearded dad with something to hide,” John Ross, as Erin’s uncle and the father of her baby, this show decidedly took things up one more notch when his 13-year-old son Ryan was revealed to be the murderer. Most fan theories focused on John or his brother, Billy, as the murder suspects, so it was a surprising twist to conclude the story with a child in that role. The fact that John’s wife and Mare’s best friend, Lori, knew the truth and kept it from her also allows for a heart-wrenching, full-circle conclusion to the show’s exploration of betrayal, grief, and loss as connecting themes. At the end, Mare and Lori begin to repair their friendship, and the show closes with Mare taking her therapist’s advice and climbing back up into the attic – a powerful symbol of the courage she finds to move forward with her life.

Mare of Easttown resonated with me because of my recent experiences of becoming a mom and then losing my own mother just a year and a half later. In Mare, I appreciated having a character whose grieving process didn’t always look like what we might expect. I was also surprised not only to connect so deeply with Mare but also by the sense of comfort I found within the show’s nuances. By creating space for a range of acceptable emotions, Mare of Easttown opens up new possibilities for women in television crime drama.

Notes

    1. Alice Bolin, “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show,” in Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018), 14.
    2. Bolin, “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show,” 24.
    3. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press, 2014), 194.
    4. Jamison, Empathy Exams, 216.
    5. Jamison, Empathy Exams, 218.

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