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“Mare Of Easttown” Ruined All Other TV For Us

The HBO whodunit replaced the Sunday scaries with prime appointment TV. Here’s why it worked so well.

Posted on May 30, 2021, at 11:08 p.m. ET

Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short / HBO

Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown

On Sunday night, HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown came to an end. Boasting Kate Winslet in the title role, twisty plotlines, and breakneck pacing, the series earned fans aplenty over the course of its seven-episode run. Over at the BuzzFeed News culture desk, we miserably wondered what we would do on Sunday nights without our favorite show and decided to deal with our malaise by discussing everything about Mare, from the theories to the disappointments and that devastating ending. (Spoilers for the finale below.)

Estelle Tang: What got you into watching the show? When did you know you were a Mare head? (Also, I can’t get over the show being called Mare of Easttown. Originally I thought it was going to be about some 1800s dame in England.)

Scaachi Koul: I don’t think I would’ve watched the show without seeing that Kate Winslet was in it. Mostly because I don’t know how many dreary white-lady-goes-missing shows I can really tolerate. But I was interested in seeing Kate Winslet attempt an American accent. I mean, I guess I love murder. What can I say.

Shannon Keating: I too am a big Kate fan and have been since I was a tiny lesbian. I have a lot of friends who are die-hard crime drama fans and will watch, like, every single British show about a grizzled detective solving murders on the seashore or whatever. Not typically my style, but HBO + Kate is all I needed to buy in here.

Krystie Yandoli: A day or two before it started, I saw reviews and billboards around Los Angeles for a murder mystery starring Kate Winslet, and that was all I needed to know. I’ll watch the pilot of anything, and I had a hunch that if Winslet had signed up to do an HBO small-town-murder limited series, it had to be worth my time in some regard. Luckily, I was right!

Estelle: Kate Winslet isn't flashy in this, but it’s one of my favorite dramatic performances in a minute. Mare is so closed off, and yet you can see she's fending off a hailstorm of emotions every minute.

Shannon: Kate is marvelous; she truly is Mare. She disappears into this role! I saw a lot of talk about how bad her accent was, which turned me off at first, but it ended up not bothering me at all. I’m sure it would bug me more if I were from Pennsylvania or more familiar with it.

Krystie: I’m not an expert on accents. I initially thought they were in Massachusetts? Whoops.

Estelle: What’s your favorite thing about the show? One of mine is Guy Pearce, a handsome red herring. Guy and Kate were in Mildred Pierce together. He told Entertainment Weekly, “My lovely old friend Kate Winslet called me and said, ‘Darling, darling, darling, I'm doing this show and you have to come and do it.’ I went, ‘I'm in.’"

Shannon: Swoon! I too love him in it, even though his character definitely feels like…what are you doing here? I’m glad he wasn’t the killer, because why would it be this random visiting writer? That would have betrayed the theme of how all these people grew up together and ended up fucking each other up in various ways. That said, there was absolutely no reason for his character. The way he just…moves away at the end? Useless plotline.

Scaachi: I love Guy in the pants department, but having him in the show makes no sense. I have no idea what his purpose is. He’s barely a love interest. I’m also really struggling with how small this town is supposed to be and how big that book launch was. Who is paying for all that free wine and cheese??? My book launch happened in Toronto, a city that seems much bigger than Easttown (which, also, I keep calling Eastwick in my head), and I had it at a dive bar, in the dark, and everyone had to fend for themselves. Clearly no one on the writing staff has released a book as an academic to minimal fanfare. In any case, if Guy said the word “darling” in my presence, I would immediately just lie down and allow my body to expire. There would be no purpose going forward.

Krystie: I might be the only Mare head who’s not obsessed with Guy Pearce’s character. He’s cute and I love that for Mare — because god knows she deserves a break and some love in her life or even just some fun. But aside from Kate Winslet’s and Jean Smart’s performances, my favorite thing is actually my own obsession with it. For the last seven weeks, I’ve planned my entire Sunday around sitting down on my couch in time to watch the show so that nothing is spoiled for me. I pay attention to all the memes. I read Reddit threads, and every week I’ve been convinced of a new theory about who the murderer is. I haven’t been this excited about a show in a very long time. That’s the thing I’ve loved most about Mare: the general feeling of excitement and, dare I say, fandom.

Shannon: I totally agree! It took me a while to get on board — I think I only started watching live by Episode 4 or 5 — but it does feel like a Big TV Moment, which in our era of streaming and bingeing feels old-school and special. On Sundays I’m normally wracked with existential dread, but now I can hang out with my buddy Mare!

Krystie: A million percent yes, especially after a year and a half of pure hell and emotional chaos. Even though this isn’t a lighthearted show by any means, having some fun appointment viewing to look forward to as we inch toward a reopening world is...nice!

Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce in Mare of Easttown
Sarah Shatz / HBO

Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, as Richard Ryan, in Mare of Easttown

Estelle: We agree Kate was the draw, then we got hooked. Why do you think the show works so well? I found the first episode slow and kept going out of sheer inertia because I’m used to streaming disappointments. But I went from 0 to 100 midseason. The show played with crime tropes — like the out-of-town guy, the priest with a shady past — then dispatched them neatly. That’s a classic crime technique, of course, but Mare is hyperefficient; I always felt a bit off-balance trying to figure out who the killer was.

Scaachi: Yeah, the first few episodes were really boring and kind of rote. I was worried we were going into a Girl on a Train in the Window Gone With the Dragon Tattoo situation.

Krystie: I didn’t mind, because everything had to be set up. And if you go back and watch the series from the first episode knowing what we now know, every detail feels so relevant; characters, dialogue, settings, small and big details have all been woven through so well and add up to this cohesive story. I was cautiously optimistic about the buildup paying off, and it did.

Shannon: I love the small-town dynamics. It’s very different, but they remind me a little of Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role — working-class middle America, the destitution and desperation, but also all the love and resilience.

Krystie: Oftentimes on TV, small-town dynamics can be romanticized and depicted in a positive light, but Mare shows just how complicated they can be. This is what it looks like when everyone knows your business, when you went to high school in the same town where you’re now a police officer and you have to hold people you grew up with accountable, when you get a divorce and your husband gets engaged again and buys the house directly behind yours, when you’re investigating a murder and you have to take all suspects into account, even when they’re people you’ve known for years. Casual stuff.

Estelle: Mare of Easttown really got us vibing because of the theories. Own up: What was your favorite theory about who the murderer was? Mine was Zabel early on because of his “chosen one” introduction. I was obviously wrong about that. I thought Richard was too much of a red herring. What, he just shows up in town one day and wants to romance this beautiful grump? At the exact time a girl happens to be killed? OK, sure.

But more importantly, he seemed designed to be Mare’s “Get out of jail free” card. She could easily go along with his offer of a real, sexy, fun relationship, but she decides to confront her trauma first, for her own sake and everyone else’s. He’s basically the manic pixie dream girl, but hot available writer guy, there to show Mare how she needs to develop.

Shannon: It’s fun to have a hot guy as that foil when we’ve seen the reverse 5 million times.

Scaachi: It’s nice to have a satisfying whodunit, especially after The Undoing was such an enormous disappointment. That whole show was like, “Wow, it really looks like the husband did a murder,” and then it turned out that...he absolutely did.

Shannon: I will be mad about The Undoing for the rest of my life. I have a feeling I’m in the minority both in this conversation and generally among all the Mare heads out there, but I didn’t really watch the show with an eye toward figuring out who did the murders. I was in it for the characters! Also, I loved Mare and Zabel’s last moments together, even though I kind of don’t get why everyone is in love with Mare. But I sort of do because while she’s an asshole, Kate Winslet makes her kinda charming in her assholery?

Scaachi: As a Mare archetype, I understand. Assholes deserve love too, SHANNON.

Estelle: That does get at why the show is so popular: You can be highly invested in theories, or you can enjoy the top-notch performances, solid writing, pressure-cooker pace, and high stakes. Or why not both!

Krystie: At first I was annoyed that Zabel was romantically interested in Mare. Why did she need another love interest? She has enough going on! And also, how cliché that she’s partnered up with this young, cute detective and they’re going to date? Classic! But Zabel grew on me. In their last moments together, I was sold on the two of them. Of course I was! Because then he had to go and get killed.

Shannon: There is 0% chance that they’d actually work out. I probably should have seen it coming but was completely shocked when Zabel got killed. Though I do have to say the “poor Silence of the Lambs–y guy living in chaos with girls trapped in his basement” trope has been more than a little overdone by now.

Evan Peters as Colin Zabel in Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short / HBO

Evan Peters as Colin Zabel in Mare of Easttown

Estelle: Part of what’s great about Mare is that you really do just want to talk about it with people; the show gets richer if you discuss it. Genius theories were everywhere. I started getting really invested when I heard the theory that Lori was the culprit; I was not into that at all, because apart from the question of who killed Erin, the women ultimately coming through suffering to grace seemed to be the show’s other major narrative driver. For example, it was obvious that if the Sheehan/Fahey family could only connect, they’d be able to heal. But I wouldn’t have thought about it as much if I hadn’t heard that theory. I wanted it to be John, but the truth was much more upsetting.

Krystie: I liked the reasoning I heard from a friend or Reddit: that Lori would be the killer because the show was called Mare of Easttown, not Murderer of Easttown (LOL), so it would make sense for the killer to be someone close to Mare. For a while, I thought Siobhan had done it for that reason. I hoped Lori wouldn’t be involved because I didn’t want her to have to clean up her disgusting husband’s mess; I knew John had to be the father of Erin’s child all along. Like Billy said in Episode 6, John needed to be accountable for once, and it wasn’t everyone else’s fault he “couldn’t keep it in his pants.”

Scaachi: I thought it was definitely John, and wondered if Lori knew he was the father.

Krystie: All the men in the town are basically garbage. And all the adults in Erin’s life failed her and the other young women in Easttown.

Shannon: I loved the show’s exploration of motherhood and how living in precarity can stand in the way of protecting your and others’ children. Of course, by the finale, we learned that the show had been hurtling toward a major parental reckoning all along.

Estelle: That gives us a good excuse to devote some time (and perhaps our lives, henceforth) to Jean Smart, who plays Mare’s mother, Helen. When Helen called Mare “Marianne” in the finale, I almost burst into tears.

Krystie: In Episode 6, Mare and her mom finally hugged and cried together, and so did Mare and her daughter, Siobhan. I appreciated that because #growth. Mare is obviously the way she is in large part because of her mother, and Helen has a different relationship with her grandchildren than she did with Mare. The show depicts how trauma can transfer through generations, but also how those cycles can break.

Scaachi: What I would recommend is watching Jean in Mare of Easttown and in Hacks in tandem and pretend it’s all the same universe.

Shannon: Yes! I’ve loved watching both shows alongside each other. Jean Smart as two different bad-but-kinda-lovable-anyway moms.

Scaachi: There was something devastating about Helen helping her grandson’s mother because she wants to make sure the family can still see him if the custody changes. That was so melancholy.

Shannon: As someone who’s experienced a lot of complicated custody battles in my family, I really love and appreciate the show’s attention to how messed up it can be — especially when you have sympathy for most of the people involved, but particularly that sweet little boy, Drew.

Estelle: How did we feel about the finale? I had heard the Ryan-as-killer theory and never bought it, but it fell into place perfectly, and brutally. The story came full circle: Mare’s family is healing after acknowledging the intergenerational trauma and their collective grief about losing Kevin, while Lori’s family has completely fallen apart because of another destructive secret.

Scaachi: Listen, I have a lot of questions about this dubious claim that Dylan did all this shit just to keep a baby that he clearly hates for the sake of his parents. It seemed a little flimsy to me, especially for a show with such well-conceived characters. Also, John saying “We were hanging out” as code for sex is just the most aggressively male nonsense I’ve heard in a long time. Actually, this whole episode is like a profound encapsulation of how disappointing men are and how much more they want even after that. John asking his wife to take care of D.J.? Girl, come on. (I continue to hate Siobhan, and I do not care about Berkeley.)

Krystie: I didn't see that ending coming at all! In retrospect, there was always so much focus on John, Lori, and their family. Ryan had a lot of screen time compared to some other minor characters, like when he saw a news segment about Erin's murder on TV, when he beat up a kid at school for bullying his sister, and when he was distraught about John moving out and "cheating" again. I'm glad that Lori wasn't the murderer after all, but I hate that Ryan ended up being the culprit and has to live with the repercussions of killing Erin for the rest of his life. It's a tragedy and a sad example of the people who carry the burden of the traumas brought on by other abusers: in this case, Ryan suffering because of what John did.

I was actually pretty disappointed in the way John's treatment of Erin was glossed over. There wasn't enough focus on that. I would have liked for the show to use different language around John's abuse of Erin; it was not a “sexual relationship”! She was a child, and by the way, they were related! I was relieved to see Mare's life and family dynamics on the upswing and that she was able to confront her own trauma after solving Erin's murder, but that came at the cost of Lori's family and life unraveling.

Estelle: The scene with Mare and Lori in the kitchen is heartbreaking, and then we had the almost cloying happy montage of Mare’s family going off into the sunset. The only thing Mare doesn’t get to keep is Guy Pearce, which I think is fair. I was the one who gave him that job at “Bates College” (a code name for my house). But what an ending. Mare of Easttown: an endorsement for therapy and a great crime drama. I’m even going to miss staying up until 10 p.m. on a freaking Sunday night to watch it.

Scaachi: I’m not sure I have engaged in appointment viewing in years! It was nice to be giddy on a Sunday night for m’stories.

Krystie: It truly is one of my favorite TV series of the past few years. I’m so relieved they didn’t ruin the whole thing by making the creepy priest the murderer after all. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.