The Mother of Easttown

"Mare of Easttown" as a portrait of matriarchy and male failure.

This post includes major spoilers, as in the kind that tell you whodunit.

The theme of HBO’s popular murder serial is right there in the title. “Mare” is short for Marianne, the full name of Kate Winslet’s overburdened detective heroine, and yes, it sounds like mayor, but it sounds even more like the French for “mother,” and that’s clearly what she is: The mère of Easttown, the mother of a wounded town, the matriarch for all its broken homes.

By making Winslet’s character a basketball star, the girl who made the championship-winning shot for her underdog high school, the show sets you up to expect a vibe where everyone in town sees her as forever seventeen, a favorite daughter, everybody’s cool sister or beloved little girl. But that’s not the vibe at all. Winslet’s Mare is technically be an early grandmother, with a grown daughter and a half-orphaned grandson in her car. But in all her relationships, with people older and younger and her own age alike, she plays the part — for good or ill — of Mom. Even with people who notionally want to sleep with her, like the younger detective Colin Zabel, played with bright dorky cheer by Evan Peters: Introducing her to his own mother, he slips and says “this is my Mare — I mean, this is my partner, Mare.” Suivez le français: This is my mère. This is my mother.

In one of the more distinctive takes on the show, Aaron Bady describes “Mare of Easttown” as a cop show that flirts with being an anti-cop show, by portraying its heroine as “an exceedingly unwelcome presence” in the life of her town and family:

Or at least this sure seems to be what we mostly see in Mare of Easttown, where no one’s problems have policing as their solution, and where no one seems to like our protagonist. The sister who won’t press charges on her brother — because what would that accomplish? — sets the tone in episode one, and it goes on from there. As a cop, we see Mare erase video evidence, tackle an old man with dementia, and plant drugs in Carrie’s car. But the most socially beneficial cop interventions we see are specifically non-carceral, like calling the gas company to yell at them for turning off the heat, driving someone to the parish shelter, or just rounding up a bereaved father’s family to comfort him when you bring the bad news. When Mare is in full on badge-and-gun mode, she mostly just brings violence to her town, which is also her family, who avoid her as much as possible.

I think this is a really interesting interpretation but also mostly wrong. Mare is certainly sometimes a screw-up, morally and otherwise, bending and breaking the laws in various ways because she always thinks that she knows best. And there are times when characters in her family orbit want her to be just a mother rather than a cop, and complain that she’s acting like a detective when she should just be giving them acceptance, understanding, love.

But is she “exceedingly unwelcome”? No: She’s welcome and unwelcome in equal measure, with everyone pushing and pulling at her depending on their situation, their desire for independence, their neediness and their degree of guilt. Sometimes she’s a scapegoat, sometimes she’s a savior, sometimes people want her to give them space or to leave some secret buried, sometimes they want her there to protect them and take them home, sometimes they hate her and sometimes they want to confess to her, and sometimes they have a little Oedipal thing going on. I don’t think these shifting attitudes are best read as a literal depiction of a working class community’s relationship with police officers (even outside a big city it’s rare for a single cop to have quite this many ties to victims, suspects, witnesses), so much as a large extended family’s extremely complicated relationship with maternal authority — the supervising, judgmental, protective, over-protective, frustrating, punitive and ultimately-forgiving authority of Mom. And the show’s very Catholic conclusion, in which a sermon at Easttown’s (somewhat implausibly packed) R.C. parish re-encloses even the guilty in the circle of community and love, is an extension and theologization of that theme. What Mare represents is what the Church represents, and even if you suffer as much from her as for her, in the end she’s still your mother and there’s no home without her.

But man there is a lot of suffering going on in Easttown. Writing last December about over-the-top critical hate for the mediocre-but-fine Hillbilly Elegy adaptation, I noted the dearth of movies about blue-collar life in the age of opioids. Well, “Mare of Easttown” fills that void and then some: Its seven hours are one of the more comprehensive dramatic portraits of social breakdown in lower middle class, mostly-white America, complete with addiction, overdoses, middle-aged and youth suicide, every kind of broken home, and families that are intergenerational by necessity, with grandparents raising grandkids because the parents are in treatment or the grave.

In all this wreckage there’s blame enough to go around, but look at the show holistically and it’s clear the big problem isn’t just everyone; it’s men. Start with the two cases Mare is investigating, a disappearance and a murder. The missing girl has a cancer-stricken mother absolutely dedicated to finding her, but no father involved in her life that we can see. The murdered girl has a possibly-abusive father whose main contribution to the story is to shoot his murdered daughter’s ex-boyfriend in a failed act of retribution. The ex-boyfriend, while not actually the murderer, is a wretched-seeming piece of work, a callous creep — though we’re told that his dad is pretty nice. Meanwhile the actual murderer emerges from a family menage featuring (deep breath a serially adulterous dad who impregnated his underage second cousin, the (murdered) second cousin’s aforementioned possibly-abusive dad, and a ne’er-do-well brother to the cousin-impregnator who almost becomes a patsy for the crime, which is committed (officially accidentally, though the show gives us some reasons to think otherwise) by the cousin-impregnator’s teenage boy, who is trying desperately to bring some order to his collapsing house.

Meanwhile the disappeared girl turns out to have been kidnapped and held as a sex slave by a dude who uses (symbolism alert) a decaying blue-collar bar as his seraglio. And I also haven’t mentioned the African-American brother-sister pair, both friends of Mare, whom we meet when she has to arrest the addict brother for stealing from his middle-class sis, part of a spiral that ends with his death from an overdose.

Then there are the men closest to Mare. Her dad, whom we’re told was her inspiration for becoming a cop, which sounds nice … except that he turns out to have shot himself when she was a teenager. That same dark familial arc also claimed her son, a drug addict and eventual suicide whose struggles are described sympathetically, but whose most vivid appearance is in a disturbing flashback where he’s robbing and threatening his mom.

There are, to be sure, a few decent guys in the story: Mare’s ex-husband, who lives next door and shares custody of their grandson; her somewhat-unlikely suitor, played by Guy Pearce, a novelist teaching writing at a local college; and her partner and would-be-lover Zabel. But her ex is a passive and henpecked figure; Pearce’s literary man is only decent because he’s washed up as a novelist and living with regret over how badly he treated his wife and son; and Zabel, introduced as an ace detective, is actually a fraud who took credit from a dead P.I. for the major case he solved, and basically follows Mare around like a puppy before he’s given the grace of a heroic death.

None of them, none of the men in the entire show, have anything like a real paternal strength or a solid filial bond; none of them (except maybe Mare’s police chief boss) seem capable of protecting anyone around them, or exerting authority for good; none of them model a healthy, faithful heterosexuality. (Mare’s teenage daughter, arguably the most “together” character on the show, is very sensibly a lesbian.) And the ineffectuality of the relatively decent men even extends to the spiritual fathers, the two priests* in the story: The murder happens because one of them lets a girl who’s reached out to him for help go to her death in a post-midnight park encounter while he protests weakly and then … drives home to bed.

When “Girls” ended its run on HBO I wrote a column about its relationship to the famous prestige shows of TV’s golden age. Here’s a bit of that piece that applies to “Mare” as well:

The typical prestige drama, from “The Sopranos” onward, has been a portrait of patriarchy in extremis, featuring embattled male antiheroes struggling to maintain their authority in a changing world or a collapsing culture. Usually these stories are set somewhere Out There, in landscapes alien to the typical liberal-ish prestige-TV viewer: In flyover country, in copland and gangland, in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, among Mormon polygamists, on Madison Avenue in the last days of the WASPs.

Tony Soprano pining for the days of Gary Cooper set a tone for all these stories, which then echoed and re-echoed in the Louisiana swamps of “True Detective,” the New Mexican borderlands of “Breaking Bad,” the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Again and again the viewer watched a male protagonist trying to be a breadwinner, paterfamilias, a protector and savior, a Leader of Men; again and again these attempts were presented as dangerously alluring, corrupting, untimely and foredoomed …

On “Girls,” though, something very different was going on. The fall of patriarchy had basically happened, the world had irrevocably changed … and nobody knew what to do next … “Girls” was a show in which any kind of confident male authority or presence was simply gone, among most of the older characters as well as among the millennial protagonists. The show’s four girls had mostly absent fathers (the only involved and caring one came out as gay midway through the show) and few Don Draper-esque bosses to contend with. The toxic bachelors they dated were more pathetic than threatening, and the “sensitive” guys still more so; even the most intense relationships they formed were semi-pathological. A few men on the show (the oldest of the younger characters, most notably) exhibited moral decency and some sort of idealism, a few were genuinely sinister — but mostly the male sex seemed adrift, permanently boyish, a bundle of hormonal impulses leagues away from any kind of serious and potent manhood.

The portrayal of men in “Mare” is like this but much grimmer (not surprisingly in a murder mystery), and the show as a whole is even more of a direct analogue to the dramas of embattled patriarchy than the comedy of “Girls.” Again we are “out there,” beyond the borders of bourgeois-bohemian America, in a place where people do weird things like go to Mass and obsess over high school sports. But this time, instead of Tony Soprano or Walter White or some other dominant anti-hero, there’s just the matriarchy, struggling to deal with a male of the species who models the mix of vices I discussed in my Father’s Day post: He’s weak but still exploitative, disempowered but still dangerous, still-somewhat-necessary but useless and reckless all at once.

The whole theme is distilled into a particularly effective scene in the last episode, where the adulterous dad who knocked up his teenage second cousin confesses to the statutory-rape adultery and (falsely, to protect his son) to the murder as well. His mix of shame and grotesque self-justification makes for a really dark portrait of late-modern masculinity — as something simultaneously toxic and pathetic, incapable of mastery or responsibility yet still very capable of wrecking families, extinguishing lives, and wounding all the people to whom it owes fidelity and protection and affection.

Maybe some other form of masculinity is possible: The show does ends with a solid sermon delivered by the priest who failed to save the murdered girl, but who’s sticking with Easttown rather than fleeing, trying to put down pastoral and paternal roots. But until that kind of masculine responsibility is reborn or re-emerges it’s up to the matriarchs to hold things together: In Mare — in mère — we have to trust.

*One of the priests is identified as a deacon but this is clearly a mistake as he is neither a married permanent deacon nor a priest-in-training but just a diocesan priest. I assume they meant to identify him as subordinate the pastor and got mixed up.