HBO’s Mare of Easttown has multiple components that make it great, but the crime drama isn’t its most important story. The limited series centers around Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) as she investigates a teenage girl’s murder in her small Pennsylvania hometown. Another young woman from the area has also been missing for some time, and much to Mare’s initial chagrin, a younger detective (played by Evan Peters) is brought in to assist her.
As with many dramas in this vein, Mare of Easttown is as much about evidence and murder suspects as the checkered past and crumbling personal life of the show’s troubled protagonist. Mare has a good-sized support network of friends and family, but the ghost of her son, Kevin, who died by suicide almost two years prior, looms over all of them on a daily basis. He’s revealed to have lived with various mental health and neurological conditions, from a mood disorder to Tourette’s Syndrome. Mare is chasing a killer, seeking justice for a local victim as she continues to struggle with accepting the gut-wrenching reality of her own family’s loss that has no true resolution.
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Mare of Easttown features solid writing and acting, blending potent bleakness with chronic moments of infectiously goofy levity. But aside from the relatively common concepts of crime and family-related drama, the way it handles issues surrounding mental health conditions, suicide, and the way both of those things can fracture families and leave behind an endless wake of turmoil is notably impressive. In 2021, the stigma around addressing these topics is, slowly but surely, being chipped away at. But, even with the best intentions, it can be tough to get such sensitive portrayals right. Representation helps normalize and destigmatize, but only if the media’s tone and the writing are helpful as well. And this is one of the areas the show shines in; it depicts a realistic, messy, three-dimensional view of how, if one family member’s mental health deteriorates, the other relatives can start to sink with them as well.
Mare of Easttown fleshes out the true complexity of grief. Just like with loss in real life, everyone in the family is coping in a slightly different manner. Kevin’s death is still so emotionally charged for Mare that she can’t really talk about it, or even him, in great detail. Her way of dealing with it seems to be a type of avoidance; it’s not denial, but it’s not complete acceptance and integration either. On the other hand, her ex-husband, Frank, seems to have better accepted the reality over time. During a heated argument, he even lashes out at Mare, implying that he’s not “afraid to talk about their son” like she is. Kevin’s sister, Siobhan, is trying to process her grief by crafting a documentary about her late brother’s life, troubled mental health, death, and what it all means to her now as she attempts to piece it all together.
All of the subject matter is handled sensitively and compassionately, as it should be. But the sheer weight of the toll is depicted in the family’s palpable grief, the pain Kate Winslet exudes when Mare’s character speaks about her son’s struggles while he was alive, and in the anxiety the family has surrounding Kevin’s son developing the same conditions as his deceased father. Mare of Easttown does a great job at portraying a sad reality: all over the world, there are countless families going through struggles similar to the Sheehans’ every day. And mental health conditions, and many of their causes and effects, still aren’t acknowledged to the full extent they should be. But the show is one more tactful step in the right direction.
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