Why That Shocking 'Mare of Easttown' Death Happened

The series director and creator break down the eventful Episode 5.

mare of easttown evan peters
HBO
This post contains spoilers for episode 5 of HBO's Mare of Easttown. Read on only if you've watched.

Over the four episodes of Mare of Easttown he appeared in, Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) became easy to fall for. Director Craig Zobel did. "I'm, like, in love with Evan Peters in this show," he told me over Zoom. "The entire game was making him as lovable as possible because of what ends up happening in episode 5."

And it sure is a heartbreaker. Zabel is killed just as he and Kate Winslet's Detective Mare Sheehan discover the man responsible for the disappearances of two young women in their community. A tip regarding a blue van leads them to an old house with a shuttered dive bar attached where they question a suspicious man who matches the description of the person who has been abducting sex workers. They know they've found the right guy when they spot a pack of cigarettes of a brand mentioned by the tipster and then hear banging coming from the pipes that could only be caused by people. But as Zabel pulls out his firearm to arrest him, the suspect shoots first, seemingly hitting Zabel in the head. What follows is a Silence of the Lambs–style hunt where Mare is battling for her life. It's not until the final moments of the episode that you realize Zabel is really truly dead.

The conclusion of the fifth installment of Mare of Easttown doesn't just kill off its most endearing character, it also answers one of the series' central questions, even while leaving the show's other mystery more murky than ever. Now the audience knows what happened to Katie Bailey and Missy Sayers, and it apparently has nothing to do with the fate of Erin McMenamin, the young woman whose body was found in the premiere. "I hope the audience is wondering, how are these two cases related? Are they related? And I wanted to get done with one of them," creator Brad Ingelsby explained. "You kind of hit the restart button in the last two episodes. Now you have to go back to the old suspects and reevaluate them." 

Before the final showdown, the episode, titled "Illusions," gives plenty of opportunities to revisit the various possible suspects behind the murder. Mare learns that Erin (Cailee Spaeny) had lived briefly with her father's cousin Billy Ross (Robbie Tran), and at roughly the time that her son, D.J., might have been conceived. Meanwhile, Erin's ex Dylan (Jack Mulhern) teams up with Erin's best friend, Jess Riley (Ruby Cruz), to burn Erin's old diaries and any evidence contained within, with the exception of an unseen photo Jess sneaks into her pocket. And it also turns out that Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle), who was once accused of raping a 14-year-old girl, had been with Erin the night of her killing, even if he claims to have dropped her off at the park where she was killed.

That is to say, even with Katie Bailey and Missy Sayers' abductor eliminated from the list of potential murderers, there are still plenty of people in Easttown whose behavior deserves further investigation. Ingelsby relished the opportunity to cause some viewer whiplash. "It was able to give the last two episodes a new life of their own and make them into one long movie," Ingelsby added. "I hope that structural shift really hits the reset button and the audience is like, holy shit, now we are starting over again in a way."

But this big leap also required sacrificing Peters' Zabel, who had grown even more lovable in the preceding minutes. Peters brought a puppy dog energy to his insecure cop, who becomes infatuated with Mare even as she just seems to care about the case she was booted off when it was discovered she planted drugs on her grandson's mother (Sosie Bacon). Zabel invites Mare on a date that turns awkward when she only wants to discuss work, but they reconcile just before they go to question the potential owner of the blue van, both admitting their failures and secrets. In her case, it's just why she got suspended from the force; in his, it's that he never really solved the case that gave him his small bit of celebrity. He kisses her, and then loses his life. He's a casualty on the way to Mare's greater understanding of her own flaws.

"I think what it did as a character beat was there's a cavalier attitude that Mare has to everything—and I won't give away any of the spoilers that happen in the last two episodes—but you can't go through life acting this way, Mare, you can't just do what you want, there are going to be repercussions and in this case horrible, horrible consequences. You saved the girls, but this guy's fucking dead," Ingelsby said. "As a character beat it's a wake up call: You can't live this way. And I think that when Mare has to recommit herself she recommits in a different way. There's still a stubbornness, a relentlessness about her, but there's also an awareness that my actions have consequences."

The final two episodes will (hopefully) find Mare solving Erin's murder, but now she'll also have to grapple with her guilt over Zabel, along with all of the other trauma she's been suppressing in her Wawa coffee.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.