How 'Mare of Easttown' Beautifully Stuck the Landing

The HBO limited series exceeded expectations with its devastating, graceful finale.

mare of easttown finale kate winslet
HBO

This article contains major spoilers for the Mare of Easttown finale, "Sacrament." Proceed with caution. You can also read our spoiler-filled post-finale interview with Julianne Nicholson.

The final shot of Mare of Easttown is stunning, not because it lingers in any sort of shocking twist or proves Reddit theories right, but because it leaves all of the noise behind. Kate Winslet's Mare wakes up in the morning and leaves her sleeping grandson snoozing in bed. She walks out of the room and heads toward the attic—the attic where she once found her son hanging after committing suicide. She pulls down the staircase and starts to climb.

After weeks of anticipation and speculation, Mare of Easttown, unlike so many prestige mystery series before it, stuck the landing with an elegant finale that provided a resolution to the central case and many other burning questions, but more importantly lingered in the themes that made this project from creator Brad Ingelsby truly special and at the top of its class. Everything, including the big reveal, was intertwined with Inglesby's central preoccupation: the lengths mothers would go to in order to protect their children, and how they cope when they fail. Mare remained satisfying to the end because its emotional impact overrode any desire to showboat, and the series never stopped operating as a character study even as it built its suspense.

Going into the finale, there was reason to fear that Mare would not stick its landing. Just recently, another HBO limited series starring an Oscar-winning actress, The Undoing, turned laughable as it barreled toward its absurd helicopter-chase conclusion, along the way eschewing the notion that it would have anything to say about the human condition. The much-discussed final episode of True Detective Season 1, back in 2014, is still hard to forget; it sparked criticism not for being obvious, like The Undoing, but because the show never followed through on all the clues it dropped while Rust Cohle was making beer can men.

mare of easttown finale
HBO

After the penultimate episode, many Mare fans had a pretty good sense of what was going to happen. Sure, there were theories floating around that didn't pan out—such as the idea that Mare's deceased son, Kevin, was the father of murder victim Erin McMenamin's baby, DJ; the possibility that Guy Pearce's Richard Ryan could be up to something fishy, including but not limited to murder—but most fans had figured that the Ross family was involved in the central crime. In the early moments of the finale, Mare apprehends John Ross (Joe Tippett), who admits to having had an incestuous affair with Erin that resulted in pregnancy, to having killed her when she threatened to expose this secret to her family, and to having conspired with his otherwise blameless brother, Billy, to cover it up. It then seems like the episode settles into a lovely denouement, lingering on beats that have nothing to do with Erin and her tragic death, and more about Mare reconnecting with her family.

But after having an altercation with Sandra, the woman that her best friend Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson) had said John had been having an affair with, Mare starts to suspect there's more to the story than what the Rosses have been telling her. A call from Glenn Carroll (Patrick McDade), who lost his colorful wife, Betty (Phyllis Somerville), to a heart attack leads her to discover the devastating truth: Someone else was responsible for killing Erin. That someone else? John and Lori's son, Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann). As a reveal, it checks all the boxes: Ryan was not the most obvious suspect, but his motives make sense and his involvement does not require a last-minute, out-of-left-field information dump. But more crucially, it's a revelation that stings for both Mare and the audience. The person to whom Mare is closest lied to her in order to protect her own son.

To Mare, it's heartbreaking but also familiar. Mare would have done anything to save Kevin; Lori was doing her best to save Ryan, who shot Erin by accident in an effort to keep his family together. When Lori wails, "Why couldn't you just leave him alone!" Mare fundamentally understands her plight even if her own doggedness would not have allowed her to do that. The same impulse is why Mare herself tried to hide drugs on Carrie (Sosie Bacon), the mother of her son's child, in order to prevent her from gaining custody of her grandchild. That protective instinct can lead someone to do something cruel, but it only leads to more pain.

mare of easttown julianne nicholson
HBO

Where Mare of Easttown surprised most of all is how it thoroughly extended grace to nearly all of its characters. Throughout much of the series, it appears like Easttown might be the type of place where the occupants are worse than they initially seem, and while that certainly is true when it comes to John Ross, for most everyone else, it's actually the opposite. Carrie's admission that she's using again and will not be able to care for her kid is not treated as a failing on her part, nor a victory for Mare. It's just the mess people have to muddle through. Dylan (Jack Mulhern), Erin's ex, reaches out to Lori after she has started mothering DJ, the baby who he once thought was his son. He hands over the money for DJ's ear surgery, his anger melting away. Deacon Mark (James McArdle), who hid evidence related to Erin's death and was publicly shamed for a rape accusation at his former parish, returns to the pulpit. "Our job is only to love," he says, encouraging the Easttown residents to reach out to those among them who do not yet feel comfortable reentering the community. He doesn't say her name, but for Mare, that person is Lori.

If there's a religious thread running through Mare of Easttown, it's that everyone deserves forgiveness, especially one's own self. It's hammered home in a pizza parlor where Mare forgives her mother, Helen (the wondrous Jean Smart), for her coldness in her childhood. "Good, because I forgave myself a long time ago," Helen says, starting to cry. "That's what I wish for you, Marianne. That you can forgive yourself for Kevin. It wasn't your fault." In documenting the process of forgiveness as it comes to a close, Mare transcends its genre. It begins with Lori falling, crying, into Mare's arms, and ends with Mare walking up those stairs. Where another show would lean into ugliness, Mare of Easttown chose beauty.

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