HBO's 'Mare of Easttown' Is a Sneakily Good Murder Mystery

Come for Kate Winslet doing a Philly accent, stay for the twists.

mare of easttown
Michele K. Short/HBO
Michele K. Short/HBO

The first episode of Mare of Easttown, HBO's new murder mystery limited series starring Kate Winslet, takes a while to get to the crime its genre would imply. Yes, Winslet's title character, a divorced detective in a fictional town near Philadelphia, is leading a mostly stalled investigation into an missing girl, but the premiere, directed by The Hunt's Craig Zobel and written by creator Brad Ingelsby, is content to meander around its setting and introduce the people in Mare's life before getting down to the nitty gritty in the later sequences. But stick with it: While the pacing of Mare is a little jarring out of the gate, it's ultimately what makes the show stand out from the rest of its ilk. It's as equally interested in the people on screen as it is in the gruesome fate that befalls one of them.

"In this particular case, it was wanting to write about home, wanting to write about where I grew up and the people I grew up with," says Ingelsby, writer of last year's quietly great The Way Back. "And while I didn't grow up with cops and didn't grow up with an investigation like this, I grew up with my aunts and sisters and priests." All of those figures turn up as family members supporting and antagonizing Mare. The former high-school basketball stand-out lives with her teenage daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), her mother, Helen (Jean Smart), and her young grandson Drew (Izzy King), whose father, Mare's son, died by suicide. She's got a testy but not cold relationship with her ex-husband, Frank (David Denman).

Easttown is a place where everyone knows each other's business, and have known each other for years. Mare is still called Lady Hawk from her days as a hero on the court, and she still sees her teammates, including best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) and grief- and cancer-stricken Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham), whose missing daughter has yet to be found, despite Mare's efforts to find her. (Guy Pierce, playing a visiting college lecturer, also stars, and Evan Peters joins in the second episode as a detective helping the investigation.) There's a warmth to Easttown that Ingelsby conveys, but it's also a place marred by the opioid epidemic, which seeps into the plot, though is never its focus.

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I won't spoil who, but one of the characters we get to know over the course of the premiere is eventually found dead at the bottom of the river basin, but Ingelsby balances that jolting reveal with a family drama that feels more akin to This Is Us than True Detective. (In that way, Mare of Easttown owes a lot to the British series Broadchurch.) "I always wanted to keep the family in the story in a very emotional way," Ingelsby says. "Because for me the story is, at the end of the day, about this family that is broken that has to come together in their own way. I was always aware of the genre expectations... but in the midst of each episode I wanted to maintain the emotional relationships."

That's not to say that the murder mystery part of the plot isn't engaging. "There are clues in scenes that feel like color, and then there are scenes that maybe feel like they are going to be about clues but are just because we wanted to tell a family drama story," Zobel explains.

Since Mare was shot about 40 minutes outside Philadelphia, Zobel, who directed episodes of The Leftovers, frequented local restaurants to listen to and observe the local culture. A dialect coach was on hand to make sure the actors nailed the specifics of the Delco accent, so named for the county west of Philadelphia near the Delaware border where the word 'water' may be pronounced more like "wooder." To pin down Mare's way of speaking, Winslet listened to recordings accumulated by the coach, as well as tapes of Ingelsby's wife, who is from Aston, the small town in Delaware County where a majority of the series was filmed.

Ingelsby says that Mare was always at the heart of the project. He came to the character first and then developed the story from there. Winslet came on board excited to embody someone unlike anyone she had ever played before. "She said a number of times, 'This character is nothing like me, which I love. I've never held a gun in any of my roles,'" Ingelsby recalls. And while at first it may be jarring to watch the British actress flatten her vowels while wearing an oversized jacket and sporting a bad dye job, it soon becomes clear that the reason to stick with this show is this character. Mare is as driven as she is caustically funny, especially when bantering with her juice-box-drinking and Fruit Ninja-playing mother, played by the comedic talent that is Smart. Even as Mare gets closer to cracking the case, it's her life that keeps the series engaging.

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