Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mare Of Easttown hits the gas and delivers one of the year’s best cliffhangers

John Douglas Thomas and Kate Winslet
John Douglas Thomas and Kate Winslet
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
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As it turns out, Mare Of Easttown is to television as one might imagine the homes in the “olde historic” portion of the town itself: an austere and modestly handsome exterior that opens to a gobsmacking world of character and detail.

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Even before the pole-axing double cliffhanger, “Fathers” finds Mare at a level and pace of storytelling that feels almost jarring after a pilot that spends most of its energy setting the table. It’s a nifty twist on the contemporary murder-mystery series, many of which burn through their gunpowder setting up the crime, only to spend subsequent episodes retreating into subplots. “Fathers” begins with Mare discovering Erin’s body and ends with her beset on all sides as the case intersects with her life in increasingly uncomfortable ways.

Before we get into the plot machinations, some catch-up is necessary given the ultra-connected nature of the Easttown community. The broad tapestry of characters takes a minute to come into focus, but “Fathers” brings some clarity. For one thing, Mare and Frank have been raising their grandson for two years since their son Kevin died by suicide. That offers a lot of context into Mare and Frank’s relationship as well as Mare’s general world-weariness. It’s no small feat to keep a marriage together following the death of a child under any circumstances, let alone a death by suicide. The custody arrangement is about to become the latest fire Mare has to put out, as Drew’s mother Carrie has emerged from drug treatment and is ready to end what she assumed would be a temporary solution.

The late Kevin Sheehan is just one of the many patriarchs whose choices drive the action in “Fathers,” beginning naturally with Kenny McMenamin. Kenny is crushed when he’s told of Erin’s death, his guilt compounded by their tense final conversation and his refusal to let her use his truck instead of riding her bike to Sharp’s Woods. Kenny immediately points the finger at Dylan, and honestly, why wouldn’t he? Given the prevalence of intimate partner violence, especially in situations involving money and the sharing of custody, Dylan would be anyone’s number one suspect. Doesn’t help at all that the video of Brianna’s assault on Erin has already gone public, providing a clear motive for involvement by one or both of them.

The viral video proves a blessing and a curse for Mare, who only learns her daughter Siobhan was at the woods and interacted with Erin while watching the clip with her colleagues. That group of colleagues includes Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters, underplaying for a change), the county suit whose bigfooting was all but inevitable. The increased scrutiny on Katie Bailey’s disappearance, and Mare’s investigation of it, would have made it impossible for her to fly solo on this one. So, Mare spends a lot of the episode in the humiliating position of having to train and orient someone who knows nothing about the community she knows intimately.

Evan Peters
Evan Peters
Photo: Sarah Shatz/HBO
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In another upending of convention, Colin is no vulture from “upstairs.” He’s carrying out an assignment he was given and seems sensitive to the emotional component of the relationship he’s forging with Mare. Colin isn’t taking anything away from Mare and knows trying to wrest the case from her would likely doom it. He’s quietly observant and downright charming, so it’s not surprising to see Mare start to let her guard down so quickly. But if Colin’s pleasant-mannered approach to detective work helps him bond with Mare on a personal level, it doesn’t help meld their totally different styles.

After the Brianna video surfaces, Colin prefers a smoother approach, while Mare is content to swoop into the Delrossos’ fine dining establishment to arrest Brianna and frog-march her out in the middle of her shift. Brianna denies, as does Dylan, any involvement with Erin’s death. The video looks bad, obviously, as do the money squabbles around Dylan and Erin’s baby, but the couple insists they wouldn’t go to such extremes.

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That argument is less convincing in Brianna’s case, but it’s enough for Brianna’s father Tony, who’s less than thrilled by Mare’s noisy arrest. Beyond the legal jeopardy his daughter is facing, Tony is personally offended by the way Mare chose to arrest her. It was an attack carried out on his home turf. At least, that’s one explanation for why Tony thinks it’s a good idea to overtly intimidate Mare to the point of chucking a gallon of two-percent through her window. Tony has to know on some level that this couldn’t possibly help Brianna’s situation.

Unfortunately, a time will come when Mare might look back fondly on the days when spilled milk and a pile of broken glass were literal problems and not figurative ones. She finally takes an opportunity to have the conversation with Frank she’s been putting off for so long. She extends an olive branch to her uber-mensch of an ex-husband, who implies that their marriage never got back on the rails following Kevin’s death. He seems happy with Faye and sees no reason why they can’t find a new path as friendly neighbors.

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It’s open for interpretation whether Mare’s primary motivation was to make peace with Frank or collect some breadcrumbs for her investigation. After all, Frank, who is apparently a high school teacher, had Erin in a few of his classes and might have had some helpful insights into her life and personality. Frank doesn’t have much to offer except shallow shock and general condolences. It’s certainly not the behavior of a man who just learned of the murder of the mother of his child, his former student with whom he had a highly illegal clandestine affair. At least, that’s the claim made by Erin’s best friend Jess, who says Erin told her in confidence that Frank was more likely than Dylan to have fathered Erin’s baby.

Meanwhile, Kenny McMenamin decides he’s not content to let the system slowly crank towards justice for Erin. He ambushes Dylan, forcing a drive deep into the woods, and puts two bullets into Dylan’s back, in no way swayed by Dylan’s claims of innocence. To recap: Mare’s daughter is among the last people to see Erin alive, and her prime suspect is dead, only to potentially be supplanted by her ex-husband who just so happens to live across the street. Like...imagine a world in which you watch this episode and don’t watch the next one? Can you even?

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Stray observations

  • I’m trying to figure out what combination of casting, acting, and writing left me so shocked to hear the secret Jess had been keeping. David Denman has a naturally trustworthy face (when he’s not in Dunder-Mifflin warehouse wear, anyway), which is perhaps why I didn’t look at him askew even after learning he personally knew Erin. A truly well-executed twist.
  • I’m now super into Mare’s budding relationship with Richard Ryan, which is incredibly charming and offers much-needed respite from this show’s otherwise dour tone. And I probably need a GIF of Mare spitting out her duck liver pate and cramming it between couch cushions.
  • There were a ton of really interesting tonal shifts throughout the episode, thanks in part to the playful score by Lele Marchitelli. The sequence in which Mare gets dolled up for Richard’s party is scored in a style often described by closed captioning as “light comic orchestral.” You’ll hear something pretty similar anytime someone does something embarrassing on a reality show.
  • I was also pleasantly surprised by the levity of the interrogation montage. The score, the quick cuts, and half-punchlines reminded me of something you’d see in an Alexander Payne comedy.
  • Also pretty delightful: the off-screen like-triangle developing between Lori’s daughter Moira and two of her classmates. Moira, upon being told she can’t ditch her current date for a better one: “Whatever.”
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