n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
First impressions of Mare of Easttown, the new HBO show starring Kate Winslet as the titular Mare Sheehan, beleaguered detective of a small town in Pennsylvania, is that it’s a solemn look into the lives of people one may not otherwise give more than a passing thought to. I included the definition of “sonder” from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows because the show feels like it takes one of these people you might see in the background of your own life and gives you a detailed and intimate look into the lives they’re living. It’s a story of an all-too-familiar struggle that many can relate to. It’s about how making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Cheers references aside, Mare of Easttown is about relationships first and foremost. And that’s what makes it so great.
Easttown can best be described as dreary. Establishing shots are often accompanied by cloudy, gray skies with very little sunshine. And that describes Mare as well; someone with very little sunshine in her life. Mare’s relationship to Easttown is one of exhausted compliance. In the opening scene, she gets an early morning call from a woman who’s granddaughter spotted an alleged peeping tom who “looked like a ferret,” watching her undress from an alley behind their house. Mare shows up to the call already annoyed at being roused from bed. She rings the doorbell and knocks on the door while standing in the “fucking freezing cold.”
That’s the kind of town it is. One where a little old lady has the Detective Sergeant’s personal cell phone number and feels like she can call at all hours and Mare will show up. It’s also a town where Mare feels comfortable cursing around little old ladies. For what it’s worth, however, Mare does show up and she continues to show up as best she can for the town and for her family, regardless of how utterly tiresome the whole thing makes her.
Easttown High School
Mare has a storied history with Easttown High School. Back in 1995, the Easttown Lady Hawks won their first and so far only women’s basketball championship. Mare herself hit a game-winning buzzer beater to seal the win, thus ensuring she will always be saddled with the moniker of “Miss Lady Hawk,” an albatross she would rather shake than be tied to. But Mare grew up in this small town and the school has so little to be proud of, it falls on her to carry that burden.
Anyone else would dine out on that buzzer beater for the rest of their lives. Reveling in the time their athletic prowess allowed them to be a champion. Now Mare’s athletic prowess doesn’t even allow her to hop over a fence in pursuit of a robbery suspect without horribly rolling her ankle, giving her a pronounced limp for the rest of the episode.
Mare feels embarrassed by the nickname and her accomplishment. She even tells a nice fella she meets at the bar that the last minute shot she made was important “around here” but wouldn’t be that big of a deal anywhere else. She seems genuinely embarrassed by the attention and rolls her eyes every time someone utters the words, “Miss Lady Hawk”.
Mare meets Richard (Guy Pearce) at a bar after she and her old teammates are honored at halftime of the latest Easttown Lady Hawk basketball game. She goes to the bar to drown her sorrows/accomplishments, when a stranger sitting next to her strikes up a conversation.
He’s a writer and he just moved into town a few months back. Maybe it’s the booze, maybe it’s the feelings that were stirred up by the basketball ceremony, but Mare decides to go home with Richard for some hot couch coitus, which leads to the greatest exchange of the episode when Richard tells her, after said steamy sofa sex, that she doesn’t have to leave right away and she can stay if she wants to.
“That’s okay, I have to take my grandson to school tomorrow.”
“You’re a grandma?”
“Did I fuck like a grandma?”
It’s hard to say because they don’t show very much but I’m guessing… no, she did not.
Mare has a unique family situation. Her elder mother, Helen (Jean Smart) has moved in with her and her daughter and her grandson. Her cousin, a local preacher, makes himself at home while he makes fancy drinks for himself and Helen. In fact, everyone seems to make themselves at home when even Mare’s ex-husband, Frank (David Denman) who bought the house behind hers, pops in to grab some oregano for a big rib dinner he’s planning to celebrate getting engaged again. Something Mare knew nothing about because her family didn’t tell her. To add insult to literal injury, everyone loves Frank’s new fiancè so much, they can’t wait to celebrate their upcoming union, despite the fact that the dinner celebration is on the same night as Mare’s basketball ceremony.
And so, her family goes to party with her ex-husband, leaving Mare alone to go to her pomp and circumstance-less formality.
Dawn and Katie Bailey
Being a Detective Sergeant means Mare deals with “the burglaries and the overdoses and the bad crap that goes on around here.” That also includes murders and missing persons. One such missing person is Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan). When we meet Mare, Katie Bailey has been missing for over a year and the cops have nothing to show for the work they’ve done. Katie’s mother Dawn (Enid Graham) goes on TV to spread awareness of her missing daughter claiming the police have done nothing. Mare doesn’t hold out much hope for finding Katie, believing her body is probably at the bottom of a lake somewhere and will never be found. But she takes this personally as she’s been the one working the case for the last year.
But Dawn and Mare have another facet to their relationship beyond that of cop and grieving mother. They also used to play basketball together.
Back in the day, Mare and Dawn were on the same basketball team that won the state and regional championships. This leads to a tense exchange between the two women just before they’re to be announced at the Lady Hawks game. Mare defends her police work, reading off a laundry list of things she’s done in pursuit of finding Dawn’s missing daughter, despite the fact that none of those things have given way to any clues.
Mare takes her job seriously. She does it literally from sunup to sundown. Starting and ending her day with the peeping tom. As she heads home, she sees someone standing in the alley where the peeper was previously said to have been hanging out. By the time she stops the car and jumps out, the person has disappeared into the shadows. She radios it in and has a squad car comb the area.
That same night, there’s a murder. A young woman named Erin (Cailee Spaeny) winds up in a dry river bed. Erin is a single mom who lives with her alcoholic, abusive father, and a son she had with a douchebag local kid. Her and her baby daddy argue about finances and the fact that their child needs a surgery on his ears due to frequent infections. If the surgery waits much longer, the kid could be in danger of hearing loss.
Despite all the sadness in her life, Erin has one thing to look forward to… a new guy in her life. She’s been texting with him for the last three weeks and is looking forward to meeting him for the first time. However, this new guy doesn’t exist. Erin was catfished by her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, who then sets about kicking the shit out of Erin for “texting my man.” Several of Erin’s classmates come to her aid to stop the beating and Erin wanders off into the night alone. This is the last time anyone sees her alive.
It’s sad, well because murder is sad, but also because Erin had her whole life ahead of her. She could have had a vivid and complex life with her own ambitions, friends, routines…
But now, she’ll just be a footnote to many people’s lives. Something someone “heard about” but they didn’t know her that well because she was quiet and mostly kept to herself. She was a blur passing in the background of their lives, a lighted window at dusk.
And when her light goes out, you know it’s about to rock this small town to its core.