In the TV critic’s version of “you had me at hello,” the HBO Sunday-night drama “Mare of Easttown” had me with the first four images at the start of the series before a word was said.
Refinery tower lights against a predawn sky. A weather-beaten, ramshackle, frame house. A cemetery. Strings of almost identical, rundown row houses lining a hilly street. I knew I was in Rust Belt America: cold, empty, gray and left behind. Finally, I thought, I am going to get to spend some time with a TV drama that looks and feels like the way many of us live in places outside New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Palm Beach or the tonier suburbs of the nation.
The first voice viewers hear comes from an upstairs window in one of the nicer houses. It’s the scream of a teenage girl: a foreshadowing of what’s to come in a murder that sets the hero of this seven-part limited series on her quest. I like almost everything about this hero, from the nuanced and thoroughly engaging performance of Kate Winslet to the sociology of gender, social class, family, small-town policing and sports that is richly explored through this troubled character.
In one dimension, “Mare of Easttown” is a hard-eyed look at the hometown athletic hero who never left where she grew up, in this case, a small community in Pennsylvania. We usually think of male athletes in that role, like Bruce Springsteen singing, “I had a friend who was a big baseball player back in high school,” in Glory Days. As a high school athlete, I have a number of former friends and teammates in my past who fit the role, and reconnecting with them has always been a depressing experience.
But here the gender of the former athlete hero is female, Mare Sheehan (Winslet), middle- aged mother, grandmother, ex-wife and now veteran detective on the Easttown Police Department. I like that, too. Sheehan is known in the township as “Miss Lady Hawk,” one-time star of the local high school basketball team called the Hawks. She hit the shot that won the state championship for her school in 1995.
I am sure it is a function of generation and gender, but I had not thought much about what life looked like for women who were star athletes in high school and never moved away from the site of their teen triumphs. You can see the good vestiges of having been a team leader in the way Sheehan confidently takes control of a crime scene. You can see the darker side of knowing glory at a young age, in that she seems certain she will never reach that height again.
“Doing something great is overrated, because people expect that of you all the time,” she confides in a moment of truth with a fellow detective in Episode 5. “What they don’t know is we’re just as screwed up as they are.”
She describes her life to a man she is dating as a “(expletive) show.” And that’s before it really starts to unravel and she loses her professional and ethical compass over a fight she is having for custody of her dead son’s child with the boy’s mother.
Sheehan is an outstanding detective, but her family demons look like they might devour her. Her father, a detective, killed himself when she was 13, and her grown son recently did the same.
“He was a detective,” she says of her father to a companion on a dinner date. “If he was a bartender, I would have probably been a bartender. If he had shoveled (expletive), I would probably have shoveled (expletive).”
Her father was her “best friend,” Sheehan adds.
“You think maybe it’s something you inherit?” she asks a therapist she is forced to see as a condition of keeping her job. “You know, suicide, mental illness? I read a bunch of articles from these scientists who think it’s passed down generation to generation? You think maybe?”
“And what are you looking for when you read these articles?” the therapist asks.
“Hope, I guess,” Sheehan says after a long pause.
“Hope that your grandson won’t turn out …”
“Like my dad,” Sheehan says finishing the sentence. “Like Kevin (her dead son).”
“Does it worry you that he might?” the therapist asks.
“Oh, God, yes. I’m terrified.”
That’s probably the biggest demon, but there are many in Sheehan’s life.
In Episode 1, Easttown High is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the state championship. But even as Sheehan is cheered along with her teammates as they walk on court at halftime of a high school game, she had been jeered earlier in the week by some of the same town folk for failing to solve the case of a local teen who disappeared a year ago. Making Sheehan’s failure even more painful, the teen who disappeared is the daughter of one of her high school teammates from their glory days. The distraught mother now works at a convenience store, takes care of her missing daughter’s child and is in treatment for cancer.
Sheehan polices a gray, harsh, brutish and deadly landscape. Teen girls go missing or get murdered. Opioid and heroin addiction is common. Violence can erupt out of nowhere and change lives dramatically in a flash.
That’s the underbelly of Easttown. But the surface isn’t much better. People work jobs they hate. Multiple generations live in the same household out of economic necessity and constantly bicker as resentments smolder. Families eat dinners of microwaved macaroni and cheese on paper plates. A special meal is a delivered pizza. People spend most of their lives in jeans, sweatshirts and bulky coats. There seems to never be enough money for anything from gas for cars to needed medical procedures. And alcohol is used freely to self-medicate as much of it away as possible. This is what was once the middle class before it was shredded by trade deals, tax laws, globalization and political leaders who turned their backs on those left behind.
And, yet, there is a sense of community with family providing a kind of continuity and stability thanks mainly to the women of this town. The women are everything; the men not so much.
Sheehan’s home is multiple generation female for the most part. She is the owner of the home, but her mother, Helen (Jean Smart), and her teen daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and her grandson, Drew (Izzy King), live with her. She fears the boy will soon be taken to live with his mother. Sheehan’s best and seemingly only friend is a former teammate, Lori (Julianne Nicholson), who is also the emotional center of her own family. Another former teammate, Beth (Chinasa Ogbuagu), not only keeps her family together, but looks out for her grown brother, Freddie (Dominique Johnson), who is struggling with drug addiction. Outside of her time with Lori, the only semblance of emotional rescue for Sheehan in the five episodes made available for screening is provided by the female therapist she is forced to see.
Will Sheehan be able to successfully cope with her depression and anger? Will she be able to save her career? Will she solve the brutal murder of a young single mother found dead in the woods at the start of Episode 2? Will she be able to keep her family together amid the many challenges facing them in a community that the nation seems to have left behind?
That last question is one that a lot of us face in our own lives today.
“Mare of Easttown” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on HBO.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.