In the first episode of Mare of Easttown Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny) tells her baby how much she loves him. It’s a form of love the doomed young mother knows her child can’t fathom. It’s likely she can’t quite understand its power herself or why it sets her up for endless abuses in the web of intimate relationships she must navigate as a young woman, mother, daughter and resident of Easttown.
The series continues on, propelled by the question: Who killed Erin? In the end, we discover sweet-faced Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann) did the deed. But that’s not the full story. Erin’s murder is larger than a single crime. It’s not just Ryan or his pervy dad, John Ross (Joe Tippett) that killed Erin. It’s family that killed her. Family was the opportunity. It was the means. It was even the motive. All little Ryan Ross was trying to do was “keep his family together,” right?
Family and the condition of motherhood didn’t take only Erin down. Those twin powers are slowly killing Mare, Lori and every other woman in Easttown, too. Paradoxically, they’re also keeping them alive.
Love and misery, life and death, young mothers being abused, older mothers being abused and/or living in the aftermath of abuse, crying babies that need you all the damn time and grown kids that scream, I hate you while simultaneously demanding comfort from the bitch they hate, a.k.a, you, Mom. Nothing has captured the acute heartache and existential suffering that is motherhood – or should I say, Mare-hood?– quite like the HBO series by Brad Inglesby.
The world of the show takes all the complex and terrible living realities for women that usually get cleaned up by pop culture and transformed into fulfilment imperatives: Sex! Relationships! Love! Marriage! Babies! and dramatizes them as living (and killing) abuses that women somehow make work – that even more curiously, somehow feel like blessings when they’re consecrated by motherhood. They make all this shit work, not for themselves, though. For everyone else – for their family. As Mare’s daughter Siohban (Angourie Ross) tells her bone-weary mother, “It’s a better place because you are here.”
The sheer volume of miserable female experience depicted in the series is why Mare of Easttown has been something like a tuning fork for female viewers across the globe, sending out sound waves only they can hear and sound back to one another. I don’t know one woman in my life that isn’t compelled by the series, that doesn’t want to see more of Mare and everywhere. I don’t know one woman – mother or not — that doesn’t feel somehow represented by the way the series depicts the enervating reality of relationships for women – the drain of being mother, sister, girlfriend, daughter, teenage sexual object. But that also somehow gets at the mystical relationship that can exist between nurturing and transcendence.
What did W.H. Auden write? Life remains a blessing / although you cannot bless. Same goes for motherhood.
Most of the critical response has focused on the character of Mare, played by Kate Winslet, and so beautifully that she deserves some kind of formal recognition for the effort – I’m thinking a statue in a playground frequented by weary women should do it. But to see Mare in isolation is to fail to see the broader depiction of womanhood – and motherhood specifically — that the series presents. There is a miserable sisterhood that binds (and bonds), all the female characters in the series, but even more so those with children.
Long-suffering Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson) with her kid-like freckles and sad clown mouth staggers through her family life, folding laundry and wiping down counters while colluding to cover up a terrible crime. Her reward for bending herself to breaking is to raise the baby her husband fathered with the teenage girl her son killed. (I don’t know too many women in their 40s who’ve ferried their kids into adolescence who wouldn’t feel as if being handed a baby to raise isn’t some kind of Biblical punishment.)
Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham) is dealing with cancer, taking care of her granddaughter and coping with the fallout of her daughter’s kidnapping at the hands of a sexual predator. I almost forgot – she’s doing it while working nights at a convenience store. Beth Hanlon (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is struggling to cope with her brother’s drug addiction and the havoc it’s wreaking on her family life. The strain is so relentless and overwhelming his death feels like freedom.
Then there’s Mare, the sandwich-generation homicide detective who is fighting for custody of her four-year-old grandson while attempting to solve the murder of one young woman even as she is on the hunt for another two young women who are missing.
This is a cast of female characters tasked with an inventory of burdens that would give Job pause. It’s all too much and all too familiar. Yet the world never tires of the pile-on, just keeps adding to the heap, no reprieve, no mercy. Their personal lives are both pit and pendulum, and no one seems concerned that Mom hasn’t smiled in a while. Everyone is just happy she’s making life better simply by existing for them.
The women are charged with keeping it all going and at whatever cost to themselves physically, spiritually, psychologically and intellectually, but eventually something’s gotta give. That would be the women, by the way.
Every once in a while, the audience is reminded of their sacrifices. Sometimes the reference is subtle but sharply delineated, a point elegantly made in throwaway fashion. Because Mare isn’t really Mare at all (surely someone somewhere has acknowledged the synchronicity between her nickname and the French word for mother, mere); at one time, she was Marianne.
Only her own mother, Helen (Jean Smart), can help her conjure up the memory of that ghostly figure. Who is the person who is Marianne? What ever happened to her? Someone put up a Missing poster.
But who’s got time to raise a fuss or remember your own name when there’s so much to be done. Laundry and murders to cover up. As Mare says in the final episode, “you learn to live with the unacceptable.”
You can say that again, sister.
In stark contrast to all the women who are performing some domestic version of the Battle of the Somme every day, the men of Easttown are either utterly useless or completely suspect. One of the great achievements of the series is to make it feel entirely credible that any one of the beards or haircuts skulking around town could, in fact, be a sexual predator. The men are mostly colossal disappointments programmed to enact certain limited functions. They make more messes than they clean up.
The women aren’t just the clean-up crew, they are the pillars and foundations – they hold up the sky. Collapse – which comes at the end of the series as both Mare and Lori sink to the floor in one of the series’ few overtly yet Old Master-resonant emotional moments – is a luxury. Complete mental and physical disintegration as spa day.
Miserable women being proportionately miserable is compelling viewing for a global population of women who have been compressed to dust by the many burdens they’ve borne as a result of the pandemic — a weight of care that was already heavy before Covid-19 ever decided to come to town and make that burden feel crushing, annihilating, impossible.
Maybe that’s why it feels more like a pandemic series than any drama that may take the pandemic as its central plot point could. I watched the finale of Mare of Easttown with a constricted chest and tears brimming in my eyes. Which is kind of how I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half working, virtual schooling, and mothering, too. Millions of women are Mare and Co. right now — many have been her for decades, generations, millenia. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels cathartic to see it given space to expand on my screen.
But thank god, DJ got his ear surgery. Better not to think at what cost though.