“Mare of Easttown” contains at least two complementary shows, both deeply satisfying. One is an absorbing character drama about Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) and the denizens of Easttown, Pennsylvania. Mare, an exquisitely Irish name for a woman who’s stubborn, guarded, and nonetheless charming, is a former town patron who’s on the verge of becoming a pariah. Decades removed from her high school basketball heroics, she’s a divorced detective who been unable to close a missing person’s case. One friend has already turned against her, and the locals’ agitation only grows when another young girl turns up dead.
These local mysteries are the other story, but writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”), director Craig Zobel (“The Leftovers”), and an impeccable ensemble cast create so many area-specific details you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there are two cases to solve. Little happens in the premiere, yet it commands your attention — an achievement in its own right. The first episode is built around introductions, unveiling the murder at the very end, but as the seven-episode limited series pushes forward, the crime drama builds momentum and ends episodes on critical cliffhangers as pressure mounts on Mare. No matter which aspect of the series grabs you, the first five episodes offer substantial rewards.
Winslet’s return to HBO 10 years after her stunning work in “Mildred Pierce” proves to be a worthy, if distinct, follow-up. For nearly an hour, Winslet’s soured cop goes about a typical day protecting Easttown. First she responds to a complaint phoned in to her personal number, not through the station, about a ferret-faced peeping tom. Working from a police sketch of an actual ferret because the victim’s husband couldn’t figure out how to set up a store-bought security camera, Mare moves on to an in-family robbery; a woman’s brother stole from her while crashing on the basement couch. Mare, who knows everyone in town, knows the family, knows the brother, and soon reluctantly engages in a huffing-and-puffing pursuit that ends with Mare nursing a sprained ankle and politely requesting he seek out new accommodations.
When she returns home, the grind-it-out detective morphs into a single mom and grandmother bombarded by domestic responsibilities. But Mare is no Mildred (even if it’s fun to think of them swapping shows): She passes grandson Andrew off to her teenage daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) while Mare flops down in a kitchen chair next to her rabble-rousing mother Helen (Jean Smart), who’s busy hosting their local priest, who’s also Mare’s cousin, Father Dan (Neal Huff).
As Mare reaches into the fridge behind her for a Rolling Rock and swirls Cheez Whiz like soft-serve into the cap, one can’t help but delight in every detail. Mare’s omnipresent family and her routine consumption of delectable junk is enough to make you crave more boring days in the life of this local cop, instead of checking your watch, wondering when the murders will start. Thus is the power of a great cast (courtesy of casting director Avy Kaufman) given a meticulous world to play in; credit to Ingelsby, who grew up in the area, and Zobel, for knowing what details to hone in on without overindulging.
Once the mystery kicks in, viewers may feel a familiar rush from other female-led detective dramas like the BBC/Netflix series “Happy Valley” or SundanceTV’s “Top of the Lake.” However, “Mare of Easttown” leans heavily into genre elements familiar to another hit series closer to home. HBO’s “True Detective” is all over “Easttown,” from its angry, brooding, not-entirely-by-the-book lead detective to the semi-rural setting that’s both atypical and spooky. Its structure also mirrors the better seasons of Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology drama, balancing her tumultuous personal life with dozens of juicy clues meant to tease the audience as well as Mare herself, even if a few too many prove to be red herrings (or red Mare-ings?).
Michele K. Short / HBO
The final two episodes were not made available for review, so we can’t know how well the twisty crime story pays off. There’s also little reason to worry: Winslet’s immersed performance could carry a far lesser work by itself. The Emmy winner earned early buzz for her accent, which demanded that the British actor layer an East Coast American intonation with the unique Delaware County (“Delco”) dialect. Saying she pulled it off would imply an expertise I do not have — anyone hoping to hear an unintended English turn of phrase will probably find one — but she’s certainly convincing and her physical work is flawless. (Winslet can express annoyance simply by shifting her weight, and there’s a cavern of fragility in her eyes that, while rarely exposed, can surface in just a few rapid blinks.)
Perhaps the best aspect in “Mare of Eastown,” though, is its self-contained nature. Knowing the mystery will be solved by the end of seven episodes enhances expectations, but there’s also an introspective investment in the main character. The time devoted to Mare’s internal dilemmas provides insight into her choices where other shows and movies might gloss over them. (Her co-stars aren’t as thoroughly fleshed out, in part because they’re holding secrets or meant to be seen as suspects.) Mare feels trapped in a town that she’s come to resent, but escape isn’t the solution because the problem lies within her. As the series examines grief and regret as she strains to overcome both, it unearths rich subtext everyone should be able to appreciate.
“Mare of Easttown” premieres Sunday, April 18 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.