Law and Wooder: On Mare of Easttown

By Aaron BadyJune 2, 2021

Law and Wooder: On Mare of Easttown
You, stop right there! In this essay, mere sentences past the opening, there are spoilers for the HBO television program Mare of Easttown, which is about a legendary basketball player in Eastern Pennsylvania and her precocious daughter, who's going off to college in California. It's like Gilmore Girls meets Friday Night Lights. Anyway, there are spoilers for that show in this essay, so if you haven't seen it, and you love hoops drama and accurate representations of college in the contemporary United States, by all means, catch up and come back to read Aaron Bady's excellent take on the finale for Dear Television. 

- The Editors


In the end, Mare of Easttown turned out to be a cop show. A strange cop show, always almost thinking unthinkable things about what cops are for and might be, but a cop show all the same. This generic revelation was a far more consequential one than the question of who did it, which a few luminaries correctly guessed: in retrospect, you can see how necessary it was for a 13-year-old to have been the one who pulled the trigger. What else could have motivated an entire family to lie? How else to connect the murder plot to other strands of the show, like Mare’s own dead son? It’s the best solution to the puzzle, thematically resonant, and it even gives the finale a satisfying bait-and-switch structure, allowing Mare to pull apart the grim (but relatively banal) story of a shitty man covering up his shitty affair with a shitty murder, so that the final episode can hinge on her decision to pursue, instead, an unbearable truth, and to be a cop above all else.

This is not to say that the show didn’t have loose ends and red herrings. If Frank flags John’s joviality the night Erin was killed as monstrous for someone who just committed murder, and if this triggers Mare’s suspicions that he didn’t actually do the murder, it doesn’t sit right with me that (as it turns out) he still spent the night covering up his son’s murder of his own former lover (should he not thus not have been super jovial? Or IS he a monster?) Lots of questions remain, like what was Dylan doing the night Erin was killed, but then, that whole subplot is a disaster: wasn’t it a bit much for him to be threatening Jess with a gun because his parents’ happiness was at stake? And wait, wasn’t that like a few weeks after being shot in the spine? Also why would the third person, who we barely see, be “bound together” with them? Who was that guy? And how did Dylan know where Erin was shot when that info was kept from the public? A million questions like that filter through, the more you think about it: Where did Erin get the ear surgery money? So wait, she was doing sex work? Gosh, it sure seems likes the show lost interest in her except as a pretext who gets catfished a lot. And why was Siobhan even in this show, other than to make a hash of how college admissions works? How could a retired cop not report his missing gun the night after a murder? Finally, and most importantly: who stole Glen Carroll's pizza cutter?

If the show was structured as a mystery, however, that whodunnit that kept you watching, week after week — as a new potential killer was gestured towards and then, in the next episode, shown not to be the killer — might have been the biggest red herring of all. The most interesting thing about Mare of Easttown is not the puzzle box question of who did it. The interesting thing is that it’s a show which realizes, on some level, that the solution to the puzzle doesn’t really help anyone. Erin is still just as dead; the only benefit of knowing who killed her, it turns out, is that a whole bunch of other people are also now in jail for the various sympathetic crimes committed in the name of protecting their family. “My whole family is gone now because of you,” as Lori bitterly complains. And what could Mare say in response? She says nothing.

Much more than most shows of this kind, Mare of Easttown makes it so much harder than it should be to be pleased with the result of Mare’s detection. And once we stop being distracted by the whodunnit aspect of the spectacle — and by our own need, as viewers, to know the solution to the puzzle — we might start to notice the more general reason that no one likes Mare and why everyone lies to her, apparently all the time: being a cop just doesn’t seem to help, and no one seems to want her to be one.

This is more a general vibe than a uniform rule; Dawn, after all, wants her daughter back and blames Mare for not solving the case. But even when Mare does manage to rescue Katie from the attic where she’s been imprisoned and raped for a year, that exception proves the rule: returning one kid to her mother also deprives Detective Zabel’s mother of her son, which the latter bitterly points out. The normal life of a cop turns out to mean being an exceedingly unwelcome presence in the life of her town (which is also her family). Or at least this sure seems to be what we mostly see in Mare of Easttown, where no one’s problems have policing as their solution, and where no one seems to like our protagonist. The sister who won’t press charges on her brother — because what would that accomplish? — sets the tone in episode one, and it goes on from there. As a cop, we see Mare erase video evidence, tackle an old man with dementia, and plant drugs in Carrie’s car. But the most socially beneficial cop interventions we see are specifically non-carceral, like calling the gas company to yell at them for turning off the heat, driving someone to the parish shelter, or just rounding up a bereaved father’s family to comfort him when you bring the bad news. When Mare is in full on badge-and-gun mode, she mostly just brings violence to her town, which is also her family, who avoid her as much as possible.

This is a weird way for a cop show to be. But this is also a strange cop show because it’s filled with people not telling Mare things. Why is she the last to know about Frank’s engagement, and why doesn’t Helen tell her that Carrie is suing for custody? She’s even the last to find out about Siobhan getting into Berkeley, though, to be fair, that happens on a different television series starring Siobhan that has very little to do with the events of Mare of Easttown. But it’s mostly her investigation that Easttown seems to weirdly resist. Why did Siobhan not tell her mother that she’d seen the deceased on the night of the murder and literally watched a gang of youths attack her? Why does Frank lie about buying diapers and formula for Erin? Why doesn’t Lori confide in her oldest friend, once she knows the truth? Why do (non-murderers) Dylan and Brianna lawyer up and stonewall, and why does Deacon Mark lie to the cops and hide the bike? Why does Jess burn the journals?

In a sense, such questions are a function of the show’s need to hide the solution from the audience, but in another sense, the sheer bulk of them reflect how saturated the town is with low-grade antipathy for its police detective. And, in this way, it’s simply realistic: why would Siobhan call her cop mom on her own peer group? And of course you STFU and call for your lawyer when a cop is interrogating you. Mare is so aggressively manipulative in her (maybe illegal?) interrogation of Brianna that even Zabel is taken aback. These aren’t really questions. Why wouldn’t people dislike and distrust Mare? She arrests people; she destroys their lives.

Put differently, the question isn’t “why don’t people spill their guts to Mare?”; the better question is “why does this cop accurately portray how leery people are of talking to police?” And the answer is that, in this cop show, policing is shown to be a pretty antisocial practice, multiplying social problems rather than solving them. What good does it do to arrest Brianna for beating up the deceased? She certainly did it, and she certainly sucks, but as her enraged father verbalizes, the effects of arresting her are that she doesn’t get to go to college (not to mention the sadism with which Mare arrests her in her workplace, in the most disruptive way possible). Is that justice? And if so, is “justice” a good thing?

Again, I think the show’s official answer is "yes," but it lingers so hard over “no.” By the same token, Ryan Ross certainly killed Erin — and reddit is rightly suspicious of how accidental the second shot was — but even so, the slow, generous, and depressing interrogation scene does its best to demonstrate, and render sympathetic, how a “good kid” with “good intentions” would end up doing a terrible thing, and — more importantly — how the only intervention available to the police would be to fucking ruin his life. All the people who lie to Mare to protect him are shown to be — at least in that respect — basically good people trying to protect their loved ones from the horror that is The Law. To a remarkable extent, Mare is the threat to the family, in a show where family supersedes everything else.

If this is a strange way for a cop show to be, it’s because most cop shows are about defending (or avenging) the family from crimes committed by monsters. Criminal motivations might be explicable, even sympathetic — we all understand and feel greed, revenge, envy, and rage, after all — but by acting on those motivations, the criminal goes outside the circle, past the point of no return. When they are unmasked — when they do the evil voice — we come to recognize that, after all, they are not really like us. And this is why and how such creatures can be, in good conscience, consigned to the dungeons we call “correctional facilities,” one of those euphemisms that no one really believes anymore. Such people are no longer part of the community; when we send them away, we do not grieve them. But in the show’s closing benediction, Deacon Mark voices the moral of what turns out to be quite a Catholic show: “It’s not for us to decide whether or not they’re deserving,” he says; “Our job is only to love.”

That love is a harder job than detection could be Mare of Easttown’s tagline. But it’s also the contradiction at the heart of a show which does, for all that Sunday morning church talk about forgiveness and love, still end with an incarceration: Ryan goes to jail, where he faces ten to twenty years in prison. By their visible absence from the final scene, we can assume Billy and John also join their nephew and son in jail, and even if Lori does not get charged — despite being almost as much of an accessory after the fact as her husband and brother-in-law — it does pretty much add up to an entire family gone because of Mare’s actions. (Though, it's worth noting that Lori's rhetoric here seems to ignore her teenage daughter Moira.) Why didn’t she just… not arrest Ryan? Especially since she does, apparently, decide not to charge Lori?

In short: Why was it her job to decide whether or not they were deserving? Why couldn’t she just love them?

These are strangely existential questions to ask of a cop show, and it’s to the show’s credit that it does ask them. And even if it does, in the end, take the easy way out — the cop arrests the killer and puts people in jail because that’s how this always goes — Deacon Mark’s sermon on forgiveness really isn’t reconcilable with such carceral catharsis, and on some level, I think, the show knows it. After all, the final two scenes of the show are Lori forgiving Mare and then Mare, by climbing the ladder to that attic, forgiving herself. But unless the entire structure of carceral policing is bankrupt and unchristian, what exactly is she being forgiven for? She is a very good detective who solves all the crimes. What exactly are those last scenes doing?

More than a few viewers expected that Mare’s son Kevin would be some part of the final conclusion. His death could have been worked into the main mystery in a variety of ways, and there were Chekhov’s gun reasons it seemed like it would be. But in the end, Siobhan’s documentary was just another red herring; the questions it seemed to be a vehicle for the show to raise — why did he suddenly leave in the middle of the night? Who was he with? And, of course, why did he kill himself? — never really get answered. It seems like his story was not, after all, more complicated than it seemed, just another casualty of the opioid epidemic that the show keeps on a low simmer in the background. Like all the other sympathetic drug addicts in the show, his tragedy is that the drugs make him into a monster — and the episode 4 flashback scene where he and Carrie attack and rob Mare for drug money is truly unsettling — but he remains part of the community, part of the family. He remains someone who can be grieved.

(There is no non-parenthetical place to say this, because the show’s whiteness is so implicit, so unspoken, but this is a show about an ethnic white people; as a result, because its matrix of drugs, retributive violence, dysfunctional family structures, blighted hopes for futurity, and the prospect that one single child might escape the neighborhood and be saved — a cinematic setting that we know so well from ’90’s “hood” films about Black people — is centered almost entirely on white people, the show is able to tell a story about crime without monsters. It is even able to look with clear eyes on the violence that carceral justice does to people; it is able to imply — if not quite conclude — that maybe what these people need, in the end, is not punishment and judgment, but love and support.)

Another thing I expected, that didn’t happen, was that Carrie would be invited back into the circle. She could have been given Siobhan’s room, or in some way brought into Mare’s otherwise now-quite empty nest; she could have been loved and supported in her recovery as Mare atoned for framing her. What better way to solve the problem of Drew’s custody than by combining the two households? The neatness of this restorative solution almost annoys me by its obvious correctness: instead of leaving her out in the cold, the show could have brought Carrie back into the circle (as Helen had previously argued was necessary and unavoidable). The show put in place every single piece of narrative and dramatic infrastructure it needed in order to do this.

But that’s not what happened, is it? Instead, Mare gets Drew, like she had wanted, because Carrie disappears back into an institution, like Mare had wanted. The happy ending is that the bad person is made to go away. And my read on the ending, unfortunately, is that it ultimately falls back on these kinds of carceral conclusions, out of an excess of cop-show conventionality: by arresting Ryan, her best friend’s son, Mare is able to ascend to the attic because she has corrected the error she made with Kevin, which was that she didn’t arrest him.

After all, Kevin wasn’t just a drug addict; he was violent. He and Carrie literally attacked Mare and robbed her. As she is literally a cop, there would have been nothing easier in the world for her than to have him arrested. But the show strongly implies that arresting Ryan, ultimately, will be good for him: after spending the entire show seething with darkness, under the shadow of the crime he has committed, the one thing we are given to know about his institutionalization is that he has a writing class he likes; he is, in a juvenile correction facility, facing his truth. He is getting better. To the extent, therefore, that the show has a final thought on Kevin’s death, it’s that Mare finally did for her friend’s son what she couldn’t do for her own: throw him in jail, for his own good.

I don’t like this ending. I think it’s the worst part of this show, however superficially satisfying the cop show genre might be. It lacks the imagination to look for a different way of doing things and it lacks the courage to forgive those who have hurt you, the hard parts of Christianity that so few Christians actually take seriously. Instead, it’s sheep and goats, eyes for eyes: the criminals in cages, the violent being violated. This is the easy way out, and Mare takes it: after six episodes of a show about how hard it is to love and forgive those who seem monstrous to us — those whose suffering has impelled them to do terrible things — the only person that Mare is able to love and forgive, in the end, is herself.


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LARB Contributor

Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.


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