When I was in college, I took a class on detective fiction. We explored the genre’s tropes and stylings, and even since I have really enjoyed watching how those elements continue to recur and stretch into the modern detective books and shows that so many of us enjoy today.
In the first minute of HBO’s Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet’s Mare takes a long drag from a vape pen, an obvious reference to the chain-smoking hardboiled detectives of the past, but with a blatantly modern twist. It’s fitting, then, as an introduction to a show that will strike many viewers as familiar, but with some notable differences from the stories of the past. The story revolves around a teenage girl being murdered and the investigation that follows – that’s familiar – and it takes place in a small-town where everyone knows everyone – also familiar.
Still, its centering of a middle aged woman who does not always do the right thing – along with her complex, layered family life and dating life – is a bit of a departure from the genre’s roots in femme fatales and other seductresses. It is also a contrast to many of the high-gloss HBO mystery series that have come in recent years, like Big Little Lies and The Undoing. The show is constantly pushing and pulling between the retrograde communal relations of a small Pennsylvania town and modern conventions, technology and controversies. Its dialogue is sharp, its characters complicated and its arc is messier than most modern crime shows… in a good way. Ultimately, Mare of Easttown is well-made, well-acted, riveting television worth watching.
Mare of Easttown airs Sundays on HBO, and it can be watched on demand or on HBO Max.
I’m Evan Rook.