Mare of Easttown: terrifying, riveting TV that’s a wonder to witness

Warning: this article contains spoilers to episode five of Mare of Easttown on Sky Atlantic/HBO. Please don’t read on if you haven’t watched

I get through so much television that my twist-spotting abilities are now at full fitness. I am a spoiler athlete, trained and ready for the viewing olympics. I roll my eyes at any “sudden” reveal, groan that it had been so obviously signposted from episode one.

But this week’s episode of Mare of Easttown, Illusions, blindsided me. The Kate Winslet-led thriller took a turn for the even darker by killing off (I assume – he looked pretty dead to me) the puppy-like Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), just as he and Mare found the man who had kidnapped Katie Bailey and Missy Sager. After Line of Duty, a short break from painfully tense, edge-of-the-sofa, scream-at-the-screen TV was necessary. But from the moment the detectives knocked on the door, and the camera moved slowly towards the Bennie’s Tavern sign, I was terrified. This was horrific and riveting, choreographed perfectly to ramp up the stress. The Silence of the Lambs creepiness that radiated from Potts, in his crumbling old bar, the banging pipes, the realisation that Mare, suspended from duty, did not have a weapon, the loud music, suddenly cut, the chase through the house, the tray to the head … it was a fitting way to end what appears to have been a red herring in the Erin McMenamin murder case, and it all came together as a result of Mare’s dogged detective work.

It became obvious this week that this is a story of grief and how people live with it, of families being torn apart, not just by kidnappings and murder, but by prescription drugs, illegal drugs, affairs and suicide. As a portrait of modern America, it is not flattering, and the series is rarely a light watch. But it does carry itself with a sense of humour, and occasionally tips into the farcical: Mare’s mother, Helen, is knocked over by a screaming teenage lesbian, a cop is scared of blood, Helen (again) finds herself the unwilling subject of an unfortunate eulogy given for her neighbour.

The Winslet renaissance has been a wonder to witness, as she digs down in the dirt to play characters roughed up by life. Mare is a terrible mother, according to her daughter, she is mean and cold to her dates (poor Zabel!) and her ex-husband, she is fixated on work, to the extent that she accidentally rugby-tackles a man with dementia after mistaking him for a prowler, and she does bad things, like planting heroin on the mother of her grandson, in the hope that she won’t get custody of him. She sucks on her vape as if it is keeping her alive.

Yet despite Winslet’s magnificent performance, and the intricacies of the whodunnits at hand, Mare of Easttown almost lost me at episode four. I had been wary since the first episode ended with a slow, lingering shot on Erin’s naked body – a screen cliche that should have been abandoned long ago, and seemed at odds with the show’s overall ethos. When episode four closed with the reveal that Katie and Missy had been kidnapped (and raped, we now know) by a then-mysterious man, I thought, oh, it’s this kind of show. But somehow, wrapping it up as quickly as it did, and saving the young women, got it back on track.

There are two episodes to go, which will, presumably, reveal who killed Erin, a mystery that now sees even more suspects in the frame. I knew James McArdle’s deacon was a villain, because you don’t cast McArdle to hang about in the background dispensing communion wafers. But he denies the murder, while admitting everything else that makes him look very suspicious. The twist that Erin’s friend Jess and short-fused ex-boyfriend Dylan are deeply involved in a cover-up came as another surprise. And now Billy, Erin’s cousin (I had to look that up; I was slightly lost in the Billy/John/Kenny family tree) is acting suspiciously about the time Erin came to stay with him. What are the odds that his abandoned bottle of Rolling Rock ends up in a bag, to be sent off by Mare for DNA testing?

Saturday Night Live spoofed Mare of Easttown a couple of weeks ago in a viciously accurate sketch called Murdur Durdur. Kate McKinnon played a “grizzled lady detective … with a very specific accent”; Mare of Easttown director Craig Zobel said he was “so flattered” by the tribute. But this week’s episode revealed a less predictable beast than Murdur Durdur predicted. Whether it fulfils this late burst of promise in its final two episodes remains to be seen, but I assume now that I will be gripped, and surprised, until the very end.

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