Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A shocking Mare Of Easttown solves some of its mysteries, but at a hefty cost

Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

In Easttown, all battles are hard-fought and rarely won. There are few victories to be found and the few that do exist are of the Pyrrhic variety, hence the ticker-tape parade to honor a high school basketball game played decades earlier. Easttown roses have thorns, but also razor-edged petals, so every bouquet is grocery-chain carnations and baby’s breath. At least that’s how it feels to watch “Illusions,” which swiftly connects important dots after all of episode four’s dawdling, but brings swift, startling ends for multiple characters.

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To begin at the beginning means having to say farewell to Betty Carroll, the cantankerous busy-body whose actions continue to reverberate through her community long after her death. It says a lot for Mare Of Easttown that Betty’s death was so affecting, considering how briefly and infrequently she appeared. For all her flaws, Betty was the type of person cohesive communities thrive on, the kind that encourages collectivism by jamming her nose in everyone’s business.

The show’s tone is well-calibrated enough that Betty’s funeral reception gets to yield the season’s biggest laugh. Glen Carroll, as it turns out, regrets a prolonged affair with Mrs. Lahey. (Yes, that Mrs. Lahey, the mother of Betty’s arch-nemesis.) He’ll sleep easier knowing he’s confessed his sins to the council of neighbors. That chunk of pitch-black comedy is about the only levity to be found in “Illusions,” which finds nearly every character increasingly hemmed in by their circumstances.

The first ripple of Betty’s death is the blackout triggered when she fatally crashes into a utility pole. Everything becomes audible during a power outage, and Lori overhears her husband swearing her son to secrecy about some unknown trespass. Meanwhile, Mare stumbles onto a rough cut of Siobhan’s documentary and is forced to see Kevin through a lens that had been blurred by memories of him as a desperate addict. Blackouts are jarring. They make you aware of how vulnerable your existence is to external factors you have no control over. They obscure most things but manage to illuminate others.

Perhaps that’s why so many of Easttown’s women are looking at everyone with new eyes. One minute it’s Mare glancing askance at Billy Ross, who can’t seem to remember how long Erin crashed on his couch when she and her father were on bad terms. Then it’s Brianna, who’s far enough into a plea negotiation that she has more bandwidth to focus on Dylan, who stonewalls when asked why he’d gone missing on the night of Erin’s murder. Lori presses her son to elaborate on the secret his father mentioned and learns her galoot of a husband is still being unfaithful to her.

Jack Mulhern and Mackenzie Lansing
Jack Mulhern and Mackenzie Lansing
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
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The blackout seems to serve as an all-around catalyst for Mare, who has gone from attending her mandated therapy sessions as a compliant skeptic to thriving on the work of untangling her feelings about Kevin’s death and its aftermath. She (sort of) solves the mystery of Betty Carroll’s prowler, who unfortunately winds up just being a sundowning wanderer. Even the dinner date with Colin that seemed abstract is now a reality, even though Colin swiftly ruins the evening by demanding Mare show all her cards since he’s been showing all of his. Mare’s so offended, she walks out on him mid-chew. She already kind of has a boyfriend, besides.

The thing is, though, Colin doesn’t really have any cards. Week after week, Colin has further betrayed how far out of his depth he is while Mare policed circles around him and baby-stepped him through theories occasional viewers of The First 48 could put together on their own. At least one of Easttown’s mysteries gets solved pretty quickly, as Colin admits to Mare that he’s barely responsible for solving the case that single-handedly gave him his reputation as a closer. In reality, the process Colin had been describing as good ol’ fashioned police work was actually an incredibly lucky break. An ex-cop in his armchair discovered a faulty alibi and left Colin a treasure map to the culprit upon his death.

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Of the many stellar scenes between Kate Winslet and Evan Peters, this is arguably the best of them. Yes, Peters’ affectation of drunkenness was impressive, but there’s far more complexity in a sober conversation between two characters who are almost never willing to be vulnerable at the same time. There’s such beauty to Colin exposing his darkest secret in the interest of convincing Mare that her heavy, complicated life isn’t an excuse not to let him into it. He even swoops in for a kiss that Mare appreciates for its awkward purity, just as she appreciates his dad puns. It might have been wise to assume, after a moment that could only pass for cloyingly sweet in Easttown, that heartbreak was just around the corner.

Evan Peters
Evan Peters
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
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That heartbreak starts with a break in the Katie Bailey case fueled by tips from girls who do business on Sidedoor. A couple of girls claim to have escaped after being attacked by a bearded Winston smoker who drives a blue cargo van. Based on that lead, Colin and Mare get to do actual good ol’ fashioned police work, driving from door-to-door and following up on the matches from a vehicle search. Their work leads them to the same dilapidated bar where we first met Katie Bailey, and from the moment the detectives arrive, something terrible is clearly about to happen.

Director Craig Zobel and writer Brad Inglesby serve up a master class in tension building with the final 10 minutes of “Illusions,” the most unbearably suspenseful sequence I can remember watching since perhaps Breaking Bad at its peak. All the pieces of an ugly puzzle come together so quickly: the ear-splitting music; the mountain of Winston butts; the stripped walls; the dissonance between the man’s body language and his feigned cooperation. Both Colin and Mare’s sins have led to this moment in which the least experienced of the pair is the only one with a service arm. That inexperience results in Colin’s death, a tragic end for a character just beginning to reveal his layers.

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Mare manages to win the game of cat-and-mouse despite being in an unfamiliar environment and under the watch of an elaborate surveillance system. And look, there’s much to be joyful about. Katie Bailey and Missy Sayers have been rescued and will be able to piece their lives back together and return to their families. But Colin won’t be able to do either. Instead, he’s just another ungainly lump in Mare’s sack of sorrows. This goddamn town, I swear.

Stray observations

  • I’m so heartbroken to learn of Jess’ apparent alliance with Dylan, which means the most consequential of Erin’s diaries have been burned to ashes. Erin trusted you!
  • Deacon Burton’s story is looking less incriminating and more sad. He’s attacked by a mob, his punishment for being a rumored “creeper,” then tells Father Dan he saw Erin the night of her murder but kept it to himself and dumped her bike out of fear. It’s plausible, honestly.
  • Regarding the “Guy Pearce did it” theory, his conspicuous absence from this episode feels important, even as I’m not totally convinced of the SVU logic that dictates the biggest yet most underutilized star has to be the killer.
  • Based on this episode, I’m fully into the notion that John Ross is Erin’s killer.
  • I didn’t catch the kidnapper’s name. I believe I heard “Mr. Potts,” but the actor is listed in the IMDb credits as “Van Driver.”
  • Officer Trammell’s still out here pushing through his hemophobia to protect and serve Easttown. Still a weird career choice, but good on you all the same.
  • If Dylan does anything with that money other than fix that baby’s ear, I will definitely kick his fictional ass. On sight. The nice thing about threatening fictional characters is that you’re never expected to follow through.
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