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

Another stunning Mare Of Easttown heals its heroine and reveals its culprit

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

There’s a moment of almost unbearable suspense in “Sore Must Be The Storm,” the penultimate episode of Mare Of Easttown’s stellar limited run. It comes in a sequence late into the episode, when the action cuts between Jess as she’s trying to evade Dylan and Sean, while across town, Carrie drifts to sleep, leaving Drew unsupervised in an overflowing bathtub. The tension is absolutely palpable at the moment Jess is discovered and dragged out from her hiding spot as Drew appears to have drowned in the tub with his mother inches away. It’s a moment only made possible by a narrative environment in which anything can happen and anyone can die, which Mare has somehow managed to do in just five episodes. In the wake of Colin Zabel’s death, there was no taking for granted that either Jess or Drew would make it out of the episode alive.

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Consequences come hard and fast in Easttown, and the worst-case scenario never feels more than three dramatic beats away. So for as quiet as it is, the final scene packs every bit as much punch as the season’s other deft cliffhangers. Mare is last seen walking with purpose near the Lehigh River, where the Brothers Ross have come for one last fishing trip before Billy reports to turn himself in for the murder of Erin McMenamin. Here’s what we know: Mare is headed to arrest Billy now that the rescue of Katie Bailey has earned her badge back. We know that Mare, true to renegade-cop form, dismissed Chief Carter’s reasonable request that she wait on backup. (Rather than stopping, she actually accelerates after the call.) We know there’s a gun in the tackle box at Billy and John’s fishing trip. We know Chief Carter has possession of a photo that will change Mare’s understanding of the murder. What happens from here is anyone’s guess.

Before we unpack the rest of the episode, now’s a good time to sit with the fact that Billy Ross, brother to John, cousin to Kenny, and cousin once-removed to Erin, is who would be referred to in the SNL spoof as “the one that did the murder.” The exact details of the murder haven’t been shaded in, but most of the picture is in focus. Apparently, as Mare pieces together with a combination of smart police work and dumb luck, Billy and Erin began their ill-fated dalliance during a Ross family reunion in the Poconos. Billy is the father of D.J., who is named after a guy who remains the prime suspect in Erin’s murder.

It always feels weird to talk about this kind of tragic, naturalistic murder-mystery in terms of whether or not the culprit is “satisfying,” but it’s a necessary conversation. Especially since HBO’s last buzzy limited series, The Undoing, left a chunk of its audience complaining that it settled for having the most obvious suspect turn out to be the killer along. Mare goes a very different direction, eventually landing on a killer who is slightly unexpected but has been hiding in plain sight all along. The interconnectedness of Easttown is jarring and frequently confusing, but the upside of setting a murder-mystery in a town this tightly knit is that Erin’s killer was always bound to be someone we’ve seen before, if only in passing. All that said, Billy as the killer is satisfying in that it’s both plausible and packs an emotional punch.

The Billy reveal is not a complete surprise, of course, given the scene in last week’s episode that very deliberately placed Billy among Mare’s running list of possible killers. But the details are new, and the episode fills them in at a furious pace. A T-shirt discovered next to Freddie Hanlon’s dead body gets Mare asking questions about the family reunion, and her dogged questioning reveals both that Erin stayed in Billy’s mostly vacant cabin during the trip, and that he gifted her a romantic necklace that she later tried to return. To fully tie it up with a bow, Mare circles back to Lori, who admits the secret John told her to keep after learning about it from his father. The reveal leaves a lot to be digested in the upsized finale. After all, Billy was there comforting Kenny after Erin’s body was discovered, and he found Kenny drunk in the creek after Kenny shot Dylan. That’s some serious salt in Kenny’s wounds.

John Douglas Thompson and Kate Winslet
John Douglas Thompson and Kate Winslet
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
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Mare has wounds too, but she’s just now exposing them to fresh air. “Sore” reveals the killer whose identity has been a matter of speculation for weeks, but it’s even more compelling in its quieter moments when Mare finally begins to confront her demons. As Mare’s therapist tells her after Mare shares the story of Kevin’s death, she’s been hiding behind other people’s grief. The point lands especially hard, considering that when the episode opens, not long after Mare has been released from the hospital after a near-death experience that took a friend’s life, she’s playing the caretaker with Lori. After all, she’s been through, Mare’s defensive empathy kicks in automatically and she comforts her friend over John’s infidelity. Later, she’s apologizing to Richard for going to dinner with Colin, trying to soothe whatever soreness he might have about her missing his birthday.

When Mare finally tells the story of Kevin’s death in a wrenching, magnificent monologue, all the trauma and familial tension we’ve seen unfold over the season makes perfect sense. The other huge reveal in the episode comes when Mare confesses she instructed Siobhan to go to the house to check on Kevin rather than do it herself. As a result, it’s Siobhan who actually discovered her brother’s body before calling her mother in hysterics. In all likelihood, Mare was freighted with responsibility to her community before Kevin died. But after Kevin’s death, after Siobhan was left to discover what was in the attic while her mother ran errands, Mare’s vigilance no doubt became hypervigilance. I’d guess it was sometime after Kevin’s death when Betty Carroll gained the ability to call Mare’s cell phone to complain about potential prowlers.

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Mare comes a long way in the episode, far enough that she’s ready to take responsibility for Siobhan’s pain and apologize for the way things happened. Of all the compliments this show deserves, the highest among them is the fact that Mare’s journey out of her grief-stricken stupor is just as compelling and nuanced as any of the show’s mysteries.

Stray observations

  • The catalyst for Mare’s breakthrough comes after the devastating scene in which Mare goes to Mrs. Zabel’s house to offer her condolences. The response–a brisk slap on each side of Mare’s face–is understandable, but crushing all the same.
  • That scene reminded me so much of a similar one from In The Bedroom, where Marisa Tomei tries to apologize to Sissy Spacek for an equally shocking death she bears partial responsibility for. Apparently, in fictional bedroom communities, if you played a role in someone’s death, that person’s mother gets to slap you stupid and there’s not much you can say about it.
  • I’m dying to know the full story with Dylan, Jess, and Sean, the reason why Dylan says the three are linked forever by a secret. A secret so terrible it’s worth Dylan threatening to shoot Jess in the face. Even though Jess produces that surprise photo near the end of the episode, I’m not yet convinced that Billy will be fully exculpated by what’s in it.
  • Although, Billy may believe taking responsibility for killing Erin (when he might have just, say, moved her body to the creek) is his penance, much like when Deacon Burton takes the fall in part because he refuses to reveal where his bruises actually came from.
  • Imagine getting caught cheating on your wife after she hears you tell your kid to keep a secret, then coming back like, “Okay, so maybe keeping secrets hasn’t super worked out for me in the past, but just go with me on this…
  • I’m wondering if Carrie fell asleep during Drew’s bath because she was just so exhausted from the crazy hours she’s been working, or if she doubled back and took her friend up on one of her “Energizer bunnies,” only to crash at the exact wrong time.
  • DJ Anne insists Siobhan pursue a spot in the Berkeley program even though it will make their relationship more of a consequential fling. DJ Anne is definitely a keeper, and telling Siobhan to go might be just the thing that makes her determined to stay.
  • Dylan seems to have healed really quickly after the shooting that nearly took his ability to walk, but I quibble.
  • I embarrassingly biffed it last week on the reveal of Helen’s affair with Glen Carroll. I could have sworn he said Mrs. Fahey and I was tickled by the idea of Glen cheating with the mother of his wife’s tormentor.
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