The case is closed on Mare Of Easttown (well, for now). The identity of Erin McMenamin’s (Cailee Spaeny) killer has been revealed, thanks to Mare Sheehan’s (Kate Winslet) unrelenting investigation. But from week to week, Brad Ingelsby’s limited series provided fodder for all manner of theories—not just the identity of the killer or the connection between the kidnappings and the murder, but figuring out was going on with Jess (Ruby Cruz), Dylan (Jack Mulhern), and the great journal bonfire. In the wake of the finale, “Sacrament,” The A.V. Club staff gathered to hash out the theories that didn’t pan out.
(To discuss the finer points of “Sacrament” and whether or not the mystery’s resolution was satisfying, we urge you to head over to Joshua Alston’s excellent recap.)
Despite the mounting evidence against the Ross brothers, Dylan remained a suspect in Erin’s murder (among viewers, anyway) because he was a shitty boyfriend, dad, and friend. And, unlike a lot of Easttown teens, Dylan had much more of a support network, thanks to his two loving parents. But, setting aside his temperament, Dylan just behaved like someone with something to hide. After recruiting Jess to help burn Erin’s journals, Dylan then threatened his little co-conspirator at gunpoint. Surely, I thought before watching the finale, if Dylan didn’t kill Erin, he engaged in all this clandestine activity to cover up something else, right? Was he somehow involved in Erin’s Sidedoor account? Maybe he and Jess knew something about the kidnapped girls? Well, as we see in “Sacrament,” Dylan did these additional shitty things to somehow hold on to sweet little baby D.J. It makes no sense, given that the paternity test results were already out in the world, so it was just another one of Ingelsby’s narrative feints. Teenagers often behave unaccountably—that’s one of the more accurate observations made by the story—but damn, if it didn’t feel like the show used this to justify a lot of its misdirection.
My dad’s side of the family is from Pittsburgh, so I was drawn to Mare just for the regional aspect (granted, on the other side of the state). I am here to tell you that all the Pennsylvania wood-paneling decor was spot-on, as were those long o’s in the dialect; whenever I spend enough time out there, I can’t help but call someone named John “Jawn” instead. But sucked in by the atmosphere, I still got caught up in Mare’s story—like our own Joshua Alston pointed out, less for the mystery than for the evolution of Mare herself. My red herring theory was that Lori was the culprit, who killed Erin in a fit of rage after finding out Jawn was cheating again—assuming that the ultimate culprit was going to be someone that Mare loved, but was still going to have to take in. The actual reveal turned out to be even more devastating than that, but, like everyone, I was blown away by Kate Winslet’s performance above all. The journey of Mare learning to face her grief—actually seeing her grow as a person, over only seven short episodes—was nothing short of astounding. Please give her all the awards, please. And just keep Mare as it is, in a perfect single-season package.
There’s one theory I kept returning to all season, regardless of how wrong my guesses were from week to week. (And trust me, my guesses involving mysteries are always extremely wrong.) I refer, of course, to “The Curious Case Of Frank Sheehan’s Lie.” When Mare confronts her ex-husband about the fact that he bought diapers and other baby supplies to help the young woman whose murder she’s investigating, it ends with her chastened by his appalled reaction—how dare she think he could possibly have anything to do with such a heinous crime?! Everyone acts like Mare was in the wrong, and the show goes overboard in treating her like the asshole for barging in on family game night. Hey, Frank, buddy: When you lie to a cop about your involvement with a murdered girl, you don’t get to be offended when she calls you out on it. The whole thing was glossed over so quickly, I assumed there must be more. Surely, Frank really was covering up something, or else we wouldn’t pass by this bizarre exchange so abruptly, right? Nope, not even a little. Serves me right for thinking anyone in Easttown would have a rational response to basic social norms.
I spent the first 10 minutes of the Mare Of Easttown finale feeling awfully smug. I even paused the episode to send out a couple of crowing “I knew it!!!!” texts to friends who either didn’t know that I was prematurely celebrating, or were too polite to correct me. But while I was correct that John Ross had something to do with Erin’s murder—in fact, it was the scene on the playground in episode five we briefly flash back to in the finale that tipped me off—I did not follow the breadcrumb trail all the way to its end. See, I thought this was a classic “fortysomething man with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old” scenario, where John impulsively killed Erin because she, I don’t know, didn’t want to skip class to go make out one day. (He did say they “understood each other,” which is pathetic. Dude, you have a mortgage!) Where the show got me was by ultimately ascribing the fatal actions of that night to an actual child, and not just your typical man-child. Well played, show.
I’m on the record as being pro-mystery when it comes to Mare Of Easttown and an advocate for keeping the mystery going. That said, I was pretty surprised by the show’s “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” ending, even if it makes more sense thematically than it does logistically. The ending is certainly better than what I expected: Guy Pearce’s Richard Ryan was not only the killer but also the ringleader of the Katie Bailey kidnapping. I wasn’t proud of this suspicion—it felt too stupid to take that seriously. But Pearce had the vibe of an amusement park owner that the mystery gang meets on an episode of Scooby-Doo, and I couldn’t shake it. As for the Bailey mystery, that story got short shrift, and I was holding out hope that it would intersect with Erin McMenamin’s murder in the finale. There was enough meat on that bone for Ingelsby to go in for another bite. The only way I could square both is that Pearce commits these crimes for writing ideas, which is a lot like a running joke in Steven Soderbergh’s HBO film Let Them All Talk. But, hey, a good idea is a good idea forever.
Mare Of Easttown successfully planted lots of red herrings, including a big one named Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle). The suspicion was cast on him relatively early, so it’s not surprising to learn he wasn’t actually involved in Erin McMenamin death but the show did get me thinking he could be behind Katie Bailey and Missy Sager’s kidnappings. While he was arrested for evidence tampering for throwing Erin’s bike in the river, the finale glossed over the other details of his messy backstory, instead tying it up with a neat(ish) bow for the evasive deacon. Mark transferred to Easttown’s St. Michael’s church after an accusation of sexual misconduct at his former parish with an underage girl. The dude even gets beaten up by local kids after rumors about it spread, but the show never really addresses how real it was—or the extent of his relationship with Erin besides what he confesses to. He’s not central to the mystery so it’s not unusual that there was no development to his arc, but it’s too serious of an issue to just be left up to interpretation now that Deacon Mark ends the miniseries (or will it be a first season?) back at the altar. He’s guiding churchgoers to reach out to those who may have shunned them in the past, and his words encourage Mare to reach out to Lori in the shattering final scenes but unfortunately don’t provide a firm resolution for his own story.