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

Mare Of Easttown’s finale is best enjoyed by ignoring the murder mystery altogether

Image of Kate Winslet in HBO's Mare Of Easttown
Kate Winslet stars in Mare Of Easttown
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Mare Of Easttown may be the first prestige TV murder mystery worth recommending to people who normally have no interest in mangled bodies or the perpetrators responsible for them. (Perhaps Big Little Lies also counts, provided the wafer-thin second season is ignored entirely.) And assuming HBO resists the temptation to create more supply to meet the unexpected demand for violence and grief in the Rust Belt, Mare will stand up as an incredible character study and an example of ruthlessly efficient world-building. Most of the story works so well independent of the mystery that it’s possible to enjoy the show even if the Erin McMenamin case is regarded as little more than gothic wallpaper.

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While it’s possible to watch Mare strictly as a portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that’s just not how most people consume whodunnits. Most people focus on… y’know, whodunnit. Such is the case here, with most of the show’s buzz built on the race to figure out which of an entire town full of culprits is responsible for a young mother’s death. Surely some people attend a murder mystery dinner party and walk away raving about the cook on the scallops, but they’re part of an exclusive club. So it’ll be interesting to see how “Sacrament” lands with the audience because while it’s a triumphant conclusion to Mare’s emotional arc, as a conclusion to a mystery, it’s a mixed bag.

The episode opens with a seamless transition from last week’s episode as Mare trudges toward the riverbank convinced she’s there to take Billy Ross into custody for the murder of Erin McMenamin. Chief Carter is still frantically trying to track Mare down to tell her about the mystery photo, which winds up being a classic “bae caught me sleeping” selfie with none other than John Ross, the actual father of Erin’s baby. It’s perhaps a shock to the audience, but of no moment to Mare, who arrives at the fishing excursion just in time to catch John trying to murder the only person, so far as we know, with the ability to implicate him in Erin’s murder.

Of course, that’s not quite the situation, because once Mare accidentally stumbles onto the missing murder weapon, it isn’t long before she deduces that they’d convicted the wrong Ross boy. 13-year-old Ryan Ross actually did the murder, the tragic outcome of a hare-brained adolescent scheme to keep his family together by threatening Erin to keep her distance. Yes, after weeks of speculation about all of Easttown’s denizens and their secrets and lies, the murder plot is essentially The Parent Trap if one of the twins hastened her parents’ reconciliation by stabbing the interloping tart with a hunting knife. (Gasp… but which one?!) It was necessary to cast an especially critical eye toward the Billy Ross angle, and it’s equally necessary to consider if making Ryan the killer provides a satisfying conclusion to the story.

Mileage will vary, of course, but for your humble reviewer, Ryan Ross as the killer is a hard no. Beyond the fact that it’s about three twists too many, Ryan’s involvement in Erin’s death significantly blunts its impact. The first episode does such an excellent job of introducing Erin that, even as it becomes obvious she’s destined to become a corpse, it’s hard to emotionally disengage from her. Finding out who killed Erin feels personal, and viewers have been as invested in solving this fake murder as true-crime fanatics are in solving real murders. That investment doesn’t seem as worthwhile when the show ultimately turns a heinous, deliberate act into a messy accident followed by a clumsy cover-up by Ryan’s family. Is it plausible? Certainly. Does it provide enough resolution? Certainly not.

Julianne Nicholson and Cameron Mann
Julianne Nicholson and Cameron Mann
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
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Besides turning Erin’s murder into a tragic accident and little more, this ending proves once and for all that some of these characters served no real purpose beyond muddying the waters. Upon closer examination, the plot holes only get larger and more glaring. Take Jess, for example, who finally decides to turn over the photo that proves John is the baby’s father just in time. Why show them the photo now? Why did she tell the cops about Erin’s Sidedoor account at all? What would she possibly have to gain from implicating Frank Sheehan? Why go to the trouble of breaking into a house to burn diaries that could reveal the affair, only to hold onto a single photo worth a thousand diaries? It’s a senseless errand to begin with, but is more inscrutable given that Jess apparently told the police the diaries had been burned, inciting an armed confrontation with Dylan that was about nothing more than the burning of the diaries. What motivation did Dylan have to burn the diaries aside from Jess’ insistence?

The whole thing just feels arbitrary and confusing and lacks the emotional logic this show is normally so good at. Dylan shows up at the Ross house asking Lori when she knew about D.J.’s parentage and drops off the surgery money Erin had been squirreling away, plus another envelope of money he had hoped to contribute to the baby. It could have been a great moment. Except that the last time we saw Dylan, he was threatening to murder Jess lest she confess either a larger secret we never learned about or a smaller one that’s already been revealed and can’t do much more damage. As far as the audience is concerned, Dylan went from menace to mensch without any explanation as to why it happened. Oh, and where was Dylan on that fateful night when Brianna woke up and couldn’t find him anywhere? Hopefully, you didn’t care, because the show doesn’t care either.

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It’s a shame the murder mystery fizzles out because “Sacrament” shines most during the portions of the show most likely to be overshadowed. It’s also surprisingly sunny for such a dreary show. Nearly everyone gets a happy enough ending—save, of course, for the people involved in Erin’s death. Richard Ryan leaves Easttown for another academic opportunity, but is optimistic about a reunion, and winds up actually being just a hot professor with no apparent damage. Siobhan, on the strength of her documentary about Kevin’s death, gets accepted to the Berkeley program and heads west with the family’s blessing. Frank and Faye are on the mend with all the unpleasantness behind them. Even Deacon Burton gets to return to the head of his flock, having been apparently absolved of both Erin’s murder and the shady past that made him a prime suspect in it.

Naturally, the finale saves the biggest wins for its steely heroine. Mare wins custody of Drew after Carrie fails to show up for the custody hearing, later revealed as an intentional decision made because Carrie is in the midst of a sobriety setback. She gets to say fond farewells to her kind-of boyfriend and her daughter, who started the season openly hostile to her. And most importantly, Mare finally begins the hard work of working through the previously unexamined trauma of Kevin’s suicide. That’s the other major plot “Sacrament” was obligated to resolve, and the episode gets it absolutely right. The final shot of Mare ascending the ladder to the attic is as moving and powerful an image as we’re likely to see on television all year.

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Kate Winslet’s performance is a gargantuan acting achievement. And the rest of the cast is stellar support, including Julianne Nicholson, who finally gets more to chew on as she and Mare feud following Ryan’s arrest and Lori’s confession. Some of the best scenes in “Sacrament” focus on the abrupt rift between Mare and Lori, two wolf moms who would never let a little thing like a decades-long friendship interfere with the desire to keep the people around them safe. Craig Zobel and Brad Ingelsby will both collect well-deserved awards for what seemed like a meticulous season of television.

But at this point, I’m talking about the cook on the scallops, which again, is terrific, but mostly irrelevant to how people feel walking away from a murder mystery dinner. As fulfilling as this one has been, I won’t be surprised if I get hungry again later.

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Stray observations

  • So John planned to kill Billy so that one less person would know about what happened to Erin? I don’t get that, but fine.
  • While I’m picking at the mystery, I’d love to know how Ryan was able to maintain unfettered access to his father’s cell phone despite having already discovered incriminating information on it.
  • I think that the Deacon Burton resolution will rub some people the wrong way, and I understand why. The suspicion that Deacon Burton got transferred because of inappropriate behavior with a young girl is not effectively addressed, but Deacon Burton gets reinstated. More than that, he gets a heartfelt apology from Mare for how he’s been treated. It’s a bit much, no?
  • Yet another loose end left dangling: Which boy did Moira end up taking to the dance? Was the other boy pissed? I need answers.
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