Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A teenage girl from a small town is found dead in a body of water. The investigation, led by two detectives (one a local veteran, the other an outsider), reveals a series of mysteries that implicates many of the town’s residents and uncovers the dead girl’s secret life. That might sound like any number of shows since 1990, when David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking evening soap opera Twin Peaks debuted. But it most closely resembles the early 2010s AMC crime series The Killing, a remake of the Danish hit Forbrydelsen, and more recently, HBO’s buzzy Kate Winslet vehicle Mare Of Easttown.
For good and ill, the similarities among these three shows mount the more you investigate. Still, The Killing was a show that understood Twin Peaks better than most, yet still succumbed to the same troubles, and Mare Of Easttown appears to be following in its footsteps. Along with the setup, The Killing and Mare crib from Frost and Lynch extensively: the victims’ connection to sex work, a serial killer or kidnapper that’s targeting girls, and a town reeling from tragedy. Mare borrows the small-town aesthetic and familial sexual abuse from Twin Peaks, while The Killing takes the ambient score and a casino on the outskirts of town. Both shows wear their influence on their sleeves yet miss the lessons from the decline of the original run of Lynch and Frost’s series: Solving the mystery, be it too soon or at all, kills the momentum.
It’s no secret that there was a dip in quality during Twin Peaks’ second season. After closing out the murder of Laura Palmer, the show’s central mystery and inciting incident, Lynch left the show, insisting that solving the show’s primary question would leave it rudderless. He was right. For much of the remainder of season two, the show’s final season until a 2017 revival, characters that once brimmed with intrigue lost their charm. Left without a mystery to solve, Agent Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) begins looking at real estate, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) falls in love with Billy Zane (as John Justice Wheeler), and the show doubles down on quirkiness that isn’t as charming without the darkness of the mystery.
Mare Of Easttown showrunner Brad Ingelsby, the only credited writer on all seven episodes, gets off to a strong start, doling out information like breadcrumbs and tempting us with more questions than answers. And there’s a lot of setup in Mare’s first episode, focusing, primarily, on two elements: the year-long investigation into the disappearance of a local teen named Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan) and Mare’s son Kevin’s (Cody Kostro) death by suicide and custody battle over her grandson Drew (Izzy King). Both offer a solid lead into the murder of Erin McMenamin, giving Mare a chance to maybe find Bailey and come to terms with her family tragedy along the way.
From the first episode, Ingelsby establishes Erin as an essential character—the premiere tracks her as she deals with the father of her child, Dylan (the reincarnation of Twin Peaks’ Bobby Briggs), and her alcoholic father, stopping just before her off-screen murder. When her body is found, it triggers the show’s main action: Everyone in town becomes a suspect, Mare can investigate the quirky townspeople, and viewers can delight in how they all pronounce “water” as “wooder.” It’s when Ingelsby starts concluding these story beats, revealing that they don’t have anything to do with each other, that Mare Of Easttown begins to disappoint.
HBO has billed Mare as a limited series, a one-and-done show that’s advertised as having a “series finale.” Assuming that’s true, and this miniseries isn’t a Trojan horse first season, like that of Big Little Lies, it makes sense to build toward definitive conclusions. Mare shouldn’t give in to that impulse. By keeping the mystery alive and not offering a pat ending, the show can haunt the viewer with its unsolvable crimes. It leaves the door open for more, either in the audience’s minds or for another season in the future. But Mare does appear ready to give us answers. The Bailey case ends with the quick death of the kidnapper (not unlike Twin Peaks’ Jacques Renault) before we can get more information, and Mare reveals more about her son’s death by way of an information-dump therapy session. As Twin Peaks’ Log Lady would say, “Laura is the one,” meaning that all the intrigue in the show flows from her murder. Mare’s other investigations, both personal and professional, need Erin if they are to linger in our memories as we head into the finale.
Twin Peaks’ central messaging is about the need for a balance of light and dark, reflected in the show’s mix of comedy and drama, soap operatics and crime-show grit. These elements are tied together by the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” We see this in Mare, but the show appears to be deflating toward its finale by offering definitive answers. Ingelsby would do well to avoid the well-documented mistakes of Twin Peaks’ muddled second season and not solve the central crime. It’s a lesson The Killing learned in 2012, capping its second season by falling into the same traps as Twin Peaks. As David Lynch said, “The mystery was the magical ingredient. It would’ve made Twin Peaks last longer.” Mare, too, deserves to live on and fully explore its own magical ingredient as an ongoing series, not a limited one.
Mare Of Easttown is trapped by the constraints of the limited series. Unable to flesh out the show’s divergent plots, it’s begun tying them up abruptly. Whether or not Mare turns out to be an actual miniseries, though, Ingelsby is doing his viewers a disservice if the plan is to close the McMenamin case. Twin Peaks and The Killing explore how violent crimes spread through a community and how that community reacts to them. Mare is strongest when it’s doing that, too. The show is undoubtedly more insulated than Twin Peaks or The Killing, but when the relationships of the townspeople intersect with the mystery directly, it really sings. For example, in “Illusions,” when Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle) discloses his relationship with Erin and the sexual misconduct allegations against him, we’re getting two-fold intrigue. We understand he has valuable information but cannot share it. It becomes even more suspenseful when some local teens attack him in the street. He can no longer hide this information because he’s wearing his secrets on his face. The audience can feel a temperature change when those arcs converge. This type of revelation is classic Twin Peaks storytelling, deepening the character and the mystery simultaneously; to answer the central question is to undo all that suspense in lieu of a resolution we’ll eventually move past.
As Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham) says, having Katie back and solving the mystery doesn’t totally fix things. Closure doesn’t keep us engaged in these shows—just look at The Undoing, which telegraphed the killer’s identity from the beginning, and almost immediately lost steam. A clear conclusion allows us to move on. If Mare Of Easttown solves the mystery and receives a second season (which, let’s be honest, feels likely), it could end up in the same position as The Killing at the end of season two. It’ll have to start fresh, grabbing at straws to restart the intrigue, leaving all that mystery buried in the first outing. Or, it can keep the show open-ended, delivering a series that doesn’t assume every puzzle has an answer. Take it from Twin Peaks’ third season, which depicts an empty world free of mystery, where meaningless, horrific violence and sickness run rampant: Leaving questions unanswered can leave audiences with something they’ll truly remember.