HBO’s thrilling mystery drama starring Kate Winslet comes to a close with an episode that’s both surprising and satisfying
Did anyone see Mare of Easttown coming? I didn’t. Not the whodunnit revelations of the finale – although, speaking personally, I found the denouement comes right out of the bushes – but the series as a whole. Mare has been the kind of top TV surprise that makes life’s endless content trawl all worth it. One minute you’re wondering what Kate Winslet’s doing dressed in a chunky blue cop jacket on the side of a bus, the next you’re writing about the finale of the drama of the year so far.
“Sacrament” is the ending the series deserves, a feat of poise and resolution that ties up its straggly ends without recourse to stunts or ex machina hi-jinks. The episode was preceded by the usual theorising about who killed Erin. At the outset, there is no shortage of possibilities. Is it Billy Ross (Robbie Tann), as seems most likely? Or John (Joe Tippett)? Lori (Julianne Nicholson)? Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), justifying the presence of a second film star? Dylan Hinchey (Jack Mulhern)? The creepy bike-depositing Deacon Mark (James McArdle)?
Measured but unpredictable to the last, “Sacrament” seems to have dealt with such childish questions in the opening scenes. Before the halfway point, Siobhan (Angourie Rice) is singing Pat Benatar at Frank (David Denman) and Faye’s (Kate Arrington) wedding, while Mare and Richard enjoy a touching leave-cute. We’re not out of the woods yet, selv om. The clue that leads Mare to Ryan Ross loops the plot back to the first moments of the first episode. You might have thought Betty Carroll’s house was comic scene-setting, but sometimes the secret is hiding right under your nose. It’s a testament to the engineering of the script that at no point do we feel hoodwinked or deceived. Has something so twisty ever felt so unforced? Each secret and deception seems true to the characters in this strange, haunted town, where family, poverty and boredom give everyone a motive for almost any crime. I didn’t count a false step.
Writing like this doesn’t come along often. Easttown is an utterly believable community, where every conversation is alive with subtext and history. Deliberately or not, crime dramas set in small towns often come with a kind of inbuilt metropolitan sneer for the little lives and petty motives of their inhabitants. Despite the death and despair, Brad Ingelsby’s script is a kind of love letter to this grey, washed-out part of Pennsylvania, and the people doing their best in dreadful circumstances. Other murder mysteries will look thin and amateurish in comparison.
Even rarer is a performance like Winslet’s. They’re going to fill her awards cabinet like Oliver Reed’s recycling bin. No quibbles with any of the cast, but whenever she’s in a scene, which is most of them, it’s hard to look at anything else. The technical aspects are all there: the drawly accent, the heavy walk, the happy guzzling of greasy sandwiches. Harder to quantify is the energy she brings to her dogged, headstrong, heartbroken detective. It’s a star performance that’s true to the word. She’s the sun in a dark system, by turns harsh, bright, nurturing, illuminating and cleansing. “Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” a broken Lori asks her, in that awful moment in the car. You get the impression Mare doesn’t understand, enten, she just knows she can’t. In Easttown, the truth comes at a terrible price. Is the catharsis worth it? For the viewer, at least, the answer is obvious.