Kate Winslet is riveting in Mare of Easttown. Her Irish pronunciation not so much
TV: This murder mystery is a Springsteen song repurposed as high-calibre procedural
Mare of Easttown: Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan
Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet’s new prestige series (Sky Atlantic, Monday), is a murder mystery in which the body of a young woman is discovered horribly battered, with a haunted expression frozen across her face. And it is set in a small town, on the twilit fringes of the United States we recognise from Hollywood. If you’ve seen Twin Peaks, The Killing or True Detective, deja vu may have already kicked in.
But this slow-moving drama aspires to be more than merely a “dead girl” thriller. It is possible, even, that it aspires to be an anti-dead-girl thriller and that the central murder is simply window dressing to lure us in by making us think it’s something we’ve seen before.
But Mare of Easttown, for better or worse, is like nothing we have seen before. It’s a study in poverty, despair and substance abuse, and a portrait of a US the modern world has left behind. The collars are blue, the picket fences broken, the residents raw-eyed, hope-free and stalked by the shadow of opioid addiction. Far from a spiritual successor to True Detective, it’s a Bruce Springsteen song repurposed as a high-calibre procedural show.
Winslet, who has reportedly mastered a geographically specific south Pennsylvania accent, is of course riveting. Her character – the eponymous Mare Sheehan – is a study in hollowed-out middle age. Her teenage daughter can’t stop rolling her eyes at her; her ex-husband has moved on and is living his best life; Mare long ago lost any enthusiasm for her job as a midranking detective.
One small warning. As her surname hints, Mare is “Eye-rish”. She drinks Jameson, there’s a priest in the extended family, her daughter is named Siobhán. Winslet attempts very, very ardently to pronounce Siobhán correctly, but, a bit like a well-intentioned tourist trying to saying Donegal, doesn’t quite stick the landing. Every time she says it she seems to give up halfway through, and what comes out is closer to “Shiv-unnnn”.
Synthetic Paddyisms aside, Mare of Easttown is earnest in its portrayal of intergenerational misery. Like all the residents of Easttown, Mare lives in a state of perpetual financial embarrassment – humiliation, even – as we see in an early scene in which she goes shopping for an aquarium tank for her grandson but blanches when the store owner tries to flog her a $99 model.
If this sounds more glum than fun, then that is presumably as intended. After the success of the glossy and silly The Undoing last year, HBO has swerved in the opposite direction. That show was all about Nicole Kidman wearing a coat that cost more than your house and Hugh Grant constantly twirling his invisible moustache.
Mare of Easttown, by contrast, is so serious it occasionally strays into po-facedness. Life in the small towns caught in the crosshairs of the opioid epidemic is nasty, brutish and seemingly brimming with anguished Irish-Americans – and goodness does Mare of Easttown want you to know all about it.