In the TV critic’s version of “you had me at hello,” the HBO Sunday-night drama “Mare of Easttown” had me with the first four images at the start of the series before a word was said.
Refinery tower lights against a predawn sky. A weather-beaten, ramshackle, frame house. A cemetery. Strings of almost identical, rundown row houses lining a hilly street. I knew I was in Rust Belt America: cold, empty, gray and left behind. Finally, I thought, I am going to get to spend some time with a TV drama that looks and feels like the way many of us live in places outside New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Palm Beach or the tonier suburbs of the nation.
The first voice viewers hear comes from an upstairs window in one of the nicer houses. It’s the scream of a teenage girl: a foreshadowing of what’s to come in a murder that sets the hero of this seven-part limited series on her quest. I like almost everything about this hero, from the nuanced and thoroughly engaging performance of Kate Winslet to the sociology of gender, social class, family, small-town policing and sports that is richly explored through this troubled character.
In one dimension, “Mare of Easttown” is a hard-eyed look at the hometown athletic hero who never left where she grew up, in this case, a small community in Pennsylvania. We usually think of male athletes in that role, like Bruce Springsteen singing, “I had a friend who was a big baseball player back in high school,” in Glory Days. As a high school athlete, I have a number of former friends and teammates in my past who fit the role, and reconnecting with them has always been a depressing experience.
But here the gender of the former athlete hero is female, Mare Sheehan (Winslet), middle- aged mother, grandmother, ex-wife and now veteran detective on the Easttown Police Department. I like that, too. Sheehan is known in the township as “Miss Lady Hawk,” one-time star of the local high school basketball team called the Hawks. She hit the shot that won the state championship for her school in 1995.
I am sure it is a function of generation and gender, but I had not thought much about what life looked like for women who were star athletes in high school and never moved away from the site of their teen triumphs. You can see the good vestiges of having been a team leader in the way Sheehan confidently takes control of a crime scene. You can see the darker side of knowing glory at a young age, in that she seems certain she will never reach that height again.
“Doing something great is overrated, because people expect that of you all the time,” she confides in a moment of truth with a fellow detective in Episode 5. “What they don’t know is we’re just as screwed up as they are.”
She describes her life to a man she is dating as a “(expletive) show.” And that’s before it really starts to unravel and she loses her professional and ethical compass over a fight she is having for custody of her dead son’s child with the boy’s mother.
Sheehan is an outstanding detective, but her family demons look like they might devour her. Her father, a detective, killed himself when she was 13, and her grown son recently did the same.
“He was a detective,” she says of her father to a companion on a dinner date. “If he was a bartender, I would have probably been a bartender. If he had shoveled (expletive), I would probably have shoveled (expletive).”