Yes, HBO’s Mare of Easttown looks like another small-town murder mystery — but Sunday’s premiere makes sure we get to know the small town very well before the murder even occurs.
When we meet Kate Winslet’s police detective Mare Sheehan, she’s waking up to yet another phone call from her neighbor Mrs. Carroll, who’s complaining about a peeping Tom on the loose. Mare dutifully takes the old lady’s report (“He looked like a ferret”) while reminding her she can just call the police station next time. At the station, the chief informs Mare they’re bringing in a county detective to assist her in the search for local girl Katie Bailey, who’s been missing for a year now. Mare bristles at this, but the chief orders her to “go back to the file. We’re starting over here.”
We’re also introduced to teen mom Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), who has a contentious relationship with her baby’s dad Dylan. At a custody handoff, they argue about paying for the kid’s ear surgery, and Erin gets into a nasty spat with Dylan’s new girlfriend Brianna, who promises to get back at Erin “when you least expect it.” Plus, we learn Erin has an angry, short-tempered dad… and a potential boyfriend named Brendan she’s been exchanging intimate texts with.
While Mare shops for a cheap habitat to hold her grandson’s baby turtle (she just had to flush a lizard down the toilet, so she doesn’t want to spend too much), she gets called in to investigate a burglary at her friend Beth Hanlon’s. Beth knows it was her drug addict brother Freddie, and on her way home, Mare spots Freddie on the street. She screeches to a stop and gives chase, twisting her ankle in the process. She tracks Freddie down to his house and coaxes him out of hiding, while also helping a rookie cop through his nausea at the sight of blood. Basically, she’s a one-woman police department.
Back at home, we meet Mare’s mom Helen (Jean Smart) and her teen daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) while she soothes her swollen ankle with a bag of frozen fries. There, Mare learns her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) just got engaged to his new girlfriend; in fact, everyone in the family knew before she did. Tonight’s their engagement party, and everyone’s planning to go there instead of to an event marking the anniversary of Mare’s big game-winning shot as a high school basketball star. Mare has a slice of pizza and a beer with her friend and former teammate Lori (Julianne Nicholson) while Siobhan and her band prepare to play a set at the engagement party. (This is quite a dense tapestry!)
Erin hangs out with a pal and gushes over Brendan, who she’s planning to meet that night in the woods… and that’s where Brianna and her friends are hanging out, too. At the basketball event, we discover that Katie Bailey’s mom Dawn — who was just on TV complaining about the cops’ shoddy work on her daughter’s case — was on Mare’s basketball team, too. She and Mare exchange some terse words, with Mare defending her tireless efforts to find Katie, before heading out to wild applause from the crowd. Later, Mare drowns her sorrows at a local bar and meets a writer named Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), who just moved to town. (“I’m sorry, that’s too bad,” Mare offers.) They exchange some sarcastic banter, and she ends up going home with him, but she tries to blow him off afterwards: “My life is complicated.” It’s about to get more complicated, too.
At the party in the woods, Erin shows up ready to meet Brendan and has an awkward reunion with old friends before heading to the meet-up spot. But there, she finds Brianna and her friends, taunting her. “Brendan” was just a catfish Brianna made up to get back at Erin for texting Dylan, and Brianna beats her up while her friends capture it all on video. Siobhan breaks up the fight and tries to help Erin, but she just wanders off deep into the woods, alone.
Mare fends off Helen’s questions about coming home late and tucks in her grandson before heading to bed, and she’s woken up the next morning by a phone call — but it’s not Mrs. Carroll this time. Back in the woods, we see that Erin’s dead body is lying sprawled in a riverbed.
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