When I first turned on Episode 1 of Mare of Easttown, I thought I was in for a dark crime thriller. While for the most part, it is, with the unsolved disappearance of a missing girl and the murder of another, I quickly found myself laughing. “Are we supposed to be laughing this much?” I asked my mother as we watched. I came to realize that Mare of Easttown is much more than just crime-solving, it’s also a smartly written family drama with a brilliant cast and dynamic characters.
Much of the show’s comedic moments come thanks to the dialogue and delivery of Jean Smart, who plays Mare’s (Kate Winslet) mother, Helen. She’s headstrong like her daughter, while also living frankly and filter-less. She gets under Mare’s skin, and vice versa, leading to some tense, heated sparring of words between Smart and Winslet. Amongst all the death, heartbreak, and twisted secrecy in the sleepy Pennsylvania town, Smart’s scenes provide moments of levity. They may be meager, but whenever she’s on-screen, you can’t help but wait excitedly for what’s about to come out of her mouth. As Winslet’s detective character deals with her difficult work life, trying and failing to solve perhaps the biggest case she’s ever had, her mother Helen is at home, pulling out her hidden tub of ice cream from a bag of frozen veggies. Smart, showing the excitability of a teenager as she also pulls out Helen’s hidden bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. But before she has time to indulge, she’s interrupted. Drama is never-ending in this town, so much so that an elderly woman cannot even enjoy her ice cream in peace.
Helen is a fascinating character, both hard-edged and playful. As Mare’s life seems to be falling apart endlessly, her mother is there to pick up the pieces. Coming to live with Mare to help take care of her great-grandson Drew, after Mare’s son Kevin commits suicide, hasn’t been easy. We learn something more about Helen with each passing episode, Smart slowly peeling back all of her layers. Because of Smart’s performance, Helen feels genuine. A portrayal where I’m able to see my own mother. She can be sympathetic. Then, seconds later, scold you with harsh words – Helen calling Mare a “smacked ass.“ (If my mother was from Delco, that would be her favorite phrase, too). Helen and my mother are both unafraid to give their daughters shit (and rightfully so), and no choice is free from opinion. But, as Helen explains, “I’m always on your side even when I act like I’m not.”
The relationship between Mare and Helen reminds me of the one between myself and my own mother. Helen says, “You’re a lot of things I don’t like,” and that statement echoes the times my mother would explain that parents can love you, but not always like you. Mare and Helen get under each other’s skin. Helen’s advice falls on deaf ears, and Mare’s privacy is almost nonexistent in her own home. We have many reasons to be annoyed by our mothers at times, but Mare and I are both unappreciative of what they do for us because, in a way, their tough love is sometimes equally tough to love. My mother isn’t an affectionate person, but like Helen, she shows that she does care in her way. Reminding me to eat like Helen does with Mare, or through Smart’s delivery of lines like one of a surprised “No shit!” when Mare says she has a date. Helen wants the best for Mare, and while Smart brilliantly takes her time to tap into Helen’s emotional side, we can see all the love in her eyes.
This is a crime show, sure, but we learn the most about Mare by watching her with her family, especially with her mother, as opposed to on the job. They’ve both had to deal with heartbreaking losses; both had to deal with loved ones suffering from depression and taking their own life. As the matriarch, Helen carries this weight on her shoulders more than most. Because of this, she’s prone to keep secrets, avoiding telling Mare things she knows will only make her upset – like Drew’s mother wanting full custody. It’s indicative through Smart’s performance that Helen has a great fear of Mare losing someone else in her life. So, despite her hard exterior, a look of fear appears in her eyes when faced with the prospect that Drew’s mother will be given full custody. The way Smart can look so upset, defeated, without a single tear is powerful, even for just seconds. Her lip begins to quiver, but she holds it together. Her lip quivers again at Mare’s bedside in the hospital, and is the first person to notice when she awakens.
Some of Mare of Easttown‘s best scenes are of Winslet and Smart going at each other in arguments full of insults. Their differing perspectives on what’s right and wrong are laid out on the table, mixed with Mare’s constant denial and Helen’s more logical reasoning. It’s f-bombs galore. Mare is an angry woman, just like Helen once was. She took a lot out on Mare and is trying to make up for that with Drew and protect Mare from any kind of pain. It takes a conversation about forgiveness for Helen to finally break down. Smart, placing her head in her hands as she begs Mare to forgive herself for what happened to her son, Kevin. You’re taken aback by both Smart’s poignant performance and by the fact that you’d never think Helen would show such vulnerability – a scene, I believe, the show was building up to with her character. And when Mare cries, Helen is right there, hand on her heart and pulling her in.
In a show about loss and what ties people together, Helen is the glue. She wouldn’t be without Jean Smart, who from episode after episode makes an impact, in a time dubbed the Jeanaissance.
Mare of Easttown is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Jean Smart is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO