This story contains spoilers for the plot of HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” but does not reveal in detail the events of Sunday night’s finale.
For nearly 30 minutes on Sunday night, HBO Max crashed, frustrating the legions of viewers who had logged on at 10 p.m. to watch the final episode of “Mare of Easttown” and find out who murdered Erin McMenamin. At first, I thought it was a minor glitch and kept refreshing my screen. It was only when I opened Twitter to complain about it (as one does) that I realized it was affecting many viewers, all of us tweeting memes and jokes about it.
The kerfuffle speaks to HBO’s still unparalleled position as one of the few networks that consistently produces appointment television and creates communal viewing experiences (to the extent that those even exist in this day and age) with its coveted Sunday evening slot.
I’ve eagerly awaited each installment of the seven-part limited series starring Kate Winslet as the titular small-town police detective investigating the aforementioned murder and two missing persons cases involving young women. But I’ve lingered on some conflicting thoughts, which really crystallized while watching Sunday night’s stunning conclusion. In a time when both TV creators and viewers have been more closely interrogating the often harmful conventions of police procedurals and crime dramas, I can’t help but feel torn about being riveted by a show that does a lot to not be a standard cop show — but ultimately is still a cop show.
For decades, many TV police procedurals and crime dramas valorized and glorified police officers and the system of policing, which has come under renewed scrutiny since last summer’s racial uprisings. To be clear, “Mare of Easttown” is not a show that falls under “copaganda.” It pulls off the trick of being both a whodunnit crime drama and something else entirely.
Much of the show isn’t about the police or the crimes at the center of the show’s twisty plot. It’s about its tremendous performances, especially from Winslet as Mare, Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s best friend Lori and the indefatigable Jean Smart as Mare’s acerbic mother Helen. It’s about grief, trauma, parenting and female friendship. It’s about what happens when being an authority figure in a close-knit community, where you know everybody and everybody knows you, can be complicated and agonizing. A lot of Mare’s work as a detective involves investigating cases in which her decisions could ruin the lives of her family, friends and neighbors.
Most standard cop shows historically have not questioned the flaws in the system they portray. Some are now trying to, in fits and starts. At times, “Mare of Easttown” does gesture at those flaws. Mare makes some pretty questionable choices that the show does not cast in a positive or generous light, and there are no easy answers or solutions to anything, especially in the way she handles the events of the final episode.
At the same time, the show doesn’t interrogate that broken system enough. For instance, Mare is briefly suspended from her job after she steals drugs from the police department’s evidence room and plants them on Carrie, the mother of her grandson, in order to jeopardize Carrie’s chances at gaining custody. But before long, Mare is back on the case and given a pass when, in reality, so many people (particularly if they are not white) would not be allowed another chance.
And at the end of the day, the cops — even though they are complicated and not unequivocally good characters — get to be the heroes. They find the answers and crack the case, and we root for them along the way. Every time Mare achieved a major breakthrough in one of the investigations, part of me couldn’t help but notice how badass she looked.
In Episode 5, when she and her fellow detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) finally track down the man who kidnapped and abused two missing young women, Zabel is killed in the ensuing shootout. Understandably, viewers were crestfallen. But also, we had previously found out that he wasn’t exactly a great cop.
Many viewers have rightly praised the artistic choices and elements in “Mare of Easttown” that made the show much less about policing and crime than a standard police procedural. At the same time, it’s telling that for many of us, the desire to find out if Mare would solve the murder was what kept us watching until the very end (and crashed an entire streaming service). It’s human to want clarity and closure, and it makes for satisfying television. We come to shows like “Mare of Easttown” for twists and turns, but we also want to know how they get resolved.
Just like the conversation around how to change policing and the systems themselves, this is an ongoing conversation that isn’t about one single show or entity. Not every piece of pop culture necessarily has to directly confront the larger systems undergirding its plot and characters. It can really depend on the show. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and sometimes it doesn’t work, like when TV shows address social issues by being too deliberate, obvious and heavy-handed about them. And it’s not one show’s responsibility to change or dismantle everything.
But it does need to raise questions. “Mare of Easttown” raises some by complicating existing narratives and conventions of police procedurals and crime dramas, but perhaps not enough. And as viewers, we’re also implicated, especially in cases like this, when these shows give us so much to like and chew on.