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Breaking down ‘Mare of Easttown’s’ most shocking moment yet

A man and a woman sit around a coffee table examining photographs
Evan Peters and Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown.”
(Michele K. Short / HBO)

The following contains major spoilers from the fifth episode of HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.”

In our eyes, there’s no such thing as too much discussion of HBO’s already-much-discussed crime drama “Mare of Easttown,” starring Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan, a memorably accented, Wawa-loving police detective in Delaware County, Pa. — where she’s investigating the disappearance of two teenage girls and the death of another. Between the precise details of Delco life, Mare’s deliciously funny sniping with her mother (played by Jean Smart) and her budding relationships with her out-of-town partner (Evan Peters) and a visiting author (Guy Pearce), the series has sparked enough chatter here at The Times that the time felt right for our very own Mere and Mare — staff writer Meredith Blake and columnist and culture critic Mary McNamara — to take the talk public.

Read on below as they break down tonight’s major shocker, the reasons for the series’ appeal and more:

The “accent nerd” went to extraordinary lengths to sound like a Pennsylvania native for HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.” Here’s how she did it.

Mary McNamara: Hi Mere.

Meredith Blake: Hi Mare.

McNamara: Now that we’ve gotten that adorable schtick out of the way, let’s talk “Mare of Easttown.”

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Or, more accurately, let’s scream/gasp/sob about “Mare of Easttown.”

I confess to bingeing the five episodes available to critics as soon as they were up, so I’ve been sitting on the horrifying death of Evan Peters, I mean Det. Colin Zabel, for weeks, quietly weeping as everyone got so attached to him and his romantic possibilities with Mare. But when I watched the episode again recently, I was still so SHOCKED. His death was so completely unexpected and so instantly definitive — I mean, in the middle of the forehead! So no chance that he would somehow rouse himself to come to Mare’s aid or even somehow NOT BE DEAD when the episode ended. He is definitely dead!

A woman leans on another woman's shoulder on a park bench
Julianne Nicholson, left, and Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown.”
(Sarah Shatz / HBO)

Putting aside the obvious major lifting from “The Silence of the Lambs” (“I know, instead of night goggles, we’ll use security cameras!”), the episode was so exquisitely paced that it had me lulled into a humiliating false sense of security. The scene by the river when Zabel says, “How do you know what I want” made my heartstrings twang so hard. (Also, his Delco accent is even better than Winslet’s.) When they decided to chase down the lead of the truck, I was so caught up in the romance that I could barely mutter, “Um, do you think it’s a good idea to casually do a house-to-house while looking for a serial killer? Have you never seen ‘Silence of the Lambs’?”

Even when the camera prepared us for their entrance into Delco’s worst bar ever, I was not prepared for that kind of finality. No way. The first time I saw it, I had to Google “How many episodes in ‘Mare of Easttown’?” because I was, and still am, just dumbstruck. There are two more episodes! I realize it is Mare’s show but now everything seems completely up for grabs.

The actor explains the research that went into her character in HBO’s buzzy crime drama — including the “mythical place” she visited to feel at home.

Blake: Funny you should describe Zabel’s fate as “instantly definitive,” because I asked my husband while watching the episode (for the second time), “So, like, he’s dead, right?” and then found myself contemplating whether he’d lost an irreversible amount of blood based on the size of the puddle on the floor. Either this speaks to my woeful ignorance of medical science or my affection for the dear, certainly departed Zabel — hopefully more of the latter.

Peters is so winning in this role, eager and earnest and a little bit basic — he thinks zucchini is adventurous! — it makes his abrupt departure a real gut-punch. It also plays out so unexpectedly, which heightens the shock: There’s the perfectly awkward dinner (I died at “We just spent the last half-hour talking about the stutter you had as a kid”), the candid discussion the next day, the sudden but not unwelcome kiss, and the fatal trip to Bennie’s Tavern (where Mr. Winston-smoker was also blasting Judas Priest — a sure warning sign! Did Tipper Gore teach us nothing?).

A woman seated at a table shuffling cards
Jean Smart in “Mare of Easttown.”
(Michele K. Short / HBO)

I too am wondering where the series will go from here, now that the central mystery, or at least a major portion of it, appears to be wrapped up. There are still a number of loose threads to tie up, and I have a feeling they may be connected: What did that priest actually do to get transferred to another parish, and why did he have Erin’s bike? Who’s Erin’s real baby daddy? (My money is on Lori’s squirrelly brother-in-law, Bobbie.) And just what the heck is going on with Lori’s son? We spent a suspicious amount of time with him this week.

But personally I’m looking forward to less mystery and more time with Mare at home as she recovers from this latest traumatic episode and contemplates what might have been with Zabel. (Seriously, she’s going to need to spend at least a few months unpacking this incident with her very supportive-seeming therapist.)

If I’m being honest, the whodunnit element of the series is less interesting and more derivative to me than the domestic side of things, which is so richly drawn and full of surprising warmth and humor despite all the heavy themes of grief, mental illness, suicide, drug addiction, teen pregnancies and intergenerational trauma. I’d happily watch eight more episodes about nothing but Mare and her pesky turtle or Helen and her illicit affair with that smacked ass, Mr. Carroll.

Speaking of which: Can we just talk about Jean Smart forever, please?

Jean Smart plays a Las Vegas comedian in “Hacks,” but the real subject of HBO Max’s new series is the generational divide.

McNamara: Honestly, when you list all the so-familiar tropes — the creepy Catholic deacon, the whole “outside cop brought in to help,” and even Guy Pearce’s one-novel wonder, it is kind of a miracle the show feels so new, or at least so compelling. For all of Winslet’s “eat, vape, frown” charms, I almost lost hope when Mare got suspended. First because the lead detective getting suspended in the middle of a big murder case is the oldest trick in the book. And in this case, the reason — she put drugs in Carrie’s car in the hopes of keeping custody of Andrew — felt just as “Days of Our Lives” as it sounds. I get that she’s desperate, but come on. That is a terrible thing to do on 18 different levels.

But yes, definitely, major therapy is required. On top of her general miasma of guilt and anger, as a suspended senior detective, Mare’s decision to do house-to-house while looking for a serial killer was beyond dereliction of duty. So yes, she will definitely have to work through her part in Zabel’s death. But she did save the girls so, in the world of TV policing, it might even out.

Guy Pearce in a brown sweater with long, graying hair
Guy Pearce in “Mare of Easttown.”
(Sarah Shatz/HBO)

As for Smart, well, she is on her way to becoming America’s Judi Dench, a 50-plus wonderment and national treasure. It’s easy to forget that Smart has never stopped working and has always been terrific, but until maybe “Fargo,” no one gave her enough room to move. Now, between this and “Watchmen” she has proven the worth of HBO — never mind “The Wire”; it is giving us all the Jean Smartness.

“Mare” has a perfectly splendid cast all around — I don’t think people are talking enough about Julianne Nicholson, who is also amazing — but Smart brings both the sense and the sparkle, like Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey.” And she and Winslet seem made for each other.

Blake: Speaking of the Smart-aissance, you really need to check out “Hacks,” Mary. Just as “Mare” puts her comedic chops to use in a mostly dramatic storyline, “Hacks” is a comedy that does a lot with her skills at drama. I gobbled up the screeners in about two sittings and I think it will be another talker.

But back to “Mare.” The series appears to have replicated the formula of “The Undoing” — director-driven limited series starring Oscar winners playing Americans and following the murder of a young woman in a very specific cultural milieu — and moved the action from upper-crusty New York to the blue-collar Philly ’burbs. Unlike “The Undoing,” which seemed to divide viewers and critics last year, just about everyone so far seems to like “Mare,” which was lampooned last week in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Murdur Durdur” — as sure a sign as any that it has captured the public imagination. It’s broken out even as much of the country is returning to a post-vaccine semblance of normalcy and we aren’t stuck on our couches.

People love a good mystery, and even people who have never set foot inside a Wawa can appreciate the show’s authentic portrayal of this part of the country; the more specific a show is, the more universal it can also be. But ultimately I think it comes down to Winslet’s performance. We’ve seen her play messy before, but there’s something about this specific brand of messy that feels like a radical departure for her — both deeply moving and extremely funny within the same breath, like when she’s cursing the escaped turtle and then stumbles on the video of Kevin on Siobhan’s computer. And while I agree that some of Mare’s actions could seem implausible, she sells the grief-stricken desperation so well none of it fazes me.

The only thing I don’t find believable is that any 40-something grandmother would have such impossibly luminous skin. But she’s a movie star for a reason.

But wait, we are neglecting something important: the Pearce of it all. Are we really supposed to trust a frustrated novelist turned liberal arts professor?

McNamara: Never.


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