HBO's new murder mystery Mare Of Easttown (showing on Sky Atlantic in the UK) isn't a true story, but it sure feels like one. And that is what Mare of Easttown creator and writer Brad Ingelsby, who grew up in Easttown, was hoping for. The seven-episode limited series stars Kate Winslet as Mare, a tormented Pennsylvania detective struggling to solve a murder. It doesn't help that she is a year into a missing person's case that still doesn't have any leads. This concept isn't new, in fact it has become a cottage TV industry as of late. There's Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Killing, True Detective, Happy Valley, Sharp Objects — well, you get it. But there is an authenticity to Mare of Easttown that other shows of its ilk just don't have.
Every character in Mare Of Easttown feels like a real person who could live in small town America. Ingelsby's own experience growing up in Berwyn, PA, part of Easttown Township, inspired him to create characters that feel realistic. He understands these lifers whose families have deep roots in the community. Mare has been a local hero ever since she hit a game winning shot in a legendary high school basketball game 25 years ago. (Fittingly enough, Ingelsby is the son of former Villanova University basketball star Tom Ingelsby.)
Unlike other murder mysteries, Mare isn't an outsider swooping into the tight knit working class community to help solve the case. She knows each and every one of these people by name. "Are you friends with these people?" an out of town detective, played by Evan Peters, asks her at one point. "Yeah," Mare says as if that's totally normal.
In fact, she's related to a lot of people in town, which means the suspect is likely one of her own; a fact that makes Mare's work-life balance precarious. But her personal connection to the case allows for the show to be about more than the investigation. Mare of Easttown is about the locals that this murder affects.
That local feel doesn't come from the regional Delaware County accent — though, everyone's pronunciation of "wooder" is pretty spot-on — but from the cast and crew having spent time there. It really feels as if the actors understand what it means to be a DelCo native and aren't cosplaying as the working class. Something too many Hollywood productions are wont to do. (See: Hillbilly Elegy.)
Mare of Easttown was shot on location in and around the suburbs of Philadelphia, so the shots of row houses, one on top of the other, that open nearly every episode of the series are true to the area. It should be noted, however that Inglesby admitted filming in the Chester County towns of Coatesville, Aston and Drexel Hill "actually captured a more blue-collar atmosphere than in real Easttown." The connecting backyards also feel symbolic to how intertwined everyone is in their neighbour's business.
However, it's more than scenery that rings true in this series. The Delco Times reported that pre-pandemic, locals were often used as extras. While the Easttown Police Department "provided consultation to help with authenticity," according to the township's official website. Back in February, Winslet told reporters during a press conference that she “spent some time working with real police department individuals in blacked-out vehicles driving around those areas in order to learn. We really wanted to capture the essence of what it’s like to really be a detective from that town,” she added, since “it’s a place that really exists.”
Saying that a TV show's location "is almost like another character" is generally a hollow cliché, but it's hard to imagine Mare of Easttown working quite as well without all the neighbourhood details. Not to mention, the empathy and compassion shown to those who live there. Poverty porn, this is not. The nods to the blue-collar town's economic woes and its struggle with the opioid crisis and mental health set the scene for how people fall through the cracks, but it also shows why someone like Mare would stick around in hopes of saving them.
“I don’t think I have the mental stamina that is required” to be a detective, Winslet said in a recent press conference. “But I think the one thing I did feel I had in common with Mare — that I, quite honestly, was able to lean on a lot — was that real sense of family and how much it means to her to hold that together at all costs."
That idea of trying to hold it together also feels depressingly true for many living in America. Those living in places like Easttown often feel forgotten until tragedy strikes and the media becomes morbidly interested in how something so terrible could happen there. The whole town becomes a metaphor for a failing country. It then becomes all too easy to forget those who will continue to grieve long after the cameras are gone. Mare of Easttown may not be based on a real case, but it doesn't let us forget the true cost of a local murder.