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The following story contains spoilers for the finale of HBO's Mare of Easttown.
HBO's Mare of Easttown threaded hints and clues in throughout the series, allowing for a shocking twist ending that made complete sense.
It's significantly more satisfying than some similar shows that instead opt to keep things ambiguous.
But a satisfying ending doesn't always mean a happy ending—and as we see, there aren't really any happy endings in this HBO series version of Easttown.
Say what you want about HBO's Mare of Easttown—and it seems like the reception has mostly been positive—but it did something that might seem obvious, but other shows sometimes shy away from: answered all of its questions. Instead of going with a frustrating open-ended conclusion, the Kate Winslet-led series barreled toward its conclusion, answering all three major mysteries (Who killed Erin McMenamin? Who was the father of her child, DJ? And what was in the picture that her best friend, Jess, brought to the police station?) that needed to be answered. In the end, those questions did have different answers—but they came from the same family, in the form of father and son John and Ryan Ross.
And in answering those questions we got a couple twists that tracked—they didn't feel cheap, or out of left field—but sure did leave viewers feeling particularly devastated by the end. Clearly, that's by design.
The answer to the latter two of those questions was answered almost immediately in the show's seventh and final episode: John Ross was in the photo with Erin, and John Ross was the father of Erin's baby, DJ. He also admitted to her murder as well—but given that this happened less than halfway into the final episode, there clearly was more story and truth to be uncovered (the show wasn't just going to meander for the final 40 minutes of its series (season?) finale). And that proved correct.
In a clear example of Chekhov's fit of public lunchroom violence, Erin's real killer turned out to be not John Ross—whose details around the circumstances of her death were a bit sketchy—but his son, Ryan Ross. As you may remember, Episode 5 of Mare of Easttown included a scene where Ryan sees bullies in his school throwing food at his sister, Moira, who has down syndrome. Ryan acts fast, picking up his lunch tray and smacking the food-throwing bully right in the head. Ryan is removed from school, and clearly going through something deeper; his mother, Lori, assumes its because John Ross is having an affair again, and at the time, we have no good reason to assume otherwise. But we see two key things here: Ryan is capable of violence on a whim, and he's got something really eating at him.
Mare learned after a meeting with Glen Caroll—which included an early conversation about grief and loss and eventually got to the point he asked her for—that his gun, coincidentally (or, really, not so much) was missing from his shed for a couple days, including the night of Erin's murder. She pieced things together not too long after that.
The tragedy of Mare of Easttown was foreshadowed earlier in the series when Billy Ross—whom John attempted to pin Erin's murder and DJ's paternity on—told John that he ruined his life because he couldn't keep his dick in his pants. That seemed true even when we thought he was just having an affair with Sandra, a local town lady, but even more so when we realize that all of this is his fault. Ryan, in an attempt to scare Erin away from his father and save his family, was trying to threaten her with Mr. Caroll's gun. And as we see in his explanation and in flashbacks, accidentally killed her; John and a blackout drunk Billy helped to dispose of Erin's body, covering for Ryan.
Yes, Ryan did it. But this wasn't an out-of-nowhere twist; the clues were there—John telling him it's a secret between them, his questioning when his parents were watching coverage of Erin's death on TV, and, most importantly, that violent lunch tray attack when his sister was picked on at school. For things to fully tie together, that scene of violence needed to somehow tie in—and it did.
Perhaps even more the tragedy of Mare of Easttown isn't so much the crime and the violence itself, but the fact that none of this needed to happen. John Ross had a loving family surrounding him, and ruined it by taking advantage and abusing Erin. Ryan, in his unbeknownst youthlike ways, will now have his entire life impacted because he thought he was helping his own family. Lori Ross, as some of the episode's final moments make clear, will never be the same, her husband and son both incarcerated, her relationship with her best friend changed, and perhaps her own morals questioned (after she helped keep Ryan's secret for as long as she did).
Mare was a delightful show (easily one of 2021's best so far) in that it was thrilling from one moment to the next. It gave us characters we loved—and then took them away when we least expected it. And it gave us all the answers we desired. But no one ever said those answers had to make us feel good; sometimes—and in the case of Mare of Easttown, ain't this the truth—the best art is going to make us feel not so great about the outcome.
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