Mare of Easttown, episode 6 review: heart-stopping TV with a titanic performance from Kate Winslet

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Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan - HBO
Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan - HBO

Kate Winslet has said that Mare of Easttown (Sky Atlantic) is not a thriller. That will be news to anyone who watched last week’s episode, which ended in scenes so gnawingly edge-of-your-seat that I didn’t exhale for what felt like 10 minutes.

But it’s correct to say that Mare of Easttown is much more than a thriller. Over the course of the series – there is one more episode to go – it has unfolded into something intelligent, complex and rewarding. It’s a study of community. It explores the bonds of family and friendship. It’s a window into a small-town, blue-collar America that usually only appears in documentaries about the opioid crisis.

And it’s a chance for Winslet to burnish her credentials as one of the great actresses of her generation, while bagging an acting award by bravely playing someone dumpy and prone to eating unsaturated fats. Just in case you hadn’t got the point that Mare Sheehan’s unhealthy diet is one of her key characteristics, Guy Pearce turned up in this episode with a gift basket filled with Rolling Rock and Philly cheesesteaks.

Mare of Easttown will be passing many people by because it’s on Sky Atlantic, and you’ve got plenty to be going on with courtesy of terrestrial channels and Netflix and the Amazon Prime Video subscription that you forgot was there because you only signed up to get Amazon next-day delivery. If you haven’t seen it, then I’d urge you to seek it out somehow and avoid the spoilers below; quaintly, it is broadcast in weekly instalments, but it’s the kind of show that lends itself well to box-set viewing. It is the most gripping drama of the year.

The show at its most basic level is a whodunit, which previously involved the murder of one girl and the suspected murder of two others. But those two turned up last week, found captive in what we shall politely call an homage to Silence of the Lambs. The one aspect of this drama about which I feel uneasy is the young-women-as-victims trope, but I imagine the writer, Brad Ingelsby, would justify that by pointing out that young women are the victims of violent crime only too often.

**Episode 6 spoilers below**

Kate Winslet and Jean Smart in Mare of Easttown - HBO
Kate Winslet and Jean Smart in Mare of Easttown - HBO

The discovery of the girls unfolded in scenes of almost unbearable tension. That came as a shock, because thus far Mare of Easttown hadn’t seemed to be that sort of show. But that ability to go beyond your expectations is one of the things that makes it so impressive. The police procedural runs in tandem with Mare’s domestic life, which can be heavy – she is grieving for a son lost to suicide, and worried about losing her grandson, Drew, to a mother only recently free of addiction – but also funny. One of the best characters in it is Mare’s misanthropic mother, Helen, gloriously played by Jean Smart in a welcome injection of comic relief.

The whodunit aspect concerning the murder of Erin McMenamin appears to have narrowed to her cousin Billy Ross (Robbie Tann), but the series is surely too clever to reveal its hand this early. There are other suspects, ranging from Billy’s ‘family man’ brother, John (Joe Tippett), to the sorrowful local deacon (James McArdle) and plenty in between. Ingelsby has produced a screenplay that keeps you guessing and provides a fine workout for the brain, as you endeavour to make connections. The pacing is faultless: something is always happening.

One thing the show won’t have is a happy ending. In real life, narratives are rarely neat. Drew’s mother, Carrie (Sosie Bacon), is clean and in gainful employment, but you sense she’s one bad day away from relapsing (a scene in which she fell asleep while Drew was in the bath was heart-stopping). An abducted girl is returned to her loving family, but her prospects are surely bleak.

Beyond the writing though, it is Winslet who elevates this. All joking aside about her appearance – and it must be noted that even Mare at her schlubbiest can attract the two hottest men in town, one of them young enough to be her son – she is terrific. There was a scene in episode five in which that young man, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), kissed her out of the blue. Her wordless reaction of surprise and embarrassment and delight lasted about three seconds but was a better piece of acting than most performances you’ll see this year.

All that remains is for Mare of Easttown to give us a brilliant finale. And for Winslet to clean up – and smarten up – when awards season comes around.