Meredith Blake, Mary McNamaraBreaking down that big 'Mare of Easttown' cliffhanger: Who killed Erin?

May 24, 2021, 11:00 AM

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9 min read

John Douglas Thompson and Kate Winslet in "Mare of Easttown."

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

The feature we've been calling "Mere and Mare discuss 'Mare (of Easttown)'" on company Slack is back by popular demand for the miniseries' penultimate episode — and honestly it's no surprise after last week's big shocker left viewers' jaws on the floor. (Pour one out for Det. Zabel.)

This week, "Sore Must Be the Storm" finds Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) reeling from her partner's death, being congratulated for the discovery of the missing girls and swept deeper into the investigation into the death of Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), in what amounts to a kaleidoscopic journey through the cast of characters we've met so far. Toss in a good, old-fashioned cliffhanger on top of it all and there's lots to discuss.

Read on below as staff writer Meredith Blake and columnist and culture critic Mary McNamara break down Sunday night’s episode, what to expect from next week's finale, and more.

Meredith Blake:

Mare, please forgive me for typing slowly; I have a case of whiplash from all the misdirections in this episode, an all-you-can-eat buffet of red herrings. Poor yourself a tall cup of Wawa coffee, because we have a lot of ground to cover.

Within minutes, Creepy Winston Smoker is ruled out as a suspect in Erin's death because he has an alibi. Both Mare and the story quickly move on, apparently uninterested in the serial predator who abducts young women and holds them captive as sexual slaves in a locked room in a derelict bar. You'd think Mare might have some questions. I sure do! (In an eerie coincidence, I flipped on the TV the other night at — I kid you not — the exact moment when Clarice was knocking on the door of Buffalo Bill's house of horrors in "The Silence of the Lambs," the sequence that clearly inspired last week's episode. I am not sure what to make of this, except to stay away from rundown old buildings in the Rust Belt.)

Poor, dead Freddie also briefly becomes a posthumous suspect when Mare finds a bag of Erin's clothing next to his lifeless body.

Joe Tippett in "Mare of Easttown."

(Michele K. Short/HBO)

But the bulk of the episode is spent making us believe that Lori’s squirrelly, Yuengling-swigging brother-in-law Billy (Robbie Tann) is,

without a doubt

, both Erin’s killer and the father of her child, which can only mean one thing: He is probably neither of these things.Breaking down that big 'Mare of Easttown' cliffhanger: Who killed Erin?

We are left with a doozy of a cliffhanger that’s as effective as it is maddening: Mare is apprehending Billy — once again explicitly defying orders — as Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) calls her with mysterious new evidence salvaged from Erin’s journal by her friend Jess. What could this evidence

possibly

be? An ultrasound with the father’s name on it? A map tracing the route to her killer’s home? A photo of Erin with yet another sketchy older man who has not yet been the target of our suspicion? The mind reels at the possibilities!

There are also several big emotional moments unrelated to the central mystery, including a harrowing flashback to Kevin’s suicide, a front-door confrontation between Mare and Zabel’s mom (psst, Mare, maybe just write a letter next time), and an infuriating fake-out scene where we’re briefly led to believe Drew has drowned in the bathtub while his exhausted mother, Carrie, nods off. So many narrative feints, so little time!

What did you make of it all?

Mary McNamara:

Well, Mere, it was not my favorite episode. First, nowhere near enough Jean Smart (I assume because she was off doing "Hacks"). Second, as you noted, where's the follow-up on Mr. Winstons and his bar o' horrors? Even in Easttown, with its high rate of drug addiction and prostitution, I find it hard to believe that the discovery of two young women kidnapped, imprisoned and repeatedly raped didn't make a bigger splash. I am always happy when police dramas choose not to use meddling reporters as a foil, but honestly, where is the follow-up? There was at least one other young woman, who got pregnant and was taken away. Are they digging up Mr. Winstons' backyard and basement? Interviewing the recovered women? Getting them into therapy? Pennsylvanians are a hardy lot, but I am not a fan of chained-up women as a plot device.

Also, if Mare knows everyone in town, why didn't she know this guy? Obviously, he's been prowling around Easttown for years. Was he the prowler reported by Betty Carroll (the wonderful Phyllis Somerville, in her final and too-brief performance) back in the first episode? Betty warned Mare that there was "a lot of bad s—" going on in Easttown, and obviously she is right, because we went from "Who would kill Erin?" to "Everyone might have killed Erin."

This is, of course, a favorite theme of small town mystery-dramas, from "Twin Peaks" to "Broadchurch." In showcasing the "everyone has a secret" theme, the actual crime can become so buried in ancillary revelations that the police begin to look stupid (I mean, I was wondering about Billy from the get-go) and the solution becomes either anticlimatic (given Mare thinks it's Billy, it will be boring if it turns out she's right) or ridiculous.

If we're going full "Broadchurch" here, the murderer will definitely be the last person Mare/we suspect, someone who is very close to her. Which would point to either a member of her family (Jean Smart?!? The priest-cousin?), Lori (Julianne Nicholson) or John (Joe Tippett). Or what about their son, Ryan (Cameron Mann)? He's been floating suspiciously at the edge of a lot of episodes.

I'm hoping it's John. I love Lori so, with her parkas and endless patience. Erin was pregnant, John's a philanderer, and his fishing trip with Billy smacks of a low-rent "Miller's Crossing" moment.

Speaking of which, why is Mare going off to confront a potential killer without backup

again?

If this show is about her journey to some sort of enlightenment, has she learned nothing? Or perhaps her pain from Kevin's death, and maybe Zabel's, left her near-suicidal. What do you think about the revelations in the shrink's office?

Blake:

If Jean Smart

isBreaking down that big 'Mare of Easttown' cliffhanger: Who killed Erin?

the killer — an unlikely twist even for this show — then perhaps that moment with the farty-sounding shoes wasn't intended as comic relief but rather a clue: Just why is Helen buying new shoes anyway? Think about it, Mare.

Kidding aside, I agree that John is the most likely culprit at this point. He's seemingly the only male in Easttown who hasn't been already raised as a suspect (other than Richard, who definitely still has murderer potential) and it would explain his eagerness to go fishing up on the Lehigh. It also explains the casting of Julianne Nicholson in that role. Just imagine what she'll do when she finds out — unless, of course,

she

killed Erin, a possibility I don't want to contemplate.

But your mention of other small-town murder mysteries like "Twin Peaks" and "Broadchurch" has me thinking: Is anyone ever totally satisfied with how these stories turn out? Doesn't everyone get frustrated with the red herrings and the implausible twists and stalling along the way? And isn't that part of the perverse pleasure of watching? I think it may be.

Julianne Nicholson, with Cameron Mann, in "Mare of Easttown."

(Michele K. Short/HBO)

As for Mare's personal journey, she does seem to have had some breakthroughs, however minor and unrelated to proper law enforcement protocol they might be. She accepts that she will probably lose custody of Drew, though I

also

think the bathtub incident will force Carrie to realize she's not ready for full custody, so that Mare won't actually have to give up her grandson but will have to learn to peacefully coexist with his mother. And she goes back to therapy voluntarily, a baby step in the right direction.

Momentarily sounding more like a screenwriter than a mental health professional, Gayle (Eisa Davis) tells Mare she's focusing on external problems to distract her from the unprocessed grief over Kevin's death. ("Here, let me spell out the things the audience needs to understand about you, the series protagonist.") The emotional exposition serves a purpose, however: getting Mare to recall the day her son died. It's a brutal yet tactful sequence that does plenty to explain why Mare can be so reckless at times. It was difficult to watch, but I think it worked.

How did you feel about it?

McNamara:

I found that flashback excruciating, which means it was very well done but also that it had better serve a purpose, and I'm not sure we have enough time left for even Dr. Exposition to explore all the traumas an event like that can inflict. Still, I don't think that's the point of "Mare of Easttown," which seems more interested in exploring the dangers of a particular form of assumption that can take over when people believe they "know" someone or some place. I don't think it's terribly fine-tuned here, but I am invariably sucked into any story that tries to pry open the box of what people think they know, especially when it comes to other people's feelings. As Mare has found, most humans are too infatuated with their own personal turmoils to really even try to understand what's happening around them.

As you say, these kinds of high-stakes mysteries invariably leave swaths of people unsatisfied; as a lover of murder mysteries, I am often one of them. On the other hand, "Mare" has already done what it is supposed to do — keep an audience entranced and having conversations like this one. That is a very rare feat, especially at a time when appointment TV has been declared dead by so many. The fact that two of the biggest breakouts of 2021 — "Mare" and "WandaVision" — follow the serial rather than the binge model definitely says something. Maybe the pandemic made us hungrier for real-time communal experiences again.

Blake:

Especially ones that don't require leaving the couch.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.