How Grief forms the Backbone of Mare of Easttown
Trigger Warning: Mentions of abuse, suicide, substance abuse, death
In a Pennsylvania town inundated by tragedies at every doorstep — there isn’t space, or time, to navigate the brutality of grief. We see the residents of Easttown wrestling with regret, premonitions of their worst selves, and the unbound nature of their relationships. Abound with abusive relationships, missing women, and a spiraling opioid crisis, the psyche of the town screams bleak — a derelict place where hope is only mourned. The cynicism and distrust fractures dreams and memories alike — until familiarity that defines your life becomes suffocating. We meet Mare, a police detective in her early forties, lambasting her former teammate at the anniversary celebration of their basketball championship win. In a devastating mirror to the events that are Mare’s legacy in her town — she has to defend herself from a mother whose daughter is missing. She did all she could, she was not slacking away, she put in the effort — but alas, all the fury falls on deaf ears.
The loss of a child, and the grief that comes with it is paralleled throughout the show. In a conversation with Brianna Del Rasso that can only be described as a cold, rough-handed slap — the audience is bruised with the knowledge of Mare’s son’s death by suicide. Mare looks up at Brianna’s hurtful retort, and the single glance she bears upon being told that her disposition is so gregarious that no wonder her son Kevin is dead — is baleful enough to suggest what is to follow.
In a series of ill-will, misthought decisions, the show lines up the lives of parents and their fraught relationships with their children. Erin McMenamin’s father, convinced that Dylan was behind his daughter’s death — attempts to murder him. Brianna’s father hazes Mare, because her investigation in the case derails his daughter’s future — even if she, by all means, is a rightful suspect for abusing Erin. Dawn Bailey, in a bid for her missing daughter, falls prey to a false chimerical scheme that promises the whereabouts of her missing daughter in exchange for money. Mare herself, engages in a bitter custody battle with her grandson’s mother, Carrie Layden — who is a recovering drug addict. Mare goes as far as planting drugs on her, before she is suspended. In a particularly grave conversation, when Mare apologises to Colin Zabel’s mother for risking her son’s life, and mourns his untimely demise — she is slapped and ousted. In the denouement of the show, we come to know John Ross not only covers for a murder committed by Ryan, he and Lori go until the last mile to protect their child from being labelled a criminal.
In a mandated therapy session, Mare opens up about losing her father to suicide, and how she fears that there is something genetic that makes her family succumb to mental illness. In an extremely harrowing flashback to the day Kevin died, we find out that his body was discovered by his sister Siobhan, who in an effort to cope with her grief, creates a documentary about him. She recounts her relationship with her brother, punctuating photographs and videos of his with words about their life and the inexplicable void of losing a loved one. Her grief overflows into her creation — a catharsis she could never come close to, until she breaks down one day and blames her mother for never talking about Kevin’s death. “It should’ve been you, not me. It should’ve been you”, she sobs into her mom’s chest, fighting and holding her at the same time — it should’ve been Mare who first found Kevin’s body in the attic, not her. It should’ve been Mare who confronted death in the face.
The buoyancy of grief, and the trail of destruction it leaves in its wake is the story that Mare of Easttown seeks to tell. Grief sets in motion a cycle of blame, that serves to conciliate the absence of someone you loved with the mistakes of another — we blame time, God, the world, everyone around us. But most of all, we blame ourselves. We stim in a cycle of shame, refusing to acknowledge the guilt that haunts us — pushing it under perfunctory warps of life. The onslaught of grief isn’t always sharpened. Sometimes, it is a conspicuously missing figure in a family party. Sometimes, it is a goodnight kiss but no forehead to give it to. Sometimes, it is going over and over the last day you saw them, and how things would’ve been — could’ve been different, if you were in the right place at the right time.
It’s not your fault — Mare’s mother tells her in the final episode. In the most seminal scene of Good Will Hunting, Sean Maguire (played to an ineffable vulnerability by Robin Williams) repeats over and over to Will Hunting — Look at me son, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
Forgiveness doesn’t come easy. Heck, forgiving our own selves is probably the hardest thing we have ever done. The shroud of grief is heavy, and its ache is permanent, but confronting yourself over what happened — resolving through those memories, and living a life borne out of love is the best way we can honor the people we lost. The final episode of the show, titled Sacrament, mirrors the Christian rite of imparting grace. “I loved that idea of grace and forgiveness,” Julianne Nicholson said. “Trying to do the best we can and seeing that, mostly, it’s what we’re all trying to do.” In the ending scene of the show, Mare takes the first step towards the attic of her house where she first discovered her son’s body. She climbs towards it. She may falter, and the path might not be easy, but she’ll reach there one day. I hope we all do.