Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Mare of Easttown may be a murder mystery at its core, but its exploration of motherhood is its most compelling subject matter.
The finale of Mare of Easttown, an HBO crime drama starring Kate Winslet, aired on May 30, 2021, shocking audiences with yet another twist in the series’ central whodunnit. While the core storyline of the show revolved around murder, namely the death of teenage mother Erin McMenamin, I couldn’t help but be captivated by the ways mothers and motherhood dominated the narrative. As the murder mystery unfolded, the show highlighted the multifaceted lives of mothers in Easttown who were at various stages of their lives, each struggling with a different element of motherhood. However, all are united by one common feature: their mothering ‘failures’ are at the forefront of their parenting experience. The illustration of these failures is not evidence that the show indicts these women for some sort of moral failing; rather, it exposes the gap between idealized expectations of mothers and what is feasible in the real world. In Mare of Easttown as in life, each mother is perpetually doomed to fall short in some way. In order to appreciate the universality of maternal failure in Mare of Easttown, I will turn to a few specific examples:
Note: the remainder of this post will include spoilers for the finale of Mare of Easttown. Bookmark this page and come back later if you want to avoid them!
Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet)
The formula of Mare of Easttown as pertains to its titular character is a familiar one: a police officer is forced to contend both with the demands of their professional life and their personal demons. However, the series does offer a fresh look at the particularities of this balance, moving away from the male dominance of the genre. While motherhood features prominently in Mare’s personal life, the show avoids falling into the trope of a woman’s unending search for the ever-elusive “work-life balance.” Mare’s mothering guilt, instead of being merely a product of a demanding job taking her outside the home, surrounds the trauma wrought by her son Kevin’s struggles with mental illness, addiction, and eventual death by suicide.
Kevin’s death is a constant presence on the show--the people in Mare’s life consistently lament that she hasn’t fully processed the tragedy, it is the subject of her therapy sessions, and a source of considerable friction with her daughter Siobhan. The notion that Mare hasn’t properly dealt with Kevin’s death is inextricably linked to an understanding of maternal inadequacy. Her lack of healing is tied to her inability to “fix” her son’s mental illness, her fear that she may be unable to prevent Kevin’s struggles from reappearing in his son Drew, and her guilt over her daughter finding Kevin’s body as a result of Mare telling her to go inside the house. Mare’s trauma over her son’s death is compounded by the sense that she is somehow at fault for her family’s suffering, and this leaves her at a stasis, reluctant to speak of Kevin and unwilling to step into the attic where he died.
It is notable that the show ends not with the revelation of the true murderer or a lingering shot of the culprit in jail but with Mare, as she slowly ascends into her attic for the first time. According to Winslet, this ending was a subject of considerable discussion among the show’s creative team, and the decision to use this scene elevates the importance granted to Mare’s internal, maternal journey. This ending reinforces that Mare’s understanding of Kevin’s death was not merely a B-plot but central to the viewer’s understanding of Mare.
The prominence of this storyline enables the show to explore fascinating maternal themes: the inevitable feeling of failure when harm comes to a child, the psychic trauma inflicted by feelings of failure, and how this trauma can determine the trajectory of a person’s life. While the failure Mare experiences is linked to a life-altering, devastating event, the ideas that the series grapples with through her character are applicable on the smaller, everyday scale--social media and idealized notions of motherhood have ensured that every mother feels as though they have failed in some way.
Helen Fahey (Jean Smart)
Helen, Mare’s mother, lives with her daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson, and is largely a source of comic relief throughout the series, whether this is through her continuous games of Fruit Ninja, having a long-ago affair revealed at a funeral, or having a door accidentally slammed in her face by her granddaughter’s jilted ex-girlfriend. Her relationship with her daughter is both fraught and marked by genuine affection, a tension that comes to the forefront during a striking exchange in the series finale. After Helen fixes a band-aid for her great-grandson, Drew, Mare remarks that her mother’s tenderness toward Drew departs from the way she was treated as a child because her mother would have told her to “shut up and fix it [herself].” What follows is a confession, remarkable for its honesty and vulnerability:
HELEN: The truth is, I was angry a lot. I was angry that your father wasn’t the person I thought I’d married, and I was angry I couldn’t fix him, and I took a lot of that out on you. And I’m sorry Mare.
After Helen expresses this to Mare, Mare responds that she forgives her mother, leading Helen to cry. It is a touching moment, with Mare’s statement of forgiveness giving viewers the sense that this cathartic exchange is decades overdue. Although Helen claims to have “forgiven [herself] a long time ago,” her tears betray how much this guilt has been weighing on her--she has clearly given the shortcomings of her parenting style a significant amount of thought. It is thought-provoking to consider her mothering failures in the context of her relationship with Mare’s father. Clearly, Mare resents the attitude her mother subjected her to as a child, but it is made clear earlier in the series that Mare idolized her father, crediting him as her inspiration for pursuing a law enforcement career. Helen attributes her mothering failure to the lack of support she received from her husband, yet only she is held responsible for Mare’s disillusionment with her childhood. It speaks to the different standards for failure when it comes to motherhood and fatherhood, a difference that makes ‘motherhood’ distinct from ‘parenthood.’
Carrie Layden (Sosie Bacon)
Carrie is the mother of Mare’s grandson Drew, and throughout the series, she seeks to regain custody of Drew while remaining sober. Addiction is the source of her mothering failure--it has robbed her of a traditional relationship with her son, unable to care for him on her own. The relationship between Carrie and Mare is strained to say the least--Mare frames Carrie for drug possession at one point in the series--but perhaps the most interesting tension is over who has the right to claim the mothering role in Drew’s life. Carrie repeatedly expresses discomfort with Mare raising “her son,” giving viewers the sense that she fears being replaced in her son’s life. Her desperation to be able to raise her son makes her final decision to surrender in the custody fight all the more admirable and heartbreaking. After a terrifying incident where Carrie falls asleep while Drew was in the bath, she admits to Mare that she has relapsed, telling her that she cannot care for Drew and that she plans to re-admit herself into rehab. This admission is Carrie’s final moment in the series, and while clearly tragic, it is also a signal that Carrie is on the path toward ‘good’ motherhood, conforming to the expectation that mothers sacrifice their own desires for the good of their children.
While Carrie moves closer to successful motherhood during the finale, her experience throughout the series is characterized by failure. Addiction denies her the right to mother, and the untraditional position she occupies in Drew’s life forces Carrie, as well as viewers, to contend with some uncomfortable questions regarding the nature of motherhood. To what extent is the label of mother an identity? To what extent is it a behavior? These are philosophical questions that the show clearly cannot definitively answer, but they are brought to the center each time Carrie is on screen.
Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny)
Erin’s life is cut dreadfully short, dying violently in Mare of Easttown’s premiere. Her murder both denies Erin the ability to mother her son DJ and the viewer the ability to observe prolonged interactions with her child, but those that they do witness surround Erin’s distressed search for enough money for DJ to have a critical ear surgery. She pleads with several people in her life to supply her with the funds necessary but is repeatedly turned away, and it is revealed in the middle of the series that she had contemplated sex work as a means of earning the money. Ultimately, she dies without ever having the money, and it is only once another woman agrees to raise DJ that he has the surgery.
Through Erin, Mare of Easttown reveals how mothering failures are often outside an individual’s control. Erin’s poverty is not her fault--it is a product of systems broader and much more powerful than she could ever expect to be. Her ability to provide for her son and ensure his well-being is constricted by these larger forces, forces that she fails to overcome despite her passionate commitment to her son. While the series largely limits its examination of these systemic impediments to the experience of white, poor mothers, it is clear that systemic racism serves as a limiting force for mothers of color, determining the lives of their children and robbing them of control over their mothering.
Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson)
Lori’s mothering failure makes up the series' final twist: it is revealed that Lori’s husband was having a predatory, incestuous relationship with teenage Erin and is the father of her child, a fact that her son Ryan knew. When Ryan attempts to protect his family and threaten Erin to stay away, he accidentally shoots her in a scuffle over the gun. Mare pieces this together in the show’s finale, but does so after her best friend Lori has realized the truth and lied to protect Ryan. Mare’s arrest of Ryan causes a falling out between the lifelong friends, and Lori tells Mare that she had planned to take her son’s secret to her grave.
Through some of the most extreme circumstances imaginable, the series presents Lori’s mothering failure as twofold: she both raises a murderer and fails to protect her child from imprisonment. While Lori is of course partially responsible for raising a son who would use a gun to threaten someone, the show takes pains to trace Ryan’s actions to his father’s abusive behaviors--it was his father’s previous affair that led Ryan to fear the family’s breakup and it is the father’s disgusting "relationship" with Erin that leads to her death. The more fascinating ‘failure’ to consider is Lori’s unsuccessful lie. On one hand, the impulse Lori has to protect her son at all costs is deeply understandable, especially considering Erin’s death was accidental. Ryan clearly expects his mother to protect him; after Mare realizes the truth, he runs home into his mother’s arms, frantically exclaiming that “Mare knows.” When Lori visits Ryan in a detention facility, it is an illustration of her failure, of her nightmare coming true. On the other hand, her instinct to protect her son is evidence of another type of failure: a refusal to force her son to take accountability for his actions. Regardless of his intentions or age, her son willingly brought a gun to his encounter with Erin, used it to threaten her, and took her life. This sequence of events certainly warrants a degree of punishment, yet Lori seeks to insulate him from these consequences. This impulse to shelter her son from the repercussions of his actions is a parenting failure, the likes of which can breed a dangerous level of entitlement and impunity. In Lori’s case, her failures derive from her love for her son, revealing how this love can compromise the ability to make strictly rational, ‘correct’ decisions.
The mothers of Easttown fail for a variety of reasons in a multitude of ways, but they fail together nevertheless. Through these failures, Mare of Easttown rejects the standard of the supermom, embracing and examining the flaws inherent to each of the mothers at the narrative's center. In doing so, the show reconstitutes a norm of motherhood, holding failure, rather than saintly infallibility, as its constant. With more media embracing the inevitability of maternal failure, we can recalibrate cultural expectations around mothering, lessening the constant pressures to which mothers are subject.
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