There’s a scene in Mare of Easttown, the new crime drama on HBO/Sky Atlantic starring Kate Winslet, that with minimal fuss captures a mood rarely seen on TV. Winslet plays a detective in smalltown Pennsylvania, where – when she’s sitting on her sofa one night eating an enormous sandwich – a neighbour throws a gallon of milk through her window. She stops eating, briefly, to survey the wreckage, before returning with exquisite deliberation to the sandwich. Through Winslet’s character, Mare, Easttown nails that rarely excavated, beautifully enacted vibe of the fed-up middle-aged woman.
It is hard to overstate how much excitement this and similar scenes have caused among women in the US since the show started airing, two weeks ago. It’s not merely that Mare reflects back at us the bombed-out, personal-grooming-gone-to-seed reality of life at the tail end of the pandemic. Nor is it a case of the overused trope of a movie star eschewing makeup as a shorthand for integrity. (I loved the movie Nomadland, recently bombarded with Oscars, but Frances McDormand has in recent years perhaps over-ploughed this furrow to the extent that it can have the opposite effect, making the act of appearing “ordinary” seem a little stagey and performative.)
By contrast, the heroine of Easttown, while operating on her last nerve and declaring her life to be a mess, displays a range of behaviours that never quite adds up to defeat. She wears a lot of flannel, eats a lot of junk, and snaps constantly at her mother (played brilliantly by Jean Smart) and teenage daughter. She is also quietly, unshowily amazing at her job, compassionate to her neighbours – even the ones who throw missiles at her head – and human to the degree that she never loses the ability to be a raging great arsehole. The most annoying thing about Mare of Easttown isn’t anything in the story or characters but the fact that, after making a slew of terrible films culminating in the unwatchable lesbian drearfest Ammonite, the show forces a total 180 on one’s opinion of Winslet.
What remains curious is what precisely as viewers we’re responding to in Mare. Easttown was created by Brad Ingelsby, who grew up in the working-class Pennsylvanian town where the show is set; and the show’s attention to detail – a character in a vintage Dave Matthews Band sweatshirt, dinners of Tater Tots and microwave mac and cheese – give it an unfakeable air of reality. In the heroine, however, there is something that transcends the show’s context. Mare has been compared, favourably, to Sarah Lancashire’s cop in Happy Valley and Olivia Colman’s in Broadchurch, and there’s some matter-of-fact quality in all three actors that one connects, intangibly, to their Britishness.
Her success with viewers is also a question of timing. The aftershocks of MeToo won’t wear off for many years, and still the stories keep coming. In the past month alone we heard of alleged abuses by Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, and the almost unbelievably novelistic horror of Blake Bailey, lauded biographer of Philip Roth, being the subject of multiple accusations of rape and sexual assault, resulting in the book being hastily withdrawn.
We’ve had it. We’re done with it. Those years of Trump compulsively commenting on women’s looks, the intensity of demands made of women handling families and jobs throughout the pandemic, and the fact that women over 40 – particularly those in flannel and Timberlands – are still expected to remain largely invisible, have created a condition for this show to hit home. The absolute I’m-over-it energy of the heroine channels some broader snap in a willingness to go along with all this and a yearning for some reflection of how many are feeling.
It’s not even anger; much has been made of “female rage” in the past few years, but to my mind it’s more muted and long-suffering than that. It’s irritability, crossness, the oh-for-God’s-sake complete lack of surprise when the latest outrage comes along, with the occasional florid meltdown. In one scene, a middle-class character sensitively counsels Mare to open her heart to the daughter-in-law with whom she’s about to get locked in a custody battle. Instead, she storms over to her house, mocks her addiction, threatens to see her in court, then frames her for a crime she didn’t commit. I mean, it’s not ideal. But one appreciates a certain emotional truth.
There is, perhaps, one amusingly and I guess unavoidably false note in all this. Early on in the show, Mare meets a suave, middle-class character played by Guy Pierce, and reluctantly agrees to go out on a date with him. She throws on some makeup, finds a dress and a hairbrush, and – stepping out of her house – hey-ho, it’s Kate Winslet. Even that, I sense, we’ll give her. It goes badly; the guy’s a douche. She shrugs and goes home.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist