“Mare of Easttown” is a murder mystery, but only generally speaking. The new HBO miniseries is more precisely a relentless and stirring portrait of a small-town Pennsylvania woman caught between her tenacious resilience and her unexplored grief. She’ll talk plainly about her losses, which we learn about slowly across the seven episodes; but she can’t afford to let them sink from her head to her heart. She is a single-parent police detective supporting her extended family, and drive — not neutral and definitely not reverse — is the only option she sees.
The cases she’s currently working on — the still-unsolved disappearance of a young woman a year ago, followed by a recent murder— are absorbing in their own right, whodunits that, true to the genre, make everyone look a little suspicious at certain moments. As in the excellent British series “Broadchurch,” the entire intertwined town — in this case Easttown — is engaged in, terrified by, and frustrated over the crimes, and she feels the weight of it, not least of all since the mother of the missing girl happens to be an old friend (who happens to have cancer). She is searching for the answers, and, simultaneously, and much less consciously, she is searching for a way out of her deep-seated misery.
Her name, of course, is Mare — no one ever calls her anything else — and she is played by Kate Winslet in a rich performance that never lets go. The series, created and written by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Our Friend”) flirts with melodramatic excess at points, as the number of local crises and misfortunes grows. But the acting — by Winslet and the strong ensemble around her — is compelling enough to make it all feel more tragic than soapy, more complex than overcooked. In one of her best performances — and that’s saying a lot — Winslet turns Mare into a flawed, stubborn heroine without making a show of it. She adopts an accent that worked for me (only Pennsylvanians will know for sure) and digs in deep, never telegraphing, as many actors do, that she’s playing a weary provincial woman.
Ingelsby takes an unusual and dynamic approach to the revelation of Mare’s character and history, and it works beautifully. The further Mare moves into the cases, for which a county cop (played memorably by Evan Peters) has been sent to help out, the more facts we learn about her past. One particular, relevant to her character and profound, doesn’t emerge until the fifth episode. The storytelling approach perfectly matches Mare’s personality; she asks the questions, she keeps her own counsel, she swallows her hardships. While the murder and disappearance plots progress more conventionally, with DNA tests, cliffhangers, and unexpected secrets in the mix, the character drama is deployed with imagination and force.
Jean Smart is on hand as Mare’s mother, Helen, a somewhat biting presence who has moved in to help raise her granddaughter, Siobhan (the exceptional Angourie Rice), and her 4-year-old great-grandson. Smart now has one more highlight to add to her impressive list of non-sitcom roles, alongside her turns in “Fargo,” “Watchmen,” and “Legion.” Julianne Nicholson stands out as Mare’s supportive best friend with her own issues, as does David Denman as Mare’s ex, Mark, who lives a stone’s throw away and is finding some degree of happiness, facts that make Mare’s struggles that much more intense. And Guy Pearce adds some luster to the thankless role of a novelist who appears to see the magic buried within all of Mare’s brusqueness and despair.
There are many others in the mix, including Mare’s cousin, Dan (Neal Huff), a priest who enjoys his philosophical spars with her, and Carrie (Sosie Bacon in her best turn so far), a family member Mare would like to forget about. But, at least in the five episodes made available for review, “Mare of Easttown” doesn’t seem crowded so much as well-stocked. The cast helps to create a vivid sense of an insular place where getting by is the norm, where bleakness is ordinary, and where, despite all the long-term relationships, trust is fragile. Mare is definitely “of” Easttown, even as she tries to rise above it.
MARE OF EASTTOWN
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, Julianne Nicholson, Evan Peters, Angourie Rice, David Denman, Sosie Bacon, Guy Pearce, Phyllis Somerville, James McArdle
Premieres Sunday night, 10-11