Easttown, PA: Pretty and gritty (and gay)
As messages go, “queer people are just like you” isn’t the worst. But it’s also not exactly true.
It’s ironic that once I finally felt as though I could leave the house and do anything I wanted, I discovered a television show so addictive, all I wanted to do was stay home on the couch, glued to the boob tube. If you haven’t seen it, HBO’s Mare of Easttown might be the most perfectly constructed long-form murder mystery I’ve ever seen. And yet, I noticed about halfway through that the mystery was not what kept me coming back to the show to devour yet another episode. It was the people.
And not just people — specifically, the women. It was toward the end of the series that I realized that the four actors who consistently received top billing throughout were all women. And yet, Mare of Easttown never feels like a feminist story, simply a gripping mystery and character study that just happens to be about a woman with other women in her life. This is the rare program that probably passed the Bechdel Test every five minutes without even trying.
Mare (Kate Winslet, who deserves all the Emmys) is a compelling hero. First, she’s truly a hero. Some have called her an “anti-hero,” but that’s unfair; her actions are heroic, she’s just incredibly flawed. She annoys a lot of people, but in Winslet’s hands, she’s easy to love — especially as the series moves forward and the tragedies she has survived are slowly and skillfully revealed.
Mare’s BFF Lori (Julianne Nicholson) seems, at first, like the standard “best friend” character — there to listen while the more complicated lead sits there, being complicated. But by the finale, we find that she, in her own way, is just as deliciously complicated as Mare.
Mare’s acerbic mother Helen is played with perfect pitch by Jean Smart, who is having a mini career renaissance on HBO these days (see also 2019’s Watchmen and 2021’s Hacks). She and Mare spend most of their scenes together bickering, but Smart finds every opportunity to show the audience how much Helen loves her family, which includes a teenage granddaughter and a toddler great-grandson.
The teenager is Siobhan (Angourie Rice), and she’s the daughter anyone would want: kind, intelligent, and responsible. The tragedies that weigh Mare down have had an impact on Siobhan, too — but she bears the burden much more quietly. It’s a difficult role for a young actor, and Rice acquits herself beautifully.
Oh, and Siobhan is also queer. She might be a lesbian, perhaps bi — we only see her date girls, but she’s difficult to label precisely because the show never labels her or forces her to label herself. She just … exists. In the world of this show, her attraction to other women is probably the least interesting thing about her.
In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Siobhan’s sexual identity just … doesn’t matter. Honestly, both her ex-girlfriend and her new girlfriend could have been written as boys and played by men and it would have changed nothing about the show, except a few names and pronouns. Siobhan has about 99 problems, but being queer isn’t one of them. She’s out to everyone, and no one seems to care either way.
Don’t get me wrong, as a queer viewer, it was nice to see that we existed in the world so painstakingly built by the writers and showrunners. Without Siobhan, the show might have felt a little more artificial, a little … made for TV. Because we know we exist, and because we are human, we long to see ourselves represented in the stories we see. And Mare of Easttown absolutely included us. And they weren’t shy about it; the makeout scene with the new girlfriend was pretty hot, and the subsequent discovery by the ex-girlfriend was super awkward (and then very funny, and then sort of touching).
And, at the same time, I’m not sure why, while I loved every minute of this show, I kept waiting for Siobhan’s queer identity to be central to a moment in the story somehow, even a fleeting second. Surely not everyone in this flannel-clad, blue-collar town is thrilled with the out high school lesbian, I thought. Someone will say something, and perhaps that’s a moment when we’ll see how Mare rises to her defense or lets Siobhan fight her own battles, or something. But that never happened, because there were no battles to fight. Apparently, everything up to date in Easttown, PA; they’ve gone about as fer as they kin go.
I suppose, as messages go, “queer folks are just like everyone else” isn’t the worst lesson for HBO’s global audience to learn. We could do worse. And still, as I was watching, I was reminded of a simple truth. We’re not like everyone else. Not yet, anyway. And that’s okay.