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‘Mare of Easttown’ Departs as HBO Max's Biggest Original Series Hit Yet — But Did It Just Take HBO's Prestige Bar Down a Notch? (Opinion)

Kate Winslet in HBO's 'Mare of Easttown'
Kate Winslet in HBO's 'Mare of Easttown' (Image credit: HBO)

As we processed—all 3 million of us Sunday—yet another head fake in the investigation of Erin McMenamin’s murder, this time pinning it on a sullen middle-school-aged boy, a thought had to  come to more than a few watchers of HBO’s seven-part limited series Mare of Easttown

(Yes, spoilers are indeed ahead here.)

Was our titular defective detective, Mare Sheehan (played by Kate Winslet), really not going to let this go? She would rather see the young son of her best friend sent to juvenile hall, rather than leave the murder conveniently pinned on the same friend’s husband, a known incestual philanderer, who would have killed his own brother to protect his ugly secret had he not been stopped? 

Oh, right, Mare is driven by a strong sense of justice—even though she herself skirted an ethical breach that should have ended her police career back in the third episode, when she planted heroine on her estranged daughter-in-law in an ill-thought-out attempt to keep custody of her grandson ... who's on the spectrum. 

Yeah, there was lots going on with this gritty police procedural melodrama (is that a genre?), which drew the biggest buzz and biggest audience so far in the “HBO Max” era of HBO. 

Driven by Winslet’s authentic, relatable, butt-padded vape-fueled performance, Mare of Easttown is what counts for a hit, at least in this atomically fragmented era. The finale averaged 3 million viewers Sunday across WarnerMedia’s linear HBO and IP-based HBO Max platforms. And 4 million viewers in total saw that seventh and final episode over Memorial Day weekend. 

According to Samba TV, which measures original shows on SVOD platforms based on smart TV usage, Mare of Easttown’s finale generated 1.7 million viewers on HBO Max, ranking the show just behind the mega-promoted one-off Friends reunion special, which was watched by 2 million Max subscribers. 

Winslet and and series director/exec producer Craig Zobel have already gone on record as saying they’re open to a second round of Mare, provided there’s enough drama--and murder suspects--left to narratively mine in the fictional Pennsylvania hamlet of Easttown.

But let's keep the "hit" hyperbole in perspective.

Consider that the final episode of Game of Thrones debuted to 13.6 million viewers in May 2019, a year before the launch of HBO Max. 

Fourteen years ago, The Sopranos signed off with an initial HBO audience of nearly 12 million viewers. Before that, in 2004, Sex and the City closed to nearly 10.6 million watchers. 

Indeed, Mare of Easttown was a good watch. But in the earlier high-water paradigms of those aforementioned, groundbreaking HBO shows, it would have been more rightly confined to the brand lens of, say, WarnerMedia’s linear cable channel TNT, where it might better fit a lineup featuring aughts-era crime drama The Closer. That police procedural featured Kyra Sedgwick as a homicide detective with a vice that called for her to vape on secretly stashed Hostess Ding Dongs and other sugary treats. 

Later, TNT’s lineup included another James Duff procedural, Major Crimes, which featured another female LAPD homicide division chief, played by Mary McDonnell, juggling a crime-fighting career alongside the toils of managing an adopted gay teenage son, a complicated romantic life and occasionally embittered divorce, among other personal drama. 

These were nice shows, but they weren't what you walked over to the water cooler for.

As for HBO, Chris Albrecht, who architected its original original series rise in the 1990s—a blueprint since followed by programming suppliers ranging from AMC to Netflix—left the same year The Sopranos did, back in 2007. 

CEO Richard Plepler, who credibly kept HBO’s quality torch lit with shows like Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, True Detective and Succession, was forced out in February 2019, as AT&T—fresh off running the DirecTV brand name into the ground—set itself upon the assets of its $85 billion Time Warner Inc. purchase. 

Again, the metrics will tell you that Mare of Easttown is a good show—critics aggregation on Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 93%, one point ahead of The Sopranos

Then again, aggregated review scoring won’t tell you if, say, a series simply had a politically adept showrunner who happened to be good at working critics on Twitter. For example, it’s puzzling why another good but definitely not great premium cable network show, Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse, has the same Rotten Tomatoes score (96%) as a show that many critics have raved is the best written in the history of television, AMC’s Breaking Bad

Really, when comparing what is now the high-water mark of HBO in the “Max” era of Jason Kilar, it comes down to the eye test. We know a true, premium HBO series when we watch one. 

When we hear the soft, indie-rock soundtrack come on every time there’s a scene featuring Mare’s teenage lesbian daughter, Siobhan (played by Angourie Rice), we know as savvy audience members, steeped in the greatness of the HBO originals revolution, we're witnessing a relatively crude and manipulative narrative mechanism, one a guy like David Milch would never stoop to in a thousand episodes of John From Cincinnati

We know that establishing cliffhangers every episode, and keeping the mystery alive by cycling through so many primary suspects, leaves too many loose ends to believably tie up neatly in the end. We “liked” everyone from teenage ne'er do well Dylan Hinchey (actor Jack Mulhern) to Deacon Mark Burton (James McCardle) over the long, winding course of the Erin McMenamin murder investigation. 

And we know character inconsistency when we see it, too.

We watched Mulhern’s brutal Hinchey burn evidence and obstruct justice, only to be redeemed in the finale with what seemed like an out-of-character donation to the ear-surgery fund of his the illegitimate baby son … who turned out not to be his after all. 

In the end, we know when writing is simply ... overwrought. 

Yeah, again, there was a lot going on in Easttown—maybe enough to stick out in the cluttered, gritty reality of today’s streaming wars, but certainly not enough to qualify among the true elites of TV’s Golden Age.