Cop and sexy grandma: Kate Winslet as the titular Mare of Easttown is a rare character

Shubhra Gupta writes: It once again shows the short shrift given to characters who are mothers and grandmothers in mainstream entertainment.

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When we first come upon Mare, she of Easttown, we see a woman who has more than one thing on her mind. Jeans, jacket, workaday air. Hair pulled back in a scraggly ponytail. Attractive, but distinctly lived-in face, fine lines visible. Swiftly, we learn more about the lead protagonist of the HBO miniseries, Mare of Easttown, which has gripped the imaginations of those who have been breathlessly following the murky goings on in this Pennsylvania hamlet. She’s a forty-something police detective. Deep in the middle of a murder investigation. Divorced. Mother. And, gasp, a grandmother.

When was the last time you saw a grandma in the movies, or in TV fiction, who was all this and more? Kate Winslet, magnificent as Mary Anne Sheehan aka Mare, gets everything right — commendably pulling off an authentic East Coast accent, comfortable in the loping stride and cautious stance of a cop tasked with maintaining law and order in a town where everyone knows everyone else, juggling clear-eyed professionalism and empathy as she sets about solving the brutal killing of a young girl, trying to do the right thing, and not always succeeding.

The superb, slow-burn of a thriller, written and created by Brad Inglesby, refreshes the suburban-town-dark-doings trope, where ugliness simmers under the deceptively placid facade of quiet streets, row houses, neat lawns, overrun by people with murder on their minds. Mare could have been just another version of the hackneyed conflicted cop with a troubled backstory, usually played by world-weary Hollywood leading men. But what makes her a character to remember are the layers. She has no qualms about falling into, double gasp, a quickie with a stranger — she doesn’t just let herself get picked up, she is an equal participant in the mating game. Her flaws are glaring, as she goes about deflecting personal grief, and dumping another kind of grief on a much younger woman. She’s not the kind of woman who cooks and cleans, or minds her kids and grandkid, when she’s back home after work. She’s happy to snack on chips instead of assembling a real meal. No time to waste. She’s out there, pulling out her gun, and saving lives, and while she’s at it, making a stab at satisfactory sex. Whoa.

The seven-part miniseries came to an end a couple of days ago. For the record, I didn’t buy the big reveal, which the show had been building up to. It felt contrived, even if it was wholly unexpected. But — and this is the thing — it didn’t ruin the show for me. It proved how a murder mystery can turn into a classic by mining the depths of the characters, and allowing them an emotional graph which shows their journey, internal and external. One mystery is solved, unlocking life’s endless mysteries.

It also made me think of the options, or the distressing lack of them, in mainstream Bollywood (Hollywood is guilty on this score, too) where mothers are confined to being strictly maternal figures, and grandmothers have their spindly legs halfway down the grave. Even the mothers who can be fun (among my favourite filmi mums is Ratna Pathak Shah in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, and a few of Kirron Kher’s endless iterations of the jolly Punjabi bebe) are mothers first and last. They may have a few smart lines to scatter about, but for them to get into serious relationships outside matrimonial lines is completely unthinkable. Mothers having sex? Shudder. Neena Gupta’s middle-class, middle-aged maa has one roll-in-the-hay in Badhaai Ho and spends the rest of the movie explaining away the bout of momentary passion.

Daadis and naanis are supposed to be cute and cuddly, and retreat discreetly into the background. Mainstream Bollywood is very far from showing mothers as busy professionals, finding joy in their work, leaving domesticity to other people. Grandmothers in the throes? Perish the thought.

Mare Of Easttown is a riveting piece of fiction, with its non-stop spate of red herrings, well-timed pockets of intrigue, and a whole array of dodgy suspects. But one of its biggest strengths will always be in showing us how a relationship is not a graven-in-stone job description. Sexy grandmas? Totally here for ’em.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 2, 2021, under the title ‘She of Easttown’. [email protected]

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