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May 28, 2021

What They're Saying: Stephen King's 'Mare of Easttown' hunch, humorous spinoffs and hardcore sleuthing

As we approach the finale of the HBO detective drama, a look inside the building anticipation

TV Mare of Easttown
HBO Mare Easttown WTS Michele K. Short/HBO

The finale of 'Mare of Easttown' will air on HBO and HBO Max at 10 p.m. The detective drama starring Kate Winslet has enthralled viewers for weeks, earning Emmy buzz and plenty of prognostication about the murder mystery will be resolved.

The upcoming finale of HBO's detective drama "Mare of Easttown" on Sunday may well be the most anticipated moment in television since the end of "Game of Thrones," which means there's a hell of a lot riding on this absorbing series sticking its landing.

There has been no shortage of speculation about what will happen in the seventh and final episode, as viewers try to piece together who murdered Erin McMenamin, who knew about it and what it all means for our beleaguered protagonist, Mare Sheehan.

We've already examined seven burning questions the show needs to answer by the end of Sunday night, but here we'll take a look at some of the discussion heading into Memorial Day weekend and the much-awaited resolution of the series.

Stephen King isn't buying Billy Ross as the murderer

If anyone knows the playbook on contemporary murder mysteries, it's bestselling author Stephen King, who has published 62 novels and about 200 short stories in his time, many of which have gone to the screen. He's a master of suspense and misdirection who knows the structure of plot development as well as anyone out there.

And if you ask Mr. King, Billy Ross' murder confession in the sixth episode of "Mare of Easttown" is about as fishy as the fishing excursion where things left off heading into the finale.

Not only that, but King isn't convinced John Ross is Erin's killer, either. If you look at the tweet thread, you'll see King respond to a fan who posited John as the murderer. 

"I politely disagree," King answered. 

So is it Dylan? Lori? Frank? Someone else? No matter how it turns out, it'll be very interesting to see who King had pegged as his prime suspect.

Series writer Brad Ingelsby has his own style – and his career will be indelibly shaped by the reception of the end of "Mare of Easttown." But if Stephen King is giving him a thumbs up, he's doing something right.

Could there be a "Mare of Easttown" spinoff series?

Well, "Game of Thrones" is doing it, so why not? Maybe Ingelsby, director Craig Zobel and HBO will want to leave "Mare of Easttown" just the way it is, and that would be a respectable choice. But fans can dream, right?

Over at the New Yorker, Emily Flake and Wendi Aarons had a little fun with the idea of a spinoff. They wrote silly blurbs about titles that play on rhymes with "Mare of Easttown," and worked in some great illustrations.

What about a "Cher of Easttown?"

A small Pennsylvania town is rocked when superstar Cher shows up on the scene to attend yet another local funeral. "Do you believe in life after love?" she asks the probably-guilty-of-something youth priest. "Also, what the f***'s going on with my hair? Is it the wooter?"

No? Maybe "Bear of Easttown?"

Choo Choo the Bear, once a beloved fixture at the local zoo, has come to serve her Pennsylvania town in a new capacity: by solving murders. But, when Choo Choo is caught on camera eating one of the victims, the community must ask itself some uncomfortable questions, such as, "Was it really such a hot idea to cut costs by giving all the zoo animals municipal jobs?"

In all seriousness, how about a spinoff about DJ that's stashed away and produced 15 years from now? Who does the baby at the center of all this drama become, and what's life like in Easttown in 2036? What about a look at the life of Kenny McMenamin when he gets out of prison? Would he stay in Easttown? Might he discover clues to a potentially unanswered question that's left open-ended?

Internet sleuths – and serious internet sleuths

Half the fun of watching a series like "Mare of Easttown" is attempting to dissect the many hypothetical paths that lead to a killer. Viewers have to retrace the steps of each episode and scene, parse out the tone and expressions of the actors, analyze the overall arc of the show and pay attention to visual motifs that may be suggestive of where to look.

Of course, the critical piece of evidence on everyone's mind is the photograph Jess Riley hands to Chief Carter at the end of Episode 6. It's a tantalizing cliffhanger, one that seems to have major ramifications for Mare as she drives to intervene in John and Billy Ross' fishing trip. She's apparently under the impression Billy killed Erin, based on Lori's confession to her, but what might this photo show that would change her urgent race to confront him?

A still image was captured from the brief scene when the chief is holding the photo so we can see the back of it. By tweaking the contrast of that screen capture, it's possible to get a better look at the backlit image. That's what the photo editors at Vulture did, and they dove into a little speculation about the photo.

From Vulture:

If you squint, it seems like you can see Erin … somewhere. (But of course, she would be in it, wouldn't she?) Personally, I see her in the top-left corner of the frame, reclining with her right arm folded over her chest. Some people on Reddit see her in the lower-right corner. Or maybe she's cut off near the top? And what happens if you rotate the photo to make it fit the way Jess originally saw it? Well, then it obviously becomes a photo of Erin with whichever male cast member you suspect is the killer: John Ross, Frank, perhaps Lori's tiny son Ryan? Or could it be Mare's late son Kevin, who many fans believe is the true father of Erin's baby? (In that case, the killer would obviously not be Kevin, since ghosts don't seem to exist in Mare of Easttown.)

That Vulture article references the "Mare of Easttown" subreddit, and if you really want to lose your mind and consider all of the insane possibilities, that's the rabbit hole you need to visit. You'll find well-thought-out theories about every possible suspect and long discussions debating whether those clues add up and where there may be holes in them.

For the most part, these are serious fans of the show who have reasoned through this crime in ways you may not have considered. If you're looking to enter Sunday night with a wide range of perspectives on what might happen, you might have fun bouncing around on Reddit for a while.

But as one Reddit user's popular post suggests, maybe we're all thinking too hard:

Y'all are looking at this the wrong way. The show isn't a murder mystery. It's a character study and the character is Easttown.

Remember when those girls were missing and everyone had all these theories about who did it and why it was connected? Turns out it wasn't some elaborate puzzle to solve. It was just some guy who owned the old bar.

I think we are going to find that Dylan and Billy fought down at the park about who is DJs father, Dylan went to shoot Billy, Erin tries to stop him and gets her finger blown up in the process. Dylan hits Erin and accidentally kills her. Billy is so drunk he has no idea what is actually going on.

Does that sound disappointing? Good. The creator's purpose in "Mare..." is to illustrate these Delco towns and how they suck in the lives of the people who find them selves there, whether they be born and raised, or find themselves there for some other reason. It's not to enthrall you with a clever murder mystery. The mystery is just the road the driver of the story is using to get us to the end... The villain is Easttown ...

Would that be such a disappointment? If the murder was more of a hectic mistake than a premeditated act? For many viewers, the total package of drama in "Mare of Easttown" may have earned it a pass for delivering the most compelling resolution to the mystery. Maybe it's more about the journey and what the real life implications of the murder are going to mean for the rest of Mare's life.

Where's the politics?

Bouncing off that Reddit take, Slate published a piece this week by Robert Repino, a Drexel Hill native who quibbles with the absence of politics from "Mare of Easttown." Without political themes, "Mare of Easttown" is nothing like the real Delaware County, from Repino's point of view:

Like many towns in the county, Drexel Hill grew rapidly in the late 20th century, largely because of white flighters stampeding out of Philadelphia, a group that included my own parents. And now, many decades later, Drexel Hill is at a crossroads, politically and demographically, as the region becomes more ethnically diverse and more progressive, against the wishes of many of the second- or third-generation white Christians who live there.

Despite this obvious source of tension and upheaval, Mare of Easttown, puzzlingly, does not mention politics at all. There are no kitchen table arguments, no drunk know-it-alls pontificating at the numerous pubs, no campaign posters, no red hats, not even a chuckle-worthy moment of political incorrectness from Mare's mother Helen. For a Delco kid like me, this deliberately apolitical stance isn't just a missed opportunity; it makes watching the show a truly surreal experience.

Repino points out the alarming number of people from Southeastern Pennsylvania who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection as evidence that politics is inextricable from life in the region. And while he acknowledges that political and racial tensions shouldn't be in the show merely for effect, Repino feels those tensions go a long way toward explaining "the very miseries that the show exploits."

Politics can be a difficult thing to "show-not-tell" in dramatic narratives, and sometimes it's forced to the point of caricature. Repino has a fair critique, but it's not clear practically how political consciousness would have improved the series or how conservative politics could have been portrayed to illustrate why these characters are facing the particular predicament the show follows.

Perhaps an off-hand comment or set piece might have been used at some point to allude to these political issues, darkly or humorously. A politicized comment from a fictional district attorney about one of the cases in the show could easily have accomplished this, with a reaction from the characters to give it a more personal touch. 

But is it altogether fair to say that the series actively avoided politics? The lens on religion suggests Ingelsby and Zobel felt Christian community was a more pertinent facet of Easttown to examine. Maybe this particular story simply would not have benefitted from taking a superficial interest in politics within the span of seven episodes. Had the show been longer, there likely would have been no escaping it. 

There's already no escaping it in real life, that's for sure. Every fan of "Mare of Easttown" can unite around putting on HBO at 10 p.m. on Sunday night, at the least.