The complexity of life in the modern age is overwhelming. A community has so much to consider: climate change, mass incarceration, system inequality, wealth gaps, drug addiction, foreign affairs, and the list keeps going. Our lives are interwoven with the most intricate fabric, and it becomes easy to feel inextricable from these massive issues that we now acknowledge but still struggle to overcome. Some choose to try and ignore these issues and pretend as if they are overblown, made up, or incorrect. On the other extreme comes a call to live every moment as an apology for the social injustices of the world. Somewhere trapped in-between these two sides are people trying to figure out their lives while they are ravaged by some or all of those issues. Regardless of if people acknowledge them as true or if we called it by the right name on our socials, the issues continue to complicate real people’s lives, to intertwine them with their neighbors and families and friends in a way that cannot clearly be unraveled. Mare of Easttown tells that story, the story of the social issues we fight, not as discourse, but as reality.
There is an underlying social code in Easttown: family and friends take care of each other. If someone asks something of you, you do it for them, or maybe more accurately for that community, you do something for people when they need it, because they probably won’t ask. And once you do, there is a ledger, and the ledger is no longer balanced. And someday, when you are in need, without asking, they will do something for you. This tit-for-tat creates an intimacy that is the closest our 21st century world will come to the 1950s suburbia we have enshrined in our memories. This is community in the modern age, and it’s at the core of how Mare’s ex-husband and his new fiancée ended up living in her backyard, why Mare calls up Kenny’s cousins when she needs to break the news to him about Erin’s death, why Siobhan was afraid to go to Cal Berkeley, why Helen moved in with Mare, why Lori took in DJ, and why Billy was willing to take the fall for John, and why Lori was so mad that Mare was unwilling to just leave it all alone, why Dawn was so critical of Mare for not finding Katie, why the whole town was mad at her.
In all these communal interactions, a person was in need and another person or persons were in a position to fill that need, so they did. In some instances, whether the story acknowledged it or not, they were filling the need because the friend or family member they were doing it for had done a favor for them earlier, and the ledger needed to be balanced. But as Mare tries to solve Erin’s murder she ends up unraveling the ledger, and in so doing, her own grows increasingly out of balance.
Easttown is just trying to get by, and they don’t understand why Mare wouldn’t just allow them to cope in the best way they could. This is why Mare is an outsider even though she is so enmeshed in the community she knows someone on every call. Mare realized, with the death of her son, that what Easttown was doing was not coping. It was complicating an already fraught social dynamic and resulting in Siobahn feeling trapped in Easttown and maing her feel like she couldn’t go to Berkley because she needed to help her family, tying Dylan down to being a parent far before he was ready to, taking Drew and putting him in the home of a recovering addict and hoping it all worked out okay, trapping Kevin into an addiction that led to the taking of his own life. It creates adults like Kenny out of Dylan, Lori out of Siobahn, and, in her worst fears, turns Drew into Kevin. Mare is a walking paradox. She is the heart of the town, and the town is trying to rip her out.
Mare had done what she was supposed to. She grew up in Easttown, son of a cop, darling of the town- the Ladyhawk herself- she followed in her father’s footsteps, she took care of Kevin during his treatments as a child, she was connected with her community, and her son still left her, her family and her life was still in ruins, and her community was still just barely getting by, ravaged by addiction and teenage parents and crime and prowlers and all of the social complexities we fight about and they live.
Mare knew that with our social problems, there is more than one way to lose a person. She lost Kevin, and Kenny lost Erin, but Carrie also lost Drew due to addiction, and Mare lost Frank because of her inability to grieve her son’s death, and Deacon Mark lost his parish due to skepticism about his role as a priest, Erin and Dylan lost their futures due to an unexpected teenage pregnancy, Dylan’s parents lost their son due to poor choices, and Lois lost Ryan due to a rocky marriage, lies, and a misplaced sense of duty. And all these losses were in some way because of the system of tit-for-tat in place in Easttown.
The problem is not friends and families taking care of each other. The problem is that friends and family are oftentimes no longer enough for something like the opiate epidemic or mass poverty or teenage pregnancy in an age of social media. And when we think they are, the sense of duty they feel towards each other becomes more profound and misplaced, and their failures become even more intense and unforgivable.
As Mare put it, “Doing something great is overrated. Because then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is you’re just as screwed up as they are.”
The truth in the fiction of Mare of Easttown is that people are struggling to unravel all the ties that bind them to a place in life, station or location. And in their struggles, they turn to their loved ones and ask them to be great. When that person fails, they feel betrayed, and when they succeed, they believe it will be enough, when that one person can’t possibly be enough. After all, they are living in the same world as everyone else, struggling with the same issues, needing the same help.
In some ways the most unsettling moments in Mare of Easttown are when, after finding Katie Bailey in the attic, the town starts believing in Mare again. People ask for forgiveness, Dawn hugs her, she is reinstated into the force, but Mare is not triumphant in her vindication. She keeps going to therapy. She keeps trying to figure her life out, and she rejects the praise. She knows she can’t heal Easttown by herself, and more than her fear of Easttown rejecting her because she won’t play by their rules, is her fear that they will accept her once again and expect her to be a part of their broken system of broken people in a broken world.
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