Saturday, July 10, 2021

"Our Job Is Only to Love"


"Binge-watching" has become an apt, if horribly inelegant, expression for an experience increasingly common in this past pandemic year. Although Mare of Easttown premiered on HBO back in April, I only recently discovered it. And, as befits the discovery of something so beautiful and precious, I immediately watched all seven episodes on HBO-on-Demand over the course of two days. The way each episode leaves one in suspense, eager to learn what happens next, only increases the likelihood that the viewer will want to go right to the next episode.

Mare of Easttown which features an amazingly fantastic cast, stars Kate Winslet as Mare, a personally traumatized, grieving police detective, obsessively pursuing a murder case (and the possibly related, possibly not, cases of two missing girls) in a Delaware County, PA, community, where everyone seems to know everyone else and many are related by blood or marriage. The struggling detective whose personal life seems to be completely falling apart is almost as familiar as the common plot line. But the viewer should not be lulled by this familiarity. Winslet's acting is amazing, as is the creative script and story. We watch Mare go about her police work with a studied intensity, which parallels the intensity of emotion bottled up inside her as she struggles with her own familiar dysfunction, pain, and grief. The show itself parallels her intensity, taking us on a veritable roller coaster through a diverse array of suspects, while digging deeply into the personal, familial, and communal pain that permeates this sad "blue-collar" community.

The latter element gives the story an especially poignant contemporary resonance. The setting, somewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs is, of course, Joe Biden country. Clearly, it could also be Trump country (or would be, if politics were actually directly addressed in the series, which it never explicitly is). The beautiful image of simple brick homes, their chimneys all lined up row by row and seen against the melancholy winter light, serves as the stage on which the multiple intersecting personal tragedies, familial and social dysfunctions, and increasing cultural collapse of "blue-collar" culture in post-industrial decline are dramatically displayed in families devastated by divorce, drugs, too much alcohol, and an aimlessness that seems inexorably inclined to violence.

On top of all that, but deeply embedded in it is religion, reflected in the (largely Irish-American) Catholic culture that permeates the community. Or does it? When the story starts, Mare doesn't go to church anymore, but the parish priest is her cousin,  and his assistant deacon has problems of his own, that  impact the investigation.  Crucially, the story is framed by two Sunday Mass scenes, the basic ritual of Catholic belonging, in which practically the entire community is (somewhat improbably) all gathered together, listening to two thematically significant sermons. This religious framing somewhat parallels the secular framing of a story of separation, with Mare's separation from her lost son at the start and another traumatic separation of a mother from her son at the end, with all sorts of other sorrowful separations in between. 

Given the cast's powerful performances and the great script they have to work with, the series could conceivably work quite well without the religion angle. In an interview, Brad Ingelsby, the series' creator, recalled his own Pennsylvania Catholic family background. Of course, the Church has long been one of the anchors of such communities, and 50 years ago those scenes where everyone is assembled at Mass might merely have reflected an ambient social reality, regardless of personal faith. Today, religion is as much a post-industrial casualty as are good-paying lifelong jobs, stable marriages, deferred gratification, and sobriety. Even so, the church scenes serve a very valuable purpose in showing most of the community together in one place, internalizing and reacting to their personal and commonly shared pains. 

But those scenes seem like more than merely an historical-cultural relic, a remnant of the good old days (which weren't really so good, as we also learn) - not unlike Mare's local semi-heroic status as the star (25 years earlier) on a winning high-school basketball team. Not is it just that past is always with us. In the second sermon, which captures the community after a year of turmoil that has exposed both individual and collective anguish, Deacon Mark tells his congregation, "Our job is only to love." This sets the stage for some final reconciliation - a hint of the power perennially present in the cultural remnant that is the Church, to the extent that she can remain empathetically rooted in the morally messy lives of those for whom the message of mercy is intended.

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