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The finale of Mare of Easttown served up another big twist in its central mystery — and didn’t make the audience wait for it.
Following the cliffhanger in the prior episode, where Mare (Kate Winslet) is about to confront brothers John (Joe Tippett) and Billy Ross (Robbie Tann) — after her best friend and John’s wife, Lori (Julianne Nicholson) told Mare that Billy was Erin McMenamin’s killer — the series seems to downshift: John, not Billy, confesses to being both the father of Erin’s young son and her killer, though he’s suspiciously vague on a few details of how the girl died.
Mare is unable to leave the case alone, and a chance visit to Mr. Carroll (Patrick McDade) reveals the final link in the crime: His gun, the same kind used to kill Erin, went missing and was later returned to the locked shed where he keeps it. The only other person who had access was Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann), Lori and John’s middle schooler son.
The revelation, and Ryan’s subsequent confession, still comes a little more than halfway through the finale, a decision creator Brad Ingelsby made so that the close of the series can focus on Mare and Lori, and how Mare’s continued pursuit of the case after John’s confession fractures their friendship.
“It’s her best friend’s son, and this is completely devastating with Mare being the one to arrest him and solve the case, and what that means for her relationship with Lori,” Ingelsby told The Hollywood Reporter.
The time after Ryan’s confession, however, allows for a possible repair in their friendship, which Ingelsby said is the spine of the series: “That was interesting to me, that it would start and end with Mare and Lori. That was really a guide for me.”
Ingelsby spoke with THR about working backward from an endpoint, the eclectic list of influences on Mare of Easttown and whether — given how well the limited series has performed for HBO so far — he thinks there’s more story to be mined in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
The big twist in the finale comes about halfway through the episode and leads into a number of scenes that close out both the case and several character arcs. Why did you choose to build the episode that way?
It was really driven by the Mare-Lori relationship. The focus of the early scenes is that Mare’s relationship with Lori is fractured. She’s aware Lori was withholding the truth at the end of the last episode, and in Mare’s eyes that’s a betrayal. So it starts with these two women and their relationship, and then it becomes about the community again, and Mare’s way of life, and then narrows again to the two women. So that was interesting to me, that it would start and end with Mare and Lori. That was really a guide for me — start with the two of them, branch out into the case and the community again, then return to this one relationship.
In a broader sense, when you’re writing a serialized mystery like this, what’s your process in mapping out the red herrings and the big beats like the killing of Detective Zabel (Evan Peters) in episode five?
I didn’t start writing the show until I knew where it ended, so even before I wrote the first word, I knew it was going to be Ryan. This was a story about Mare having to confront the loss of her son, and I was aware that this is a stubborn person who refuses to confront this thing in her life. In order to get Mare to confront that, it has to be a hard-earned moment of hope at the end. So I thought about what’s the hardest way to get Mare to confront this thing, and it became, it’s her best friend’s son, and this is completely devastating with Mare being the one to arrest him and solve the case and what that means for her relationship with Lori. Once I was knew that’s where the ending was going to go, I had the bookends of the story in place, and I had to just strategically place the cliffhangers in the other episodes. It was about the order of revelation — when and how things were revealed. It was a challenge, and we were constantly having to shift things around, but we always knew where it had to end.
So starting at the end is how you landed on Ryan as Erin’s killer?
I had Mare and these characters in my head, but I’ve watched enough of these shows to know you have to have a good ending. An audience will tell us quickly if it’s good or not, but I just wanted to make sure that if I would go down the road and write a murder mystery, I wanted to be convinced that I could land the plane. I hope I did.
I appreciated that when the reveal comes, it was not that Ryan is a budding sociopath but rather a kid pushed beyond what he can handle.
Yeah. He arrived a breaking point and was trying to preserve his family unit. It somehow makes it more heartbreaking. The line that sticks with me is when Lori says, “He doesn’t even know how to use a gun.” It’s so outside of him to have done this. It’s just a tragedy, really.
You and the actors have talked a lot in interviews about the specificity of the accents in the show, but I’m curious about the sense of place in Delaware County — it’s right next to Philadelphia but also feels like its own world. Can you talk about the mindset in a place like Easttown?
As I was writing it, it was a way of capturing the close ties the characters have. My wife grew up in Aston, and I grew up in Berwyn, which is in [neighboring] Chester County, but I had lots of relatives in Delaware County, and that’s where my wife grew up and where her parents still live, and a couple of houses down is her uncle. I wanted to portray these communities in a way that was honest — this is how close these people are. They’ve grown up here, they raised their kids here, and they’ve stayed here. It does feel like a million miles away, even though it’s a half-hour outside the city. I was trying to create a sense of place that felt almost like a bubble, because the claustrophobia of it all helps in terms of the case and the rising tension. This is all happening within [the space of] a few miles. It was also trying to be true to the area and the relationships and trying to use this bubble idea to heighten the genre and use it to our advantage.
These are places that may have had one industry in town or a factory that’s now closed down, but it’s not like white trash. These are people who have jobs, who are going to work and who have homes, and I wanted to live in that space — hard-working people who are struggling to pay the bills but are going to work every day. That is very much the Delaware County I know, and that’s where I wanted to land in portraying the community.
The pressure on Mare finally seems to get released toward the end of the finale — was that a necessary thing, given all she had to go through before?
We had to end the show on a grace note, or it would have been way too sad and heavy. We always knew that at its core, it’s a show about a woman who hasn’t grieved the loss of her son and has to confront this thing. We knew it was going to end there, but I hope audiences leave feeling hopeful about Mare and the community. That was what was so important about this ascension at the end — she’s going up to finally do this thing, step up and do this thing. I do hope audiences leave the series thinking Mare is going to be OK.
Do you feel like Mare and Lori have fully reconciled, or was their final scene just a first step?
I think it’s a first step. If you were to visit them in a year or two, they would be — obviously events like this change relationships, but they’re friends. I think Mare has Lori’s back and Lori has Mare’s back, and that’s the relationship. [That scene] was the first step toward relationship building.
What were your influences in writing the show? The interlocking relationships and small-town feel reminded me of Broadchurch.
Absolutely Broadchurch, The Killing was one, True Detective. But also I would say Breaking Away, because it was a portrait of a community in a very specific part of the country, a deep dive into a very specific place. That’s a movie I’ve loved since I first saw it. Boogie Nights — it’s completely different, but it’s an ensemble piece that gives each character a level of humanity that I think is really incredible. So there were a number of influences, but I think Broadchurch did it best — they were able to have a mystery but never lose their commitment to characters and emotion. That’s what resonated with that show.
This is a limited series, but it’s also done quite well for HBO and there are open ends at least in terms of the characters. Could you see there being more material here?
It was written as a limited, and it ends — there’s no more mystery to be solved. Kate and I, if we could crack a story that we were really proud of and felt like it was a deserving second chapter in Mare’s journey, then maybe. I haven’t cracked that yet; I don’t know what that is, honestly. But if there was a world in which we were convinced, this is a continuation of the story that honors the first chapter and does things an audience will appreciate, then maybe. But as of right now, I have no idea what that could be.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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