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Only in the third decade of the 21st century could an HBO murder mystery, starring Oscar winner Kate Winslet, drop on a random Sunday in April without months of fanfare heralding its arrival. That Mare of Easttown managed to come out of nowhere before its successful seven-week run is proof positive that there is now far too much programming to even pretend to keep tabs. But isn’t it nice to be surprised?
Created and written by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (The Way Back) and directed by frequent HBO player Craig Zobel (The Leftovers, Westworld), Mare of Easttown tells the story of the eponymous police detective, already beleaguered by personal tragedy, trying to solve the murder of a local girl. Its popularity was almost instantaneous, garnering a Saturday Night Live spoof and luring 4 million viewers in its finale weekend. Now, with the show up for 16 Emmys, TV newcomer Ingelsby tells THR about the lessons learned on his first series — and his thoughts on the calls for a second installment of the limited series.
Assuming you came into this with a familiarity with the murder-mystery genre, what about the genre did you want to lean into and what did you want to avoid?
It’s a mix of hugging the tropes of the genre. As a writer, you have to acknowledge and accept that viewers come into a murder mystery to be guessing. You have to satisfy those needs and expectations that bring an audience to the table. This isn’t necessarily a subversion of the genre, because many other mystery shows have done it, but the idea was we really wanted to do a deep dive into characters, community, shared history and trauma. There’s a procedural element to this show, but hopefully we’re also nimbly bringing viewers into the lives of the people in the community in a way that you get wrapped up in the characters emotionally.
Anecdotally, it seems like viewers liked the ending of Mare. Do you think there’s too much emphasis on endings these days, and the idea of “sticking the landing”?
You always ask yourself, “What’s the takeaway?” right? Not that the show was trying to preach or be about one life lesson. That’s not interesting to me. There’s too much emphasis on endings, probably, but it’s a reality that I was acutely aware of. If you spend even hours in a world, in a mystery, and the goal is “Let’s let you get wrapped up and twisted in knots” — when you get the reveal, it’s not satisfying. I think what viewers are looking for when you talk about sticking the landing — and who knows if we did, there’s going to be people that say you didn’t — is just a story that’s well-told and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated as an audience member. It’s not about “If you blinked in episode one, you missed the guy in the back of the bar who was the killer.” It’s about the audience walking away feeling like the end was a fitting conclusion to the hours that came prior.
This is your first TV series. What surprised you about the experience?
It was my first experience where I was really heavily involved in the edit. Everyone says there are a few ways to tell a story: in the writing, in the making and in the editing. So here I really learned that in the editing, you can make up for a multitude of sins. Look, there are still a lot of subplots in there, but we learned in the edit that we just didn’t have enough room for all of them.
Were you prepared for the amount of attention that writers get in TV? If a show pops up, it’s the creator who everyone wants to hear from. And I feel like it doesn’t happen that way in film.
I was not prepared. I think I’m still trying to get prepared. The truth is, I kind of liked the anonymity of just writing movies. I tend to be more of an introverted person, a bit shy. And so it’s been a bit of an adjustment. I had never done it before, any of it — the production, being on set every day, editing, [postproduction], working with the composer. So, it’s all just getting thrown in the water and learning how to swim. If anything, it’s taught me to have an opinion, to have a vision and to know what the show is about and be really passionate and vigilant about maintaining that.
A Saturday Night Live spoof is kind of the ultimate proof that you’ve made it. I can only assume you’ve seen yours?
People have been like, “Were you mad or offended by that?” (Laughs.) Truly, all of us loved that. Kate and our producer Mark [Roybal] were texting like, “Maybe this has reached a wider audience …” You never know what’s going to happen when you put something out there. I’ve worked on enough projects over the years where I’ve thought, “Oh, this is great!” Then it gets out there and no one really watches. This was a moment of validation.
Recognizing that I’m part of the problem for asking you this, what are your thoughts about all the calls for a potential second season?
That’s a tough one. It’s something that I’ve chatted with Kate about. I felt very convinced in season one that we had a mystery that was going to be surprising, yet equally emotional, and a character arc that was very carefully constructed. I think the trick with season two is: How can you outdo that? I don’t know that you’ll ever be able to re-create that level of emotion. What does a second season look like? What’s the deserving second chapter that can fulfill that murder-mystery need but also tell the second chapter of Mare’s personal journey? I think there’s enough stories, in terms of mystery, that you’ll be able to create a new one. But it’s the personal journey that scares me a little bit, because we used a lot of the tools in the toolbox in season one. That’s a very long-winded way of saying that I don’t really know if there’s a season two.
It’s got to be a tricky thing to negotiate because, in success and especially in Hollywood, there is always the plea for more.
I haven’t had that lightbulb “Oh, there it is!” moment. It’s a shame too, because I really care about the characters and I would love to write Helen [Jean Smart] and Mare and Siobhan [Angourie Rice] again. That’s the dilemma. If I didn’t care about the characters so much, I would be happy to leave them and never think about them again. I’d love to give them a second life. I just don’t know what it is.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Kate Winslet? Check. A highbrow murder mystery? Check. Regional American accents? Check. Mare of Easttown satisfies so many of the traditional requirements for an Emmy-worthy miniseries. And in any other year, that would be more than enough. But the limited series field is by far the most competitive it’s ever been. Both Mare and Kate will have to beat back the women, real and fictional, of I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit and WandaVision if either expects to come out on top. — M.O.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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