The following contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown through episode 4.
The show offers no shortage of suspects. Seemingly every single character on Mare of Easttown has both cause and some sort of backwards reasoning for killing the innocent young mother played by Cailee Spaeny. Mare’s ex-husband Frank (David Denman) is rumored to have fathered Erin’s son DJ (though that theory is disproven in this week’s episode 4 “Poor Sisyphus”). Erin’s ex-boyfriend Dylan (Jack Mulhern) and his awful new girlfriend Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing) clearly want Erin out of the way. Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle) has a questionable history at previous Catholic parishes. Then there’s the fact that successful author from out of town Richard Ryan is played by Guy “please cast me as the bad guy” Pearce.
Even Mare’s daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) is pretty shifty – having technically been the last known person to see Erin alive. She’s also still recovering from the death of her brother and seems to have a strange streak of cruelty based on the bizarre events with her ex-girlfriend that leads to her grandmother sustaining a concussion in episode 4.
But what if Siobhan didn’t kill Erin – nor Richard Ryan, nor Mark Burton, nor Dylan, Brianna, John Ross, Father Dan Hastings, Chief Carter, or anyone else in Easttown? What if…no one killed Erin McMenamin? Allow me to explain.
Crime dramas, the good ones at least, are very rarely about the crime itself. Instead crime dramas are useful narrative vessels to explore the souls of characters and their homes. People’s personalities are undoubtedly at their most heightened after a traumatic communal event. Stories about a murder within a community allow for a storyteller to really examine the nature of said community.
As its title implies, Mare of Easttown is particularly interested in both the people and the place it’s depicting. The Delaware County region of eastern Pennsylvania has often gone unexamined in movies and television but Mare of Easttown creator and native Pennsylvanian Brad Inglesby uses the show as an opportunity to portray the little-seen people who live in opioid-ravaged communities southwest of Philly.
What Inglesby and the show thus far seems to be communicating is that life is much smaller, yet no less intense, in the hilly, forgotten areas of America. Easttown is a very insular place. Mare Sheehan was a basketball star at the local high school and opted never to leave, becoming a detective to serve the town she’d spent her whole life in. Mare’s life is hopelessly wrapped up in the lives of her peers. The fact that she can’t solve the missing person’s case of her friend Dawn Bailey’s daughter, Katie, is viewed as a personal slight rather than a professional failing.
When someone is breaking into homes in Easttown, Mare knows exactly who to look for because the husband of her friend just happens to have a heroin problem. Even Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), of the more sophisticated county police department, solved his big career-making case by understanding the work schedule of one of his peers.
The people of Easttown know each other intimately, and that’s why when one of their own turns up dead, so many of them seem like viable suspects. Just about everyone in Easttown has history with Erin McMenamin and her family, and therefore just about everyone seems to have motive and opportunity to have killed her. That level of knowledge of one another’s lives is a distinct advantage of living in a small community, but it also means that solving a murder case is an emotionally fraught endeavor. In fact, some cases that look like murder might not be murder at all.
Why is Mare Sheehan so certain that Erin McMenamin has been murdered? Admittedly, the signs are there. Erin’s body is discovered at the bottom of rocky ledges in a trickling river. She is missing a finger, has a nasty gash on her head, and is naked save for her underwear bottoms. Mare quickly identifies the scene as a murder and the gash on Erin’s head as a gunshot wound. We never really have any reason to doubt her as this is a murder show after all, and Kate Winslet usually knows what she’s talking about. There’s also the fact that Erin’s murder comes in the wake of Katie Bailey’s disappearance. Surely, there is a serial killer in the community killing young women.
But as the ending of episode 4 reveals, that may not necessarily be the case. Katie Bailey is alive, kidnapped by a local creep and imprisoned within the walls of Bernie’s Tavern. Not only that, but her kidnapper has abducted another local sex worker named Missy Sager. There is certainly a violent criminal on the loose, but it would appear that his M.O. does not match up perfectly with Erin McMenamin’s “murder.”
At the beginning of episode 3, the Easttown coroner shares her findings with Mare and Zobel. The autopsy identifies the time of Erin’s death sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. (pretty precise for a small town coroner, but we’ll leave that aside for now). There are no tears or abrasions present on Erin’s body. They also found no evidence of sexual assault. The coroner theorizes that Erin’s finger was severed by a bullet consistent with Mare’s theory, but they did not find any gunshot residue. Most importantly: the coroner notes that the bruises on the body are consistent, meaning they all happened at the same time.
Read that last bit again: the bruises all happened at the same time. Doesn’t that sound like… a fall? Erin was found at the bottom of a cliff with consistent blunt force trauma spread evenly across her body. The only three things that suggest a murder are: Mare’s theory that the gash on Erin’s head was from a bullet, the missing finger, and the removal of Erin’s clothes. And each of those things could have an explanation beyond murder.
Mare could merely be wrong about Erin’s head wound and the small town coroner goes along with the seasoned detective’s theory. A bear or another animal could have bitten Erin’s finger off post-mortem or it could have just been wrenched away from the violence of her fall. The lack of clothing is harder to explain away but perhaps Erin did indeed plan with hooking up with someone in the woods that night.
In episode 3, Mare theorizes that Erin and her assailant disrobed elsewhere and that’s when Erin was killed by a gunshot, even though none of the area’s partying teens reported hearing gunfire. The ever-helpful county bullet-sniffing dogs do find evidence of gunshot residue and Mare then finds a bullet lodged in a tree. But do you know what that means? Someone shot a gun…in a rural area…in America. All trees in Delaware County should be presumed to have bullets lodged inside them until proven otherwise.
Mare of Easttown excels in getting the viewer wrapped up in the local drama of all its characters. The town and the citizens within it are richly realized. Each new revelation about a suspect in the Erin McMenamin case feels deeply personal, because how could it not? Ultimately, the show could be banking on viewers making the same mistakes that its detectives do.
Easttown is primed to accept a murder of one its youngest and brightest because why wouldn’t that happen in this shitty world? The murder of Erin McMenamin is tragic but it gives Mare and the people of Easttown one more opportunity to solve a mystery and make things right – to bring resolution to the Katie Bailey case.
Sometimes, however, there isn’t a boogeyman on the other end of a dead body – just a slippery rock and some shit fucking luck.