Warning: contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown episodes 1-6.
Crime mystery dramas have various mechanisms for holding back essential witness information until a final episode. The coma trick – whereby a witness spends most of the series lying unresponsive in a hospital bed and then wakes up just in time to provide the penultimate episode cliff-hanger – is tried and tested. Another fix is to make the witness a criminal/adulterer/relapsing addict who stays quiet about what they know because it would also incriminate them. Alternatively, you could just make the key witness a person nobody would think to interrogate until the last moment, i.e. a kid.
That appears to be Mare of Easttown’s approach. Cameron Mann’s character Ryan, the son of Lori and John Ross, was a background presence until the series’ pivotal fifth episode. That’s when he exploded in the school cafeteria and attacked the bully who’d been humiliating his sister Moira, who has Down Syndrome. When his mother Lori came to collect him from school, Ryan broke down in tears. After seeing her husband John pressure Ryan into keeping a secret the night before, Lori pieced together that Ryan had seen his dad cheating on her.
“Is he doing it again? Is your dad doing it again?”
Before the cafeteria outburst, Ryan was portrayed as studious and sensible, often seen doing his homework, in episode one even on a Friday night. He’s a trustworthy kid, in short, and would likely make a reliable witness. When Lori asked him if he’d seen his dad cheating, and if it was with the same woman as before (this isn’t John’s first cheating rodeo), Ryan nodded through his tears but didn’t say anything. That was enough for Lori to believe that John was seeing “Sandra” – a character we’ve never met – and to throw John out of the family home.
When Lori told her best friend Mare about John having started things up again with Sandra, she explained, “Ryan saw John with her. Poor thing had been holding that secret for months, must have been killing him.” All of that though, is based on Lori’s assumption. The potential truth is much darker.
“This is all my fault and I’m going to fix it.”
When John left the family home, he promised Ryan that he would fix things. Again, Ryan said nothing. Affected by events at home, and by the murder of his second cousin Erin, Ryan barely talks in Mare of Easttown, but he has clearly reacted at key points in the story. In episode five, for instance, when the Ross family are over at Mare’s having pizza, Lori announces that Erin’s father Kenny has asked them to adopt Erin’s baby son DJ. Ryan stays quiet but looks instantly unhappy, and his reaction could well be more than that of a boy unwilling to welcome a new child into the family.
In episode six, after Mare has discovered that Billy bought Erin her heart-shaped pendant engraved with the date of the family reunion, Mare shows up at the Ross house looking for Billy. When he’s asked to leave the room, Ryan seems alert to the significance of the conversation. That kid knows much more than he’s letting on. But what does he know?
“I’m holding him accountable, Pop. Someone needs to for once in his goddamn life.”
In episode six, John’s brother Billy goes through a strange transition, from obstinate and angry to distraught and subdued. When John first comes to stay with him and their father, Billy is hostile and tells his brother that he only has himself to blame. “You made a mess of your life. You couldn’t keep your dick in your pants. Now you clean it up.” He makes digs about John never being held accountable for his mistakes and refuses to help him move.
Later that same episode, after John tells him that he was seen by their father covered in blood on the night of Erin’s murder, Billy suddenly becomes tractable, confessing to the crime and agreeing to go fishing with John one last time. After Billy discovers a gun at the bottom of John’s tackle box, he’s wary of his brother, sensing a threat. What changed?
“I’m ready to confess.”
The episode six cliff-hanger offered up a crucial piece of evidence from Erin’s friend Jess, who’d salvaged a crucial photograph from Erin’s destroyed diaries. By that point, Mare, Lori and the Chief believed that Billy was both Erin’s killer and the father of her baby. Erin, in need of cash to pay for her son’s ear operation, had apparently threatened to tell people about him having impregnated his underage first-cousin-once-removed, so Billy shot her to keep her quiet. The mystery photograph, however, obviously suggests another scenario.
Taking Ryan’s behaviour into account, the most likely scenario right now is one in which John Ross was sleeping with Erin, and that’s what Ryan witnessed and has been keeping secret. Ryan was present at the May 2017 family reunion where the incestuous and underage relationship started between Erin and one of her father’s cousins. Did he witness something between Erin and his dad as far back as then?
Okay, it was Billy Ross’ name on that heart-shaped pendant, Erin was staying in Billy’s cabin that weekend, later, she lived in his basement, and he was the one seen covered in blood on the night she was killed, but none of that rules John out as a suspect. The morning Erin’s body was discovered, Lori told Mare that John was “dead to the world,” adding, “he must have had some fun at Frank’s last night!” On the night of Erin’s murder, John was last seen among Frank’s engagement party group at the bar where Mare first met Richard. Perhaps Billy did kill Erin, but John was the one having sex with her? Perhaps both men were incestuously interfering with her? Perhaps John has a hold over Billy and convinced him to confess, and is currently planning to kill him with that hidden gun so the truth will never come out.
One thing could prove to be the key to unravelling it all: Ryan Ross finally spilling the secret of what he knows.
Mare of Easttown concludes next Sunday the 30th of May on HBO and on Monday the 31st of May on Sky Atlantic.