Closed Cases

Mare of Easttown creator Brad Ingelsby delves into the origins of his acclaimed HBO series about a damaged, small-town Pennsylvania police detective trying to solve the mystery of a missing local girl while reckoning with a personal tragedy she’s fought hard to ignore.

©2021 HBO
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
June 24, 2021 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Brad Inglesby

I had the character of Mare... That was the most interesting thing to me. And then I realized, Well, that’s not going to get an audience to come back each week. So, how do I keep them coming?

Almost from its first frame, HBO’s seven-episode series Mare of Easttown strikes a tone that’s so candid and intimate, you feel at times you’re watching something you aren’t supposed to see. The constellation of characters inhabiting this fictitious small, gray town southwest of Philadelphia are real, visceral humans, none more than the title character, Mare. A thousand miles and lifetimes away from the sinking Titanic, period costumes, or anything remotely British, Kate Winslet disappears into the character of police detective Mare Sheehan, with a pitch-perfect Delco County, Pennsylvania accent, finger-combed hair, and a wardrobe based on a person who grabbed whatever was cleanest and nearby that morning. Mare is a local hero who drained the winning shot to win the high school basketball championship 25 years ago. She knows and is known by everyone in town. And while she’s enjoyed the enduring esteem that came with bringing glory to a place that’s never seen much, she’s also suffered through the high visibility of the troubles that have come to her life since that youthful triumph, including divorce, the unsolved case of a missing girl that has many questioning her skill as a detective and, most significantly, the tragic loss of her son.

Easttown and basketball are direct reflections of the show’s creator and writer, Brad Ingelsby, whose credits include 2013’s Rust Belt-set Out of the Furnace and 2020’s hoops-centric The Way Back. Ingelsby grew up in Berwyn, Pennsylvania (technically in the Delco-adjacent Chester County) playing basketball, the son of an acclaimed player and coach. But Mare’s locale, basketball, and even the murder mystery plot, are just a way for Ingelsby to get deeper into a nuanced, character-driven story about confronting grief and what happens when a parent’s worst fears come true.

Ingelsby spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the challenges of bringing both the murder mystery and Mare’s personal reckoning to a resolution simultaneously, why Kate Winslet, whom he had never met, agreed to do the show after reading only two episodes, and how a desperate desire to protect family drove Ingelsby to create Mare in the first place.

(Spoiler alert: The following Q&A contains key plot points from Mare of Easttown.)

This story is a murder mystery, but it seems to flow first and foremost from character, particularly Mare’s. How did this story start for you?

It started with Mare, really. In almost every script I’ve written on spec, it’s always been born out of a character. In this case, Mare. I was interested in a character that had a moment of glory early in her life. In this case, she was maybe 17 or 18 years old and had brought some glory into this community that is a community that is kind of short on moments of glory. Her life after that was sort of trying to live up to that moment and failing in many ways. As a mother, maybe, and when the story starts, as a detective, in that she hasn't been able to solve the case of Katie.

So it was really about this woman entrenched in this community and trying to balance the personal and the professional, which is really difficult, especially with a case as big as a murder investigation that involves the daughter of one of your friends. It just felt like that idea in terms of character was rich, fertile ground. But yeah, it really started with [that] and the idea of grief, this woman who can’t grieve the loss of her son, who obsesses over these cases as a way of deferring grief, really.

The murder mystery is great here, but to what extent did you see that construct as basically a vehicle, or a way into Mare’s story?

A hundred percent a vehicle to tell Mare’s story. All I really cared about was Mare’s character journey. I had the character of Mare, this idea of the son’s suicide, and these three generations of women living under one roof. That was the most interesting thing to me. And then I realized, Well, that’s not going to get an audience to come back each week. So, how do I keep them coming?

So I built out all of the character stuff, and then the murder mystery was really just a way to—I don’t want to say entertain, because it’s dark, tragic stuff—but it’s a way to keep the tension of the story alive, to keep the audience guessing, while also doing all this character stuff. The most interesting part of the series, in my opinion, is all the characters we got to explore and how they each moved past a trauma in their lives in some way. That was the most interesting part. The mystery was just the way to keep an audience coming around every week.

It definitely serves that purpose, but it also seems like that construct provides you this enormous leverage to get deeper into those characters that you created.

Yes, in this case. What the mystery did was, as you said, it gave you the genre expectation elements, the cliffhangers, the suspense. But what it did by tying a murder mystery to a person in Mare’s past—a case that involved a lot of people she grew up with, the people closest to her—it allowed us to explore those relationships in a way that was organic to the story. So now you have Mare, who’s got to question Dawn and go to Dawn’s house, which is a friendship that has lasted her entire life, and she has to go and question Lori, her best friend.

So, the mystery brought Mare into contact with people that helped illuminate their history together and illuminate Mare’s history. It allowed all these people in Mare’s life to come into contact with her again and help the audience understand what kind of trauma Mare has experienced.

That’s one of the coolest things here: Mare is moving inexorably towards solving the mystery, but she’s also moving inexorably toward this crushing personal reckoning. How difficult logistically was it to coordinate these twin culminations here?

That was the trickiest part. How do you have all these paths, how do they converge in an organic way that’s also a surprising reveal, but also an emotionally kind of crushing one? Yet it has to be crushing in a way that allows Mare to do the thing that the show is really about, which is facing the fact that she has to confront what’s haunting her. That’s really what the show is about. So it was tricky that all of these paths had to converge in a way that services the procedural, it services the surprise that an audience wants in these shows, but also it’s earned and it’s emotional.

You’ve kind of got to get the perfect storm there, right? What we had in Lori was an incredible actress in Julianne [Nicholson], who’s just unbelievable…You have a friend that stood by Mare in her time of need and now Lori’s son is being taken away in a different way than Mare’s, but the emotion of having a son taken away is similar… It was just about, how do we navigate all the twists and turns and the scenes and the payoffs, and how do we do that in a way that is going to give us the most impact at the end? What would be the devastating reveal that this woman, who’s been so vigilant about not confronting the death of her son, is going to get the walls broken down, and give her the courage to confront this thing? How do we make that so emotionally potent? And it felt like, Oh, it’s Lori, it’s her son. It’s these things that we can tie in emotions where an audience would understand and accept that Mare is ultimately ready to make this act.

With such a powerful kind of dual circle of closure there, how much did you have to be wary of being too tidy?

That’s a good question. There was always a tightrope walk that it couldn’t be too neat. This show is about messy lives and trauma and pain, so if the ending was too tidy, it would be a betrayal of everything that came earlier. At first, in the finale, we had this whole montage where we were bouncing around the town and giving each character a kind of ending chapter or just ending moments. What we realized was that structurally the most emotional ending was really just about these two women… If you remember in the finale, there’s the moment where John is arrested, and then we have this really quick montage where we check in with Dawn… And then we have Jess. We really had a short montage, and we moved it way up to the front so once we checked that off, then it was just about these two women… Once we made that move structurally, the episode just became way more emotional. All we care about at the end of this is—it’s Mare, it’s Lori. Those are the people we care about.

Sharing grief. You’ve written about things you personally know here—this region and basketball—but where does your interest in grief, the reckoning with grief come from?

It wasn’t even so much that. It was what I was going through in my own life when I was writing Mare’s character. I was experiencing some issues with my own son and these tics [he was having]. I was struggling with the anxieties that any parent would have trying to figure him out, as Mare says, in a very emotional way… I wasn’t able to figure him out. Mare’s flight in the show stemmed from my own anxieties and fears as a parent. That nugget was the catalyst that got me thinking about Mare.

I mean, listen, I’ve dealt with death, like all of us have, but I haven’t dealt with a trauma like Mare’s experience, luckily, knock on wood. But that nugget got me in that mindset. I was experiencing the fears and anxieties parents experience. I tried to use that to get inside Mare’s head. And then just reading as many books as I could about grief and trauma and trying to get my head around what a person who’s experienced the suicide of a child would be experiencing in these moments. So it started with something in my own life, and then it became a lot of research and digging around about what Mare would be experiencing in the aftermath of this.

That’s so interesting because the other thing that jumps out with the series is the theme of family, community, and particularly being a mother, or a parent.

Yes, yes, yes, 100 percent.

She’s not just the cop. She’s this broken, flawed maternal/parental character in even a larger community sense.

Yes, yes, yes. It’s funny you say that, because what attracted Kate to the role more than anything, was that, despite Mare’s choices or bad decisions morally or legally, that she was a person who was devoted to keeping a family together. That’s what Kate was drawn to because Kate has said to me, “I’m not anything like Mare. Mare is so different. But what we have in common, the common denominator is our desire to keep family.” So I always saw this as a family drama and then secondly, it was a murder mystery. It was about a family that was broken, and they had to come together in some way. And was it going to be perfect? No. And was it going to be quick? No.

But it was my hope that, at the end of the show, you felt like they were taking a few steps towards coming together again. It was going to be hard and messy and Mare’s never going to be easy to deal with, but you got the sense that it was about a family that had been split apart by this tragedy that really had to come together.

As a dad, it resonated with me—that existential terror of being a parent. It’s hidden in there, but it’s so immediately recognizable to anyone who has kids or even has been a kid.

Yes, exactly. Well, I think it is. Mare is probably a heightened, amplified version of that—she’s experienced the worst thing a parent could experience and is now really scared that it could happen again. That’s why we give her some latitude. It’s why the audience is always on her side, even when she makes bad decisions. There’s an understanding, as you said, every parent can empathize with the mother’s desire to keep her children close and to protect her children at any cost. And whether we agree with Mare’s decisions or not, ultimately, we understand them.

When, where, and how do you write? Are there any quirks to your actual ritual when you do?

Not really. I write from home. I have a little office in my house. I get up at six, I start writing, I write until about 11. I use the word “write” loosely. I usually sit around, I think about things, I’ll sketch some things in a notebook. I’ll listen to some music. I’ll try to get inspired by that. And then usually I would say, I’ll go for a workout, or run, or something after that. And then in the afternoon, I usually just hang out with my kids and my wife and try to come up with one or two ideas that I think could start the day in the morning so that when I get up the next day, I’m not trying to get inspiration, I have one or two ideas that I planted so I can hit the ground running, just so that every day feels like it’s productive. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way as we all know as writers. Sometimes you get up and you have an idea and go, “Wow, that sounded good last night, but now it’s got no legs.”

A lot of writers feel like they’re doing the hardest work writing when they’re away from the computer.

Totally, 100 percent. I think so. I mean I literally was just writing something that they asked me to write for The Hollywood Reporter or something, and I literally was saying the same thing. It’s like the actual writing, sitting down and typing is one percent of my time. The rest is just walking around, pacing the kitchen, walking around the streets, trying to crack it in your head. The actual writing is so little. It’s the conjuring in your mind, you’re editing in your head… By the time I sit down and actually write the scene, I’ve done 20 edits of it in my head. Now it’s just putting it on paper.

© 2021 Writers Guild of America West

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