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The Catholicism of ‘Mare of Easttown’

Mare of Easttown

Michele K. Short | HBO

David Ives - published on 07/16/21

A suspicious-seeming deacon, who seems to fit popular culture's idea of a clergyman, is a red herring for the shockingly Catholic conclusion to the HBO series.

(The following includes spoilers for some of the storylines in Mare of Easttown, though certainly not all of them. For those who have not watched the show and wish to do so with no foreknowledge, be warned.)

It was the collective groan heard across all of Catholic social media. It came as Mare of Easttown, HBO’s multiple Emmy-nominated crime-drama, introduced Mark Burton, an ordained deacon recently reassigned to Easttown’s St. Michael’s Church following sexual misconduct allegations at his previous parish. With a forlorn sigh of resignation, Catholic viewers everywhere, at least those who did not immediately turn the show off, steeled themselves for yet another lazily written character based on the tired trope of a perverted Catholic clergyman.

Only that’s not what happened.

But before we get to what did happen, let’s go back a little. Mare of Easttown stars the much-lauded (and Emmy-nominated) Kate Winslet as the titular Mare Sheehan, a once-upon-a-time high-school basketball hero and the current best detective in the small suburb of Philadelphia in which she lives. However, as we find Mare at the start of the show, things have been going badly. Mare’s inability to cope with the suicide of her eldest child has led to the dissolution of her marriage, the disintegration of her relationship with her remaining child, and a nasty custody battle for her grandson with her drug addicted former daughter-in-law. In short, Mare’s life is a complete mess.

Amidst all this personal turmoil, Mare is called upon to solve the brutal murder of an unwed teenage mother. As the investigation proceeds and the list of potential suspects lengthens, we are quick to learn that the lives of many of the other residents of Easttown are just as broken as Mare’s. Of the friends remaining from Mare’s basketball days, one’s marriage is near collapse due to infidelity, one is dealing with a petty criminal family member, and one is still reeling from the possible kidnapping of her daughter, a case for which she publicly berates Mare for not yet being able to solve even though a full year has passed.

And then there’s that new deacon we mentioned over at the local parish where Mare’s cousin is the priest. Deacon Mark seems to have a calling to work with teenagers and is often visited by them when they need a sympathetic ear to listen to their problems. However, it doesn’t take Easttown’s best detective long to uncover the fact that Mark was previously accused of inappropriate conduct with a teenaged girl. Though nothing was ever proven, the prior accusation against Mark certainly raises red flags for Mare’s current case, especially when he begins to act a little fishy when questioned about his close relationship with the deceased girl. Small towns being what they are, it isn’t long before most people know about the deacon’s past and, in one of the series more shocking moments, some of them decide the best course of action is to confront Mark in a public street and beat him severely.

Well, why shouldn’t they? If we’ve learned one thing from Hollywood over the past two decades, it’s that at least 99% of all Catholic clergymen are degenerate child molesters. So, even if Deacon Mark turns out to be innocent of the murder, he probably still deserves a public beating, right? 

No, of course not, but it’s to the credit of the show’s writers that they understand the sad state of the portrayal of the Church in modern pop culture. As depressing as the fact may be, they know audiences have come to expect that anyone who shows up in a movie or TV series wearing a clerical collar will likely be debauched in some form or other, and they use those preconceptions to the story’s advantage. Not only does it provide them with a convenient red herring for the murder mystery, but the completely innocent deacon’s reaction to his treatment at the hands of Easttown’s residents becomes central to the resolution of main characters’ story arcs.

By the time the true killer is revealed, Easttown’s social structure is on the verge of crumbling. There’s been too much pain, misunderstanding, and betrayal. So, it comes as a shockingly Catholic moment when a bruised and battered Deacon Mark takes to the ambo to deliver a homily on the need for not only forgiveness, but reconciliation as well. He urges those attending the Mass to do as he will, to reach out to those neighbors still too hurt or ashamed to return and make peace with them. For Mare and the others, it’s just the impetus they needed to start cleaning up the mess of their lives. And, hey, it’s not a bad message for the rest of us either. After all, when The Mass is ended, we are all called to go forth and … do what?

So, go ahead Mare of Easttown, take your Emmys. For subverting our expectations and giving us something ultimately positive, you earned them.

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