The 'Mare of Easttown' Creator Explains That Devastating Final Twist

·22-min read
Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

This post contains big spoilers for the finale of Mare of Easttown.

From the first episode of Mare of Easttown seven weeks ago, theories of who killed Erin and why spread across the internet, in conversations over dinner, in phone calls with our moms. But not even the most active Reddit sleuth was prepared for the moment Erin McMenamin and Ryan Ross, only 13 years old, wrestled over a loaded gun in a desolate park, only to have it accidentally go off. Two scared, broken children—family to one another—struggling against things far greater than themselves, just trying to make things right. However you imagined the mystery at the center of Mare of Easttown would be solved, Sunday’s finale was devastating.

Series creator Brad Ingelsby would have preferred no one on the internet guess the ending right, but he considers it a success in storytelling if they did. “It was tricky, because I was bummed that they were onto us. But in a way I think I was okay with it, because the thing we were most afraid of honestly was that you would get to the end and have everyone go, ‘Wait, who's that? I didn't even see him. He wasn't a part of the show. He didn't have any meaningful part in the show emotionally.’ [Ryan] had to be at least enough of a suspect that it didn't come totally out of the blue. And so it was always a tightrope walk.”

It was a tightrope walk tremendously done, too. The series finale brought a poignant resolution to the captivating murder mystery. And while its viewership invested in Mare of Easttown because of the round, troubled characters and the rich portrait of a lifelike tight-knit town, it was the murder mystery at the centre of the story that had fans bowled over from week to week in search of clues.

Esquire zoomed with Ingelsby before the finale, and talked foreshadowing of the final twist throughout the season, whether a Season Two is on the table, and of course, Evan Peters’ show stopping drunk scene.

Esquire: I know you grew up in Pennsylvania yourself, and of course the location plays a huge role in the show. Why did you want to make a series set in Pennsylvania?

I think I wanted to talk about how I grew up, I think that was such a goal of the show. Obviously, the story is not about my life in any way. It wouldn't be very interesting. I didn't grow up in a family of cops, wasn't involved in a murder investigation. But I think the rhythms of life, the interior lives of these characters, the homes that they live in, the interactions they have around a table are very much a part of how I grew up. I think as I've gotten older, as a writer, trying to go back and connect with the people I grew up with, and the friends, and the relatives, and examine that life in a way. It was a way to talk about how I grew up, and the way I grew up, and the rhythms of life in a very specific part of this country. And so that was interesting to me. Also, I don't have to do a lot of research on that stuff, it comes easy to me because I lived it. I lived with these people and these relationships are very close to me. So the research part of it was quite easy. It was my life. I was able to tap into the memories of growing up and utilise them to help shape a story.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

The ending was so thoughtful, because you have a murder mystery, but then the twist adds depth, and emotion, and real thematic significance. I imagine it’s challenging to find meaning in a suspenseful murder mystery, and you did it so well.

I'm glad you say that. I hope that's how people react when they see it, because for me it was always a story about a woman that has to confront this thing that's been haunting her. That's what the whole show is about, right? It's this woman who's deferred grief. The way that she has deferred grief is by obsessing over these cases, it's Katie and then Erin and ultimately the ending is, "Okay, there's no more cases. So you have to confront the thing that's been haunting you." Also, I wanted it to speak to a theme that I was trying to weave into the story, which is mercy and compassion. It was written in the time where I felt like this country had lost a bit of its way in terms of the compassion and kindness that I value. I wanted to tap into that in this community and make the ending about mercy. In fact, it's in the homily at the end: you have to reach out to people in need and the people that have been pushed out of the circle. In this case, the circle is Easttown, and the call is for humanity, decency, and mercy. Obviously, that plays out with Mare and Lori.

I guess the real challenge was how do you make the ending emotional? There's going to be a procedural and you're going to arrest somebody, all of these stories have that, but it has to be incredibly emotional. And so our goal was to have it be emotional in a way that was also incredibly sad after you get to the reveal of Ryan. But then also incredibly hopeful, in that Mare is going to in some way move on with her life while also taking care of the people in the community that need her most, which in this case is Lori. I'm glad it worked for you.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

Was there something that drew you specifically to writing about motherhood in the context of a town like Easttown?

I grew up around a lot of women. My mom had a bunch of sisters and every Thursday night we'd go to my grandmother's house in Drexel Hill and I'd sit at the table. I grew up with a stutter as a kid, a really awful stutter, so I didn't like to talk very much. I still don't to be honest, but I grew up with a really bad stutter as a kid. And so a lot of my childhood was spent around women and just listening to their conversations and just admiring the ways in which they were able to take care of their families. I've always had a deep admiration for the women in my life, my aunts, my sisters, and my mother. I just really feel like that's such an important part of my life. It felt interesting to me to explore these, all the female relationships in the community. Really all the men are kind of jerks and the women are the ones holding everything together, which I think is probably true in a lot of ways. The women are the ones that are holding this community together in a lot of ways, and the men are disrupting it, and it's the women that have to bond together. It's the female relationships in the show that I think are the strongest and the most emotional. And I wanted to depict those relationships in a way that was honest, and also depict the struggles of motherhood. Mare sees herself as a failure as a mother. We tried to do that in a way that was honest too, where she could say to the therapist, "Hey, I didn't understand my son. I had to step away from him." That’s honest but also heartbreaking. And so it was a challenge, but I felt most interested in exploring all the women in this community, more so than the men.

You spoke a little bit about mercy before, and I was going to ask what you intend for the audience to take away from the storyline with the deacon.

Mercy was always this idea I had in my mind. If you go back to the early scenes, it was like, Erin's a young girl that hasn't been shown any mercy in her life, right? She's living in this house. She's a little bit isolated. Now she's a teen mom who all of her friends have moved on with their lives. The one act of mercy she's given is from Siobhan in the fight in the woods. Siobhan comes to her rescue and says, "Hey, are you okay? I'll take you home." But she's so distraught by life and by her situation that she doesn't know how to accept that act of mercy. And so she walks away from it. That's not what leads to her demise, of course, but later that night she's killed.

So at the end of the series, I thought Mare having mercy on Lori also allows herself to have mercy on herself. That ultimate act at the end is forgiveness, in a way, of herself, to arrive at some next level of healing in her own life. I think the deacon, we cut a couple of lines out of the homily, but what I wanted to show was that this is the initial time he's come back and spoken to the congregation. There were people who didn't want him there that rejected him and didn't want him to be a part of the church after the lie of the bike, but that the community was starting to cautiously embrace him. And that itself was an act of mercy. And then it's sort of the ripple effect that because they've accepted him, he gives this speech that triggers something in Mare that leads her to Lori. And going to Lori leads Mare up to the attic, to have mercy on herself at the end.

I read that you knew the ending of the show from when you started writing it. Looking back, there are definitely clues. Did you read any of the fan speculation about the ending online over the past couple of weeks?

I tried to avoid it, but every once in a while I'd get an email. I know towards the end people were definitely onto us more than they had been. It was tricky, because I was bummed that they were onto us. But in a way I think I was okay with it, because the thing we were most afraid of honestly was that you would get to the end and have everyone go, "Wait, who's that? I didn't even see him. He wasn't a part of the show. He didn't have any meaningful part in the show emotionally." We were actually most afraid that you would get to the end and have the audience go, "Oh, you just tricked us because you never showed him and you never engaged us with him in any meaningful way."

So I was convinced that when you got to the end, you had to know him enough. He had to be at least enough of a suspect that it didn't come totally out of the blue. And so it was always a tightrope walk of how do we have enough of Ryan, but not too much of Ryan? And so yeah, I mean there will definitely be people who say, "Oh, I knew it was him." So I'm sad and also okay with that. But yeah, I knew the ending. The second person we cast in the whole show was Julianne, and that's because we knew what she would have to go through in the last episode, and how emotional it would be, and how you would need a great actress who could really effortlessly be a part of the show, but not stick out too much, and then be able to deliver. She's incredible in the last episode, what she has to go through and the way she delivers it, she's just such an incredible actress. We knew that in episode seven you would need an actress to deliver a great performance and Julianne knocked it out of the park.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

She was fantastic. There was so much extreme fan speculation that there was one theory about how she was wearing a Dave Matthews Band t-shirt with a woman on it. And people were like, "That's the same position Erin was found in. Lori’s the murderer."

Oh my god, that's crazy. I laugh at that because I had an early conversation with our costume designer about the t-shirts and what people would be wearing. And I was like, when I was growing up, every summer Dave Matthews would come and play 12 shows at the Tweeter Center. So I said, "Just give Lori a Dave Matthews shirt because that is so indicative of the concerts that would come into the city. Every summer, you'd go to the Dave Matthews Band concert." It had nothing to do with clues and everything to do with I think Lori would have gone to see Dave Matthews a few times one summer as she was growing up in high school.

That's very funny. Okay. Well, it was a thoughtful detail, just not a clue in the murder.

It's not a clue. Exactly. I mean that's the thing, I've been so overwhelmed by the fan speculation. I guess I didn't see the show as much of a whodunit as just more of like it's a drama that has a murder mystery, but it's become its own thing. Listen, I'm happy people are getting invested in it either, it doesn't matter which way or which story they're more invested in as long as they're invested.

Do you have any funny stories or moments on set that stick out to you to share?

The moments I enjoyed most were just being on set and improvising scenes, like Kate with this like Cheez-Whiz thing, that was Kate's idea on the day. She's like, "Is there something that I can be eating?" We had a jar of cheese balls above the refrigerator, I think it's there almost in every episode, and that was Kate's idea, to get the Cheez-Whiz and spray it on the cheese ball and eat it. It was the moments of levity that we were able to create on the spot that I think were the best. I felt one of the best scenes, and it was early in our shoot and I still laugh at it, was Kate and Jean at the Carroll House when he reveals the affair. That was one of my favourite days on set. I knew we had a great scene because of all the reactions we got out of Jean and Kate and just the way they play off each other. Another is Evan saying, "Goodnight Mare." That was Evan's idea. These are the moments that have resonated with audiences and it's the actors just getting into the character in such a way that they're bringing something that isn't on the page into the shoot. I got such a kick out of that stuff.

Speaking of Evan, his drunk scene was one of the best television scenes I've seen in years. So funny.

He's incredible. It was my favourite scene in the show, honestly. When we were editing it, I was like, it is such an embarrassment of riches. It was too good. I remember HBO giving us notes like, "That's a long scene." And we were like, "Guys, it is so good. We'll shave a couple of seconds out of it, but we have to preserve it.” He just goes from being drunk to heartbreaking, then he tries to make a play at Mare, it's just the range of emotions he's able to achieve. And then we got good music in the background. We were able to clear The Killers and A Flock of Seagulls, which I love. Evan is just such a great actor. He's so charming. Again, some of the moments were so good. He came up with a line like, "I'm the sous chef, you're the chef." He just always was going at humor, and I always welcomed the humor because the show can get so heavy at times. We were always like, "We need the audience to laugh. Otherwise, it's just a death march." You really want there to be moments of laughter because that's life and also because it will allow the audience to breathe.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

Speaking of Kate, I read that she told you she'd never even held a gun in a scene before the show.

Yeah, which is kind of crazy when you think about how iconic and illustrious a career she's had, how many roles she's played in her life, and she said she's never held a gun. I was blown away by that. Totally blown away.

I know that she played a big role in creating the character of Mare. Did any of her choices ever surprise you?

I think it surprised me how funny she was, and not that I... I think she could do anything, Kate, and she's proven she can do anything, but just how willing to be mean at times, because Mare says things that aren't necessarily nice. And so I think what surprised me was Kate's willingness to be a rough character. I mean I'm not an actor, but I would imagine actors probably want audiences to like them, but that wasn't ever on Kate's mind ever. She was never concerned about, "Oh, I'm scared an audience isn't going to like me." All she was ever concerned about was, "I want to make this character honest. And whether the audience likes me or doesn't like me, I don't really care. I just want to make an honest character."

I think that what she was able to do in a way that I didn't anticipate was to bring a level of humour into it. Just some of the things she does, like there was a great look she gives Evan at the scene at the park in Episode 3, she almost smirks at the camera. She just brings such a level of humour to each scene that just helped the series in such a huge way. It was the amount of levity she was able to bring that was incredible. And her commitment to character work, her commitment to backstory, her commitment to getting just all the physical details of Mare's character, the roots and the lines in her eyes. Her commitment to the little things that initially I was like, "Oh, I don't know if that's going to resonate with an audience." But the aggregate of all those details is profound and I think it absolutely has resonated with audiences. That's a testament to Kate's commitment and dedication.

And you were all filming on location, which I guess helped the whole cast.

I got to give credit to HBO because I said, even in the pitch, "I think we have to shoot there because it's really about a place." Easttown in real life is not that Easttown. It's a composite of a number of communities around where I grew up, Drexel Hill, Coatesville, and Aston. So it's really a composite of a number of these cities. But I said, "Listen, it would be really helpful to be in the place where it's set. I think that will be really important. The actors get to live there. They get to spend time there and they get to see these communities. Whereas if you go shoot North Carolina or something, you're faking it." But HBO said, "Nope, we totally agree with you. It's a part of the show. It has to be there." And they agreed to let us shoot there.

The whole season, many theories swirled about Guy Pearce's character being a villain, because he seemed just too good to be true. Was that an intentional misdirection or he was just intended to represent the nice love interest?

It's funny, he was always written as that. I always envisioned him as a guy that would give Mare a breath. It was Mare's chance to breathe and step out of her life, of Kevin, and the case, and be a moment of real hope, light, and tenderness. A guy that sort of recognises the trauma in her life and is able to assuage that anxiety, even just temporarily. And he was always just that. We did have some more scenes with Guy Pearce, but one of the things that Kate was convinced, and I think she was right, was that if Mare's life is too good at the end of the show, if Mare's now investing in a romance with Richard, then her act of mercy by going to Lori isn't convincing, right? It's too easy. It’s, oh, well, everything's going right in Mare's life now. So of course, she's going to go and see Lori because everything in her life is at a certain place now where she's cleared the decks. And so it was Kate's idea that we had to end Mare and Richard in a place of uncertainty like, are they going to be together? Will they get back together? Who knows? It's up in the air. And that made her choice to go see Lori stronger, in a way. But he was always just a love interest. I mean I think because it's Guy, you lean in, and some people may be disappointed when they go to the end and realise, "Oh, Guy Pearce was just a nice guy. Wow." But I think maybe that unintentional misdirect has helped us in a lot of ways.

You mentioned right now that Mare shows Lori mercy by going to her in the finale. I wonder, did you ever consider, as Lori suggests in the show, that maybe Mare could have shown Lori mercy? That she could have spared her best friend’s child in a way she hadn’t been able to save her own?

I think it was a tightrope walk...I definitely considered it because it would have been easy to overlook. You have John and the case is essentially closed right now. Right? No one would probably ever look back at that point. But I guess my question to myself when I was writing is, what does that say about Mare as a detective? What does that say about her and her commitment to her job and to justice, and is that going to negatively impact our impression of Mare as a detective? Listen, she crosses the line, we've seen it in the show, but I think there is after all a commitment to her job, her job within this community, and also to Erin. I mean that was the biggest thing, right? It's like, if you let Ryan go, what does it say about your commitment to Erin? It got cut, but we had a very distinct moment where she looked Erin in the eye and made a silent vow, like I'm going to track down the person that did this. I think that commitment has to be honoured at the end of the show. And that if she just suddenly said, "You know what? I'm going to hide the truth,” it would devalue Mare's job as an investigator, her job to protect this young girl, and to find out the truth about what happened. I love that because it’s a conflict. An audience can go, "Oh my God, I hate you Mare." Or, "Yeah, I know why Mare arrested Ryan. She had to."

But I think that's good conflict. It's even a better conflict because, oh, you're going to arrest this kid who's also the son of your closest ally and friend in the show, and that's going to bring out devastating consequences. That's why that reveal of Ryan always to me was fertile ground for drama and conflict, because it put Mare in the worst possible place that she could be in. And then as an audience, you're like, "Oh my god, what is she going to do with this information?" So yeah, it's a really good question.

Is there any hope for a Season Two?

We didn't ever talk about returning...it's very much a closed story. I think you've seen that now, the story ends. I think all the loose ends get tied up. I hope so at least. I hope no one's saying, "Oh, what's going to happen?" But I think if we could ever crack a story that was as emotional and surprising, then I think maybe there's a conversation. I don't have that in my head right now, but I mean, listen, I love Mare. If we could ever give her a great season, I would certainly consider it. I would only do it if I was convinced we could make it great, though. I wouldn't do it just because you have a chance to do it. I would want to make sure that it was as rich and compelling as I hope this season has been.

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