In parallel to watching HBO’s addictive Mare of Easttown (whose shocking finale aired over the long holiday weekend), I’ve been reading Ivy Ngeow’s brilliant novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino. Told in a fractured epistolary style from three unique points of view (a Chinese doctor, an English missionary, and a wrongfully imprisoned Iban man) all surrounding the traumatic backstory of a troubled young woman, and jumping back and forth from Malaysia to Borneo, it’s a thrilling episodic read, unfolding much like a great serialized television series full of mystery, hidden motives, blackmail, and deep explorations of each character’s psyche. Apart from the vivid cultural and psychological minutia Ngeow peppers the novel with, there are “kick ya in the gut” observations on life. At one point, one of the characters muses in matter-of-fact fashion that “the blues are everywhere.”
Nothing could be farther from the jungles of Borneo than the blue-collar Philly suburb that is Easttown, Pennsylvania, but this universal truth echoes loudly in Mare of Easttown where Kate Winslet plays (to perfection) a second-generation detective working a murder case while wrestling her own demons. Writer and creator Brad Ingelsby does a great job towing the line between the modern “grizzled female detective” murder mystery of recent years and the classic small town soap opera murder mystery of generations past. Much of the show had echoes of the first season of Twin Peaks (imagine how satisfying it would have been had they solved the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer in a seven-episode arc?) with its troubled teens, hidden diaries, nosy neighbors, and philandering adults.
The show became a cultural lightning rod for a multitude of reasons. It struck a chord because it leaned on the genre tropes so well while creating such an authentic sense of people and place, all with a humanist touch and none of the super dark depravity or weirdness of certain shows that came before it and enthralled us only to leave a bad taste in our mouths. It particularly spoke to my wife and I, and to our circles of family and friends, because of its eerily (and early on, almost comical) spot-on portrayal of the Philly burbs we all know so well. Those Delco accents! The Wawa references. The eternally overcast winter days. Hell, we recognized most of the filming locations, too. On a sunnier, prettier autumnal day, my wife and I got married in Wissahickon Park (renamed Sharps Woods in the show) where the teens partied and poor Erin’s body was discovered. After a spending over a year in varying degrees of pandemic lockdown, the show hit home with its thematic and cultural familiarity. We all longed for a local mystery that could be solved, a tragedy that could be explained, and people who could be held responsible. We craved coziness and justice.
Well, if anything, the show proved life is way messier than our need for the familiar and for fairness. One of the takeaways I had was that no matter what kind of parent you are (good, bad, or indifferent) there’s no telling how your kid might end up. We can all try our best (or do our worst) but sometimes shit just happens. Because, man, the blues are everywhere. We all carry our trauma, big and small, with us. And new trauma is created every day. And it was interesting that a show written and directed by men showed how damaged and effed up men (and privileged white men, in particular) can be, and how it’s far too often the women who end up having to be both the victims of the men’s irresponsibility and the ones cleaning up the mess. I also don’t think it’s a stretch to note (as an observer…the show appeared to have no self-awareness on this point) that had a gun not been so easily accessible (and guns were casually everywhere in this show) Erin would likely still be alive.
As our Mare put together the pieces of the puzzle, there were a few shocking twists – all well done and believable – along the way, and the final episode tied things up for us in a nice little bow. It seemed almost too tidy, and it leeched hope from the communal misery. But even if a modicum of happiness had been found on the surface of their lives, man, think of all the baggage these people continued to carry. All that stuff still bubbling, roiling underneath (no matter how many conveniently timed breakthroughs in therapy occur).
Yes, we now know who killed Erin McMenamin, and Mare was finally coming to terms with her own grief when she pulled down those attic stairs, but the blues are still everywhere in Easttown. No perfectly constructed seven-episode arc can cure that.