HBO kicked off the broadcast yesterday of Mare of Easttown, a crime series starring Kate Winslet which promises to be the best of the season but is splitting US critics into two camps.
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Mare of Easttown: realism and the precarious lives of ordinary US workers
Trailer for Mare of Easttown
Mare of Easttown is an heir to what one long-ago day, decades ago now, was This American Life: a face-to-face encounter with real US life. Life on the very antipodes of the corporate Manhattan shown to us by HBO in The Undoing. The life of a mass of workers who would appear like dangerous space aliens to the Apple petty bourgeoisie we met in Servant.
That's the first strength of Mare of Easttown: flesh-and-blood characters too busy surviving first-world poverty to allow for a Netflix-like protean plot in which everything going on means something to the unraveling of the central mystery. Here everything is meaningful but not necessarily instrumental to the case, and even though it may sidetrack the plot, we do not care because it enriches the story. Realism rules.
So accomplished is the realism of Mare of Easttown that even the Guardian's and Los Angeles Times' reviews, which praise it, realized the importance of all these little details which are most striking for those who only know the US through its audiovisual storytelling. All those things that film critics consider so normal in the life of precarious working-class neighborhoods that they do not consider them worth of even being reviewed:
The teenage motherhoods following generation after generation. The baby we realize will go deaf because no one wants to take care of the $1,800 it costs to operate on him or her. The _precooked mac and cheese and microwave trays as the universal diet of families without daily rituals of shared meals. Or the writer who is asked not what his novel was about, but whether it was successful._
That is, what is striking and shocking is the poverty averted by a good part of the world's working class manages through community solidarity and family and friendship ties. And it is striking because from the very first scene, starting with the main character - who is a burned-out local policewoman trying to avoid being held accountable - many of the adult characters strive to find ways of re-inventing means to support themselves.... from which they have been dispossessed, nobody knows when. Perhaps in that past when the women's basketball team still brought them all together and of which only empty warehouses and weathered if not ramshackle houses remain.
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Mare of Easttown Poster
The main virtue of Mare of Easttown is to depict this social panorama like someone who photographs a rocky beach, without distressing us or oversaturating the tone, based on a normality that is the characters' one instead of the fake normality of an audiovisual production that has always been a denial of the majority of its own audience. On that basis it builds a plot structure with all the clichés of the genre and all the hooks and predictable twists that the viewer has already engraved in the memory of a thousand series and novels ... and the audience gets hooked.
And yet, in the US, some critics, starting with the New York Times, have been irritated by the series. It helps that it doesn't have the usual moralizing of TV feminism or sing the virtues of the Green Deal, no doubt. But what is unforgivable for the reviewer of the Times is to reflect as a general way of life something which is taboo. It is frowned upon to display this way of life beyond the portrait-drama of a particular and concrete situation. American Miserabilism, he calls it, disparagingly.
Moral: Joe Biden does not approve of this message. Starting last November 2, we must chronicle a new America, happy and diverse, having fun choosing pronouns and electric cars. Under no circumstances should we focus on the material and moral misery of an exhausted capitalist civilization surrounding the characters like the maze surrounds the mice of a sadistic behavioral laboratory.
No, Mare of Easttown is not a defeatist chant. It does not point out exits to the maze because there are none, and it is modest enough not to try to lie with sentimentality. Nor does it enlighten us by showing us where to break the maze's walls. It shows exhausted mice, sometimes brutalized, but decidedly alive and more capable than they themselves believe. And in that collective capacity sketched in charcoal and with many shadows, it harbors if not a perspective, at least a hope of breaking these walls.