The validity of public and academic engagement with detective fiction is a contested subject. T.S. Eliot, a markedly ‘literary’ poet of the twentieth century, expressed his fascination with detective stories. Critics such as Edmund Wilson, in contrast, dismissed the genre because of its formulaic tendencies. Some sociologists find popular literature and its sub-categories, including detective fiction, an illustration of ideology.
Mare of Easttown, Brad Ingelsby’s HBO miniseries with seven episodes, inheres in its presentation the grammar of the detective genre, but what makes it unique is its feminist vocabulary. Detective literature and its cinematic counterparts have been heavily dominated by men. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are two of the many illustrations. Miss Marple, created by the crime novelist Agatha Christie, did appear in over ten novels, but her persona was conveniently ‘feminised’ and limited in terms of her agential capabilities, which can be seen as an attempt to separate her from male detectives and enable social exclusion on the basis of gender.
This is precisely why Mare Of Easttown‘s protagonist Mare gains relevance in feminist discourse. In fulfilling the responsibilities of a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother; she transcends the rigid constraints of characterisation that plague the whodunnit genre. Since Mare’s portrayal is rooted in spaces of realism, the superficial depictions of the detective’s ambition and intellectual superiority are abandoned. Her lack of hope of finding Katie Bailey, a “known drug abuser with a history of prostitution” who went missing a year prior to the events of the series, because of the absence of reliable evidence is one such example in Mare Of Easttown.
Lack of ambition humanises Mare. She wants to solve cases, but she doesn’t gain unusual pleasure from the process. An insatiable desire to solve crime would inevitably imply a hunger for criminal cases in the first place. Consider Sherlock Holmes: he thoroughly enjoys the process of resolving mystery, even when he is confronted by Gothic nightmares, as is the case in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes solves one case after another in Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime fiction.
But what happens after the case is solved? He still desires to solve crime. He cannot solve crime unless crime is committed, which implies that Doyle must fabricate criminal activities to re-introduce his character for his audience. Sherlock Holmes cannot exist unless crime takes place. But Mare can. Her distinctive departure from prosaic conventions associated with the genre helps her resist and prevent the emergence of crime as a cultural and aestheticised form of violence in popular imagination in Mare Of Easttown.
Mare also does not embody perfection, a quality that is unanimously associated with detective characters. She gets jealous when she finds that her ex-husband is engaged. She plants drugs in the car of her grandson’s mother, Carrie, to prevent her from getting custody. She also finds herself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to confront the emotional ramifications of her son’s suicide. Mare Of Easttown doesn’t normalise her tendencies, but proceeds to present the ambivalence of her actions to demonstrate that rigid binaries of wrong and right fail to gain significance when used as indices for human behaviour.
When Mare plants drugs in Carrie’s car, the Chief finds out and puts her on administrative leave. In this way, the plot of Mare Of Easttown acknowledges and penalises deliberate acts of violence by the police, a feat that is uncommon, if not commendable. Police accountability is, and should remain, a democratic expectation in reality. Cinema has, however, extensively contributed to the justification of police brutality. John Lui cites some examples of such cop dramas in both cinema and television: Cops, Dirty Harry, Zootopia, Bright, and BlacKkKlansman. In Hindi cinema, two recent examples are Radhe and Simmba.
In spite of her family’s protestations, the incident does not immediately compel Mare to contemplate on her abuse of power. She justifies her action by reiterating that Carrie is unfit to be a mother because of her drug abuse. The process of revaluation begins when Carrie confronts Mare and tells her that she is staying clean and working two jobs. Mare’s recognition of Carrie’s potential coupled with Carrie’s eventual return to rehab might be a convenient mechanism of providing closure, but it enables Mare and the audience to introspect, empathise, unlearn, and understand.
In addition, Mare Of Easttown also excels in normalising sexuality and representing mental illness. Mare’s daughter Siobhan is a lesbian, but the plot does not make her homosexuality the defining aspect of her characterisation. The audience is exposed to a variety of events that characterise Siobhan. Mental illness similarly gets manifested in the diegesis, chiefly in the depiction of Mare’s late son Kevin. The series aptly depicts the decay of Kevin’s mental faculties without exoticising what is commonly perceived as hysteria.
Mare of Easttown opens possibilities for juxtaposing feminist concerns in cinema. It manages to intersect a multitude of social markers — such as, gender, race, sexuality, mental disability, and class — in its analysis of the social reality of Easttown. Its portrayal of a female investigator does not necessitate the adoption of masculine behaviour, which enables it to develop existing feminist discourses pertaining to gender behaviour and representation. Contemporary audience has long felt the need for a series that caters to the needs and expectations of intersectional feminism. Mare of Easttown fills that void in some measure and encourages other series to do so as well.
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