‘Mare of Easttown’ Boss on How He Determined Who Erin’s Killer Would Be

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Sacrament,” the series finale of “Mare of Easttown.”

After watching the penultimate episode of HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” during which Billy Ross (Robbie Tann) confessed to killing Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), many audience members came away with even more questions, including that’s a fake-out, right?

The finale episode, entitled “Sacrament,” revealed that yes, there was much more to this story, including a much more expansive web of criminality than a first glance at the single mother’s murder appeared.

Billy seemed willing to go down for what he thought was his brother John’s (Joe Tippett) crime. But Erin’s friend Jess (Ruby Cruz) exposed a deeper truth the police when she brought them a photo of John and Erin, who had engaged in a sexual relationship (despite the fact that she was a minor — and his cousin), which resulted in the birth of a son. Just as John was considering killing his brother, Mare (Kate Winslet) came upon them in their fishing spot and pulled her own gun. At this point, John threatened to kill himself, but eventually Mare reached the men and was able to apprehend him.

John’s arrest for murder soon turned into a different charge, though, as it turned out he did not actually pull the trigger. In the end, it was his teenage son Ryan (Cameron Mann) who stole a gun, took it to the woods and confronted Erin about her relationship with his father. He may have just wanted his family to stay intact, but his actions dissolved that unit. He ended up in a juvenile facility with his father and uncle also on the hook for their part in covering up the crime, leaving his mother Lori (Julianne Nicholson) alone to raise John and Erin’s son.

The murder mystery was really just one piece of “Mare of Easttown,” though. At the center of the story was Mare herself, struggling to properly face, let alone grieve, her own son’s death. As important as resolving the whodunnit was to series creator and showrunner Brad Ingelsby, so too was getting Mare to a place of healing by the time the credits rolled.

Here, Ingelsby talks with Variety about the decision to make Ryan the murderer, the parallels between Mare and Lori’s stories and the sense of hope he wanted to evoke in the final moments of the series when Mare prepares to go up to the attic.

At what point did you decide Ryan was the killer, and did you have any back-up plans in case you couldn’t find a young actor who could pull off what you needed from him?

It was always Ryan. From the beginning I think the challenge was, as you said, casting someone that could pull it off. We saw a lot of kids and we went through a lot of tapes, and when we found Cameron, we just went, “Oh my God, I totally believe he’s Julianne’s kid.” He was great in the audition, but I was also taken by the resemblance and I could believe they were related. And he was able to play with the emotions of having to hide a secret but still be troubled in moments.

How did making Ryan the killer affect the social message you wanted the show to say?

I don’t think it was necessarily [about] what I want to say about kids and guns. What was interesting to me is was, “What is the most potent ending in the story if we’re looking at Mare as a character?” Here was a woman that stubbornly is just refusing to confront the loss of her son. How are you going to get Mare, who’s a very stubborn, tough person, to come around and confront the loss of her son? That has to be quite a difficult journey and so it’s like, “How do we make things as hard as possible? How was that ending of her ascending into the attic as hard-earned as possible? How does the mystery achieve that?” It’s a procedural and yet it has to be crushing as well. So [I thought], “What if it’s Mare’s closest friend in life?” [to] make it as hard on her as possible. We had to make the case as difficult as possible, and also [there are] the parallels of Mare and Lori: Mare losing a son and Lori losing a son, and Mare being the one that takes away Lori’s son. The themes of the show play in the Ross clan because of how close Mare is to them. It would making having to arrest him and the discovery so emotionally devastating.

Speaking of Lori, she’s the only one who doesn’t appear to be facing legal ramifications at the end of the story, even though she, too, knew what her son did. 

If this was a real story I’m sure there would have been a concealing evidence, aiding and abetting [charge] in terms of the procedural elements and the legal ramifications of what Lori did. But in terms of the story, I will say selfishly, it didn’t seem very interesting to me. It was like, “OK, so now Lori has to be questioned? She’s been punished enough.” And it also would have been really hard because now she’s caring for this child. So to answer the question, I didn’t know how to pursue that and my hope was always that there was some level of “there had been enough punishment, there had been enough trauma on her family that maybe that wouldn’t have happened to her.” Now I’d have to ask the chief of police that we used if that was going to happen, but it didn’t seem, narratively, like a thread we wanted to pursue. We wanted to tap into the emotional trauma of Lori and her isolation [and] that that would have been punishment enough. Now she’s really a pariah in this community; she’s really been left outside the circle of this community and it’s Mare who’s going to bring her back in or at least be at her side. That just felt stronger, emotionally, [than] any kind of legal issue Lori would have to face at the end.

What constitutes justice is something being so widely talked about lately. Civilians like Lori may get a little more of a pass, but Mare certainly used her power as a law enforcement official in some questionable ways throughout the series. Still, it didn’t seem like a question that she would do the right thing when it came to Ryan, even if made her friend hate her. Was that decision affected by anything playing out in the news lately?

This was written in like 2018, so this was well before this conversation exploded, but no it didn’t; it always ended the way it ends in the finale. And Mare makes some decisions that in this climate seem like, “Wow, that’s not the best decision,” but I also think what I took from my conversation with our tech advisors in the police is what I like about Mare’s character: that she approaches these situations — like in Episode 1 — with a level of humanity and empathy that I think is really important. She says, “Hey I’ve been around these people. Put your gun down, let’s go talk to him. I understand he’s got a disease and I’ve dealt with this before.” There’s a level of understanding that comes; whenever any incident occurs Mare approaches it with an understanding of the people involved and and their problems and also a level of humanity that I think is really strong.

You’ve mentioned that this show was your way, to a degree, about writing about where you grew up and the people you knew. Is that where the family structure of being willing to cover for each other comes in?

What was important to me was that everyone had some level of complexity and dimension. Even John — you can hate John, he’s done awful things, but at the end he’s trying to protect his son. That doesn’t make him a good human being, but you understand the decision. That was what was important: even if you don’t agree with the decisions people are making, when all the cards are laid out on the table you can understand why they were made. And this is a place where I grew up and I wanted to speak to the people that I grew up around, and I could see them making those decisions. Again not that they’re right, but if someone said to me, “Hey, your son is going to go to jail for murder and you have a chance to protect him, what would you do?” That’s a hard question to answer and I think there are going to be people that would say, “Hey I would hide the truth.”

When you were writing the show, how aware were you of the potential for the audience to look at the behind-the-scenes elements of the show, like some of the bigger-name actors, as reasons they may be the killer, even though that had nothing to do with the story itself? 

It’s an awareness of the genre expectations and then it’s trying to be one step ahead of those expectations. It’s almost like leaning into the red herrings, trying to predict where an audience is leaning in this moment or that moment, and then being able to subvert them in ways and obviously people were leaning into Guy Pearce — “It’s got to be Guy Pearce!” — but it’s funny [because] that character was always just that guy that came into her life at a time where she needed a moment of tenderness, a relationship that was outside of her normal circle of people. And it was always just that. [He] came into her life at the right time and helped her through incredibly challenging period in her life and then left, and you were left thinking, “Well, what’s going to happen with them?” That’s the tightrope walk: how do you manage the expectations of an audience and still give them what they’re looking for in a murder mystery, but also be surprising?

How did that affect the way you structured the reveal, and the red herrings that came before it?

It came from just knowing where the show was going to end. It was incredibly challenging, but once I knew the ending was Mare and Lori and this embrace — and Julianne was the second person we cast in the entire show because we knew exactly what was going to have to be achieved out of Lori in the last episode — then I felt like, “Well here’s the time I have to play with” and I was able to structure it. It became about the order of revelation — when and how you have audiences leaning into different characters.

And in that time you also had to get Mare ready to go up to the attic where her son died by suicide. What did you need to see happen before that moment to get her to a place where it would be obvious she was going up there to deal, not to follow in his footsteps?

It’s actually something that we talked about in the edit. We had to ask the question to ourselves and we had to pick the right piece of music, which I think helps because it’s more hopeful. There were a couple versions where the music was a little melancholy. Ultimately we trust an audience to think Mare’s in a good place. She’s had this conversation with the therapist who asked, “Are you ready to confront what’s been haunting you?” With her saying goodbye to Siobhan, having a good relationship with Frank and Faye, [being] back on the force, we’d given her enough wins so that when you get to that place at the end, you’re like, “OK, now she’s going to go up there and this is about confronting the thing that’s been haunting her.” I think it was, “How do you have enough of healing moments where you know Mare has arrived at that next level of healing in her own life?”

This is a limited series so the audience won’t get to watch this play out, but where do you see Mare going from here?

I’d always envisioned Mare, after the credits roll, back to work and she’s not so cavalier about the position. That’s what we always intended those slaps to be; when Mrs. Zabel slaps her it’s like, “Wake up, you can’t go through life being so cavalier about things. Yeah, you saved the girl, but my son is dead.” So, I always envisioned Mare has gone back to work with a renewed purpose and a commitment to doing things the right way. And also, the thing that I admire about Mare is that I feel like she has been the person to shoulder the burdens, anxieties and fears of the community and that she’s a person that everyone looks to because she’s got the strength to do it. There’s a resilience about her that I think is really admirable, so I could see her going back to work the next day being like, “I’m going to shoulder the anxieties and fears of this community again because I can do it.” And that to me is at the core of Mare: she is this person in the community that is just as messed up as everybody else, but also has this incredible ability to just keep going in life in a way that people look to in times of need and trauma and disappointment.

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