‘Mare of Easttown’ finale recap: Who killed Erin, and so much more

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from Sunday’s finale of “Mare of Easttown,” “Sacrament.”

It was always about mothers and sons. 

In the final episode of HBO’s great “Mare of Easttown,” a murder mystery set in a small town near Philadelphia, Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) found out who really killed Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny). But the miniseries was always about more than unmasking a murderer. 

“Sacrament” was alternately calm and tense, a twisty hour thatmay havelulled some viewers into thinking the killer was arrested in the first few minutes, only to reveal the truth later. The installment was a master class in full-circle storytelling – there are no plot holes in “Mare,” even when it comes to a security camera at an elderly neighbor’s house – without seeming too tidy. 

Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in the season finale of "Mare of Easttown." (Photo: HBO)

As Mare eventually discovers, Erin was killed not by John Ross (Joe Tippett) – the father of her son D.J. – who confessed early in the finale. Instead, the culprit was John’s angry son Ryan (Cameron Mann), who didn’t want Erin breaking up his family. Ryan also happens to be the son of Mare’s best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson). So Mare, still reeling from the death of her own son by suicide, takes another boy away from his mother. 

What “Mare” does so well in the finale – which HBO’s “The Undoing,” last year’s similarly star-studded crime drama, completely failed to do – is subvert expectations without exploitative shocks. 

Ryan as the killer is a surprising twist that also makes sense and satisfies. It explains why Billy (Robbie Tann) and John made false confessions; why Ryan had a violent outburst at school; and what secret John wanted him to keep from Lori.  More than that, it serves the greater story about Mare, her late son and her relationships with family and friends in Easttown. In a lesser series or with a lesser actress, the sentimental ending could have been hokey and trite. But Winslet and creator Brad Inglesby pull it off. 

The episode picks up right where last week’s left off, as Mare pursues John and Billy at their fishing cabin while Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson) desperately tries to reach her after seeing a revealing photograph of Erin in bed with John. John was having sex with the teen daughter of his cousin. Carter can’t get in touch with Mare, who finds John holding his brother at gunpoint. Mare intervenes and arrests John. 

Back at the police station, John confesses everything – sleeping with (and killing) Erin and being D.J.’s father. He says Erin brought the gun to their meeting, and after it accidentally discharged and hit her hand, he grabbed it and shot her. He also says he enlisted Billy to help him move the body to Sharp’s Woods, hoping to incriminate one of the teens at the party, which explains Billy’s bloody clothes the night of the murder. 

The episode has barely started and it seems the mystery is already wrapped up, along with several other major plot threads. Lori takes custody of D.J. (and D.J. finally gets his ear surgery in her care). Deacon Mark (James McArdle), who was in jail on suspicion of involvement in Erin’s death, is released.

In the weeks that follow, Carrie (Sosie Bacon) gives up her custody case for Mare’s grandson Drew (Izzy King), admitting that she has started using drugs again. Frank (David Denman) and Faye (Kate Arrington) get back together and plan their wedding. Mare and her mother Helen (Jean Smart) settle some unresolved issues. 

Everything seems right as a hoagie from Wawa until Mare bumps into the other woman with whom John was supposedly having an affair during the police investigation. She emphatically tells Mare that she and John haven’t slept together in years, which is the first crack in John’s story.  

Later, when Mare visits Mr. Carroll (Patrick McDade) after he complains about a petty theft, she discovers his gun – the same kind that was used to kill Erin – went missing for a few hours on the day she was murdered. Mare consults his security camera footage and sees Ryan sneak into the back shed and take the gun. 

After she arrests Ryan, we finally get the full story. Ryan knew about John and Erin’s relationship the whole time, and was afraid his parents would get divorced. He confronted Erin at the park with the stolen gun, and she tried to take it away. During the struggle, she was shot twice. He told his father what he did, and John and Billy moved the body. 

After Ryan is sent to juvenile detention, weeks pass. Richard (Guy Pearce), who turned out to be a nice guy and not a sleeper murder suspect, leaves for a new job. Siobhan (Angourie Rice) goes to college in California. Mare continues her therapy, as her psychologist asks if she’s ready to confront her grief now that she’s solved all these crimes. Eventually, Mare visits Lori and their bond is silently mended, as Lori collapses, sobbing, in Mare’s arms. 

The finale ends with Mare, having mostly repaired her relationships, finally visiting the attic in her house where her son died by suicide.

It’s a fitting ending for “Mare,” which was always a story far more interested in exploring grief than solving a mystery-solving. Anything else would have been too cheap. 

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