‘Mare of Easttown’: The Real Killer Is Revealed in a Twisty Finale (RECAP)
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Mare of Easttown Episode 7, “Sacrament.”]
There is no happy ending in the finale for HBO’s limited series Mare of Easttown, but I don’t think any of us ever really expected one. Mare is just not that kind of show; you’re lucky if a character cracks a smile across the episode. However, it does provide us closure in the murder investigation and a sense of hope for the future, especially for Mare (Kate Winslet), who not only solves the case but finally allows herself to move on.
When last week’s episode ended with the photo cliffhanger, I expected at least one more twist in the tale to come — I didn’t expect two! The show leads us down a couple of detours before hitting us with a shocking revelation, which makes sense, in hindsight, and brings about a satisfying conclusion to the series. I have to be honest, I was momentarily dreading that Guy Pearce‘s Richard would be revealed as the killer and was ready to let out an almighty groan, given that he’s been so disconnected from the case. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
The episode starts by confirming what I’d theorized last week: the photo that Jess (Ruby Cruz) found in Erin’s (Cailee Spaeny) journal shows Erin in bed with John (Joe Tippett). Meanwhile, John contemplates killing his brother Billy (Robbie Tann) at the lake, to make sure his secret stays buried. Billy even seems to begrudgingly accept his fate, stating that John has more to live for than he does. But before John can go through with it, Mare emerges from the woods, spooking John and leading him to turn the gun on himself, knowing that the truth about his crimes is about to come out.
John doesn’t shoot himself, though, as Billy wrestles him to the ground, and with Mare’s help, John is arrested and taken into the station, where he explains his version of what happened. He confesses to having an affair with Erin and being baby DJ’s real father*. The “relationship” started at the Lake Harmony family reunion when the pair stayed up all night talking after everyone else crashed out. John tries to play it off as if he and Erin a real connection, totally ignoring that he was having sex with an underage relative.
*It’s also explained that Dylan burned the journals for precisely this reason. He wanted his parents to get custody of DJ and not whoever the real father was, which he thought could be revealed in Erin’s diaries.
He also cops to the murder, claiming that Erin called him on a burner phone on the night of Frank’s (David Denman) engagement party. She threatened to go public about the affair if he didn’t meet her at the park. When John got there, Erin was hysterical, demanding that he pay for DJ’s ear surgery and threatening to shoot herself. A scuffle ensued as John tried to grab the gun, and in the chaos, Erin was shot. Seeing the blood and not knowing what to do, John shot Erin in the face and then disposed of the weapon before heading back to the party to drive Frank home.
It all seems clear-cut as John is charged and taken to court for his arraignment, where he begs Lori (Julianne Nicholson) to take in DJ and raise him as her own. Other than the tension between Lori and Mare (because of the former knowing what happened and lying about it), it seems everyone is ready to move on. The Sheehan’s get custody of Drew (Izzy King) after Carrie (Sosie Bacon) starts using again and willingly gives him up. Frank and Faye (Kate Arrington) get married. Siobhan (Angourie Rice) accepts her place at Berkley. And Mare ends things on hopeful terms with Richard as he heads off to teach at a new college.
However, something is bothering Mare about John’s confession, particularly what he had to say about the murder weapon. The ballistics report determined that the gun used to kill Erin was a Colt Detective Special revolver. But that’s not how John described the weapon, plus he said that Erin had the gun. Mare’s suspicions are triggered further when she bumps into the woman John claimed to be having an affair with. The woman adamantly denies it, stating that she cut things off with John years ago and has been faithful to her husband ever since.
Everything becomes clear when Mr. Carroll (Patrick McDade) calls Mare over to report a burglary. He tells her that items have been going missing from the house. One of those items was a gun. He’d heard a noise in the shed one night, and when he came down to check, his gun was missing. But when he went back to look the following day, it was back. Mare routinely takes notes at what initially seems to be a case of old age and a faltering memory. But the mood quickly changes when Mare asks Mr. Carroll to describe the gun: “a Colt Detective Special revolver.”
Mare asks Mr. Carroll who else has access to the shed other than himself, and there is only one other person, the kid that mows the lawn. Who is that kid? Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann), Lori and John’s 13-year-old son. With the sickening truth beginning to sink in, Mare bolts into action and checks Mr. Carroll’s security cameras, the same ones that caught the infamous “prowler” earlier in the season. She rewinds back to the night of Erin’s murder, and, lo and behold, a young kid with his hood up is caught entering and leaving the shed.
What follows is one of the most heart-wrenching chase scenes ever. Mare arrives at Ryan’s school to talk to him, and upon seeing her, he hops the playground fence and runs all the way home. “It’s Mare, she knows,” Ryan cries to his mom as Mare and the local police descend on the Ross house. Mare enters the living room alone, knowing that what she is about to do will tear the Ross family apart. Ryan is brought into the station, and we finally hear the truth of what happened on the night of Erin’s murder.
In Ryan’s mind, all he wanted to do was keep his family together. He’d found out about his dad’s affair with Erin and confronted him about it. John had promised to end it, and Ryan was fine with keeping it a secret if it meant keeping his parents together. After all, they’d been through this before with the first affair when John and Lori split for a short period. Ryan wasn’t going to let that happen again, and when he realized Erin was still texting his dad on the night of Frank’s engagement party, he took it upon himself to stop it. He rode his bike to Mr. Carroll’s, stole the gun, and went to meet Erin at the park.
Ryan never intended to kill Erin. He just wanted to scare her off so that she would leave his family alone. However, Erin tried to take the gun, and the two ended up in a tussle. As Ryan broke free, he pulled the trigger, killing her. Almost instinctively, he rode back to Mr. Carroll’s to return the gun and then later called his dad to tell him what happened. John and Billy drove out to retrieve Erin’s body and moved her to the woods hoping that one of the teenagers at the forest party would be blamed. That is why Billy was covered in blood; that is the secret the Ross family has been keeping and why John took the fall for the murder.
It’s a shocking development — even if I had seen a few fans positing the theory of Ryan’s involvement. I was too focused on John to notice his teenage son! But it does make sense in hindsight. Ryan had shown an interest in the case, previously asking about Erin during TV news reports earlier in the season. And his rage when he attacked the school bully was obviously about more than covering for his dad’s affair. It also makes more sense why Lori would lie to Mare, not to protect John, but for the sake of her child. It’s the kind of twist that is surprising but still grounded within the reality of the show.
The aftermath, however, is brutal on the relationships and friendships within Easttown. In the heat of the moment, Lori is furious with Mare. John had already been charged with the murder, so why couldn’t Mare just leave it at that? Why did she have to take Ryan? “My Ryan?!” Lori screams. It’s hard for Lori to see that Mare was just doing her job. She sees it as a betrayal from her best friend. Her entire family has been torn apart, and Mare is the easy one to blame, even though this whole mess started because of what John did.
Time heals, however, or, if not, at least helps things become easier to cope with. Mare explains this when the recently widowed Mr. Carroll asks her if it ever gets easier. “No,” Mare says, “but after a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable. You still have to get up, pay the bills, wash the bedsheets. You sort of just find a way to live with it.” For this show, that is about as positive an outlook as we’re ever going to get. And that sentiment is exemplified eight months down the line when Mare decides to visit Lori to clear the air. Very few words are spoken. Instead, Lori crumbles into Mare’s arms in an embrace that says more than a 10-page monologue ever could.
As Lori deals with her grief, so too does Mare, who finally confronts her son’s death. Earlier in the episode, Helen (Jean Smart) gets emotional as she talks about the tough times dealing with her late husband and how she took things out on Mare as a kid. Mare forgives her mom, and that’s what Helen wants for her own daughter, to forgive herself for what happened to Kevin (Cody Kostro). In the episode’s closing moments, Mare finally ascends the ladder to the attic where her son killed himself. It’s both a literal and figurative step in the healing process and a perfect way to end what has been a grim but fantastic season of television.
Mare of Easttown is available to stream on HBO Max.