‘Mare of Easttown’ Showrunner Breaks Down Mare & Zabel’s Tragic Breakthrough

Mare of Easttown Season 1 Kate Winslet
Spoiler Alert
Michele K. Short/HBO

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Mare of Easttown Season 1, Episode 5, “Illusions.”]

A sleepy Easttown came to life in the thrilling and tragic fifth installment of HBO’s twisty drama Mare of Easttown.

The episode which raised many red flags about various characters concluded with a big bang when a heartbreaking rescue mission left one-half of the show’s primary crime-fighting duo dead. But bold actions beget bold results when Mare (Kate Winslet) recovers two missing girls — Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan) and Missy Sayers (Sasha Frolova) — after a tense shooting exchange with the man responsible for their imprisonment.

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Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) falls victim to the gunfire, leaving Mare in a precarious position as she remains off duty after she was caught planting drugs on the mother of her grandson. On one hand her actions resulted in her partner’s death, and on another, they saved two victims. Will her decisions be rewarded or ridiculed? And how does this development impact Erin McMenamin’s (Cailee Spaeny) case?

Series creator, writer, and showrunner Brad Ingelsby attempts to answer some of these questions and teases what’s to come with just two more episodes to go in this riveting limited series.

Mare of Easttown Colin Zabel Evan Peters

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

Mare finally finds Katie and Missy but not without consequence. What made you decide to take such a startling turn with Zabel’s death in this episode?

Brad Ingelsby: Making it was a sort of awareness of what viewers have been experiencing in the show and that we have a lot of balls in the air at that point in the series. There are all these suspects. There’s a question about these two cases and how they’re connected. And up to that point, we really haven’t resolved anything. I felt like it’s time to resolve a couple of these questions and to do it quite dramatically. We hadn’t really seen Mare in action. There was a little chase with Freddie (Dominique Johnson) in one, but that didn’t go very well.

So I think it was a desire to check some of the boxes that audience members might have and to give them some relief. And so it just felt like at that point it was time to reward the audience and also show what a bad-ass Mare can be in moments of action and high tension and just see what she can do when her back’s against the wall.

Mare of Easttown HBO Evan Peters Kate Winslet

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

Speaking of balls in the air. For all of the suspicions forming around certain characters on the show, it was interesting to see the man holding Katie and Missy was unconnected to the main suspects in Erin’s case. Is this meant to lull viewers into believing he’s also responsible for Erin’s death? Or should they keep their guard up since it feels like there’s more to Erin’s story?

Well, what I wanted to achieve with that more than anything was to let the audience know it’s not a serial killer story. That was one thing that was really important to me. There is this guy that exists and he’s done these absolutely awful things. But the main story at hand about Erin doesn’t involve a serial killer in any way. I also love this idea of trying to tease the audience into thinking, “well, how are they connected? Are they connected? Why are they connected?” And so in [Episode 4] you get a glimpse of this person and it’s very suspicious. We don’t ever really reveal his face and it allowed the audience to think, “is it someone we’ve seen before?”

But I like the idea that the very next episode, you let them off the hook with this big action sequence, and then they’re going, “Oh crap, there’s still two episodes left.” There’s so much more story left to be told. I wanted there to be a recommitment to the people we care about in the show. [Now] it gives us a chance to bring back all the old suspects and to re-examine everyone. It gave me a chance to hit the reset button and have two episodes to play with a resolution.

Mare of Easttown Jack Mulhern Mackenzie Lansing

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

One of the suspects back on the radar after this episode is Erin’s ex-boyfriend Dylan (Jack Mulhern). Why did Erin’s best friend Jess (Ruby Cruz) help him? Does she know more than the audience realizes?

Yes. I don’t want to give too much away of what happened there, but I think what’s interesting about the last two episodes, in particular, is that it gives the audience a moment to look at all the original suspects. Everyone that was in those early episodes — Dylan, Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing), Jess, the priest (James McArdle) — [will leave you re-evaluating your perspective]. I think it’s definitely fair to say, Jess is hiding something. What that is? I won’t tell you at the moment.

As much as it’s exciting to get back to old suspects, it would seem that this episode raised a new one in Erin’s cousin, Billy (Robbie Tann). He was acting pretty weird when Lori (Julianne Nicholson) mentioned Erin had lived with him for a couple of months a few years ago. When he leaves Mare’s house, she eyes his beer bottle on the coffee table. Are we supposed to suspect he’s Erin’s baby daddy?

Structurally, the first three episodes are sort of establishing this community and really making an effort to make everyone a suspect in some way. They all have a relationship with Erin, some stronger than others, but everyone knew her and was involved in her life in some way. The next two episodes — 4 and 5 — really [focus on] the connection between Erin and Katie.

Mare of Easttown Joe Tippett Robert Tann

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

And so the story still maintained a bunch of those people, but it’s suddenly started to veer into a different direction. This episode is really a procedural where Zabel has tracked down these leads and come up with what happened. And then I think what you slowly realize is everyone has a secret. Now, the question is the secret that bad?

And so that becomes… [is Billy] hiding a secret? Absolutely. Does it have anything to do with Erin? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it’s something completely unrelated, but I love this idea that everyone is hiding something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they killed Erin or they’re the father of Erin’s child. It just means that they’re hiding something that will ultimately be discovered. And I do think once you get to the end, all of these threads are resolved. I hope, in a satisfying and surprising way.

Mare of Easttown Evan peters James McArdle

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

You mentioned the priest, Deacon Mark, before. He seems to be heading down a dark path following his conversation with Father Dan (Neal Huff). When asked if he killed Erin, Mark says, “if I said no, would you believe me?” Should that concern viewers?

Yeah, I think so. Because we set him up as a person that we don’t know if he’s telling the truth ever. He seems to be hiding things. And every conversation with Mark, you realize later [that a part of the] conversation isn’t true. Now we’ve seen in this episode he says, I threw the bike because I had a previous allegation and suddenly I was with her that night and what are the police going to think? I mean, how is that going to look? And even if I’m telling the truth, is anyone going to believe me?

And so I think, yes, we should be suspicious Mark, because he’s a person that we’ve established isn’t telling the truth often in the story. Now, is that inability to tell the truth out of fear, or is it out of hiding something darker than just the bike? And so that breakdown, it can be interpreted a number of ways. Is he breaking down because he’s been accused of something that he didn’t have anything to do with, or is it because there’s something much darker there?

Mare of Easttown Season 1 Kate Winslet

(Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO)

On a more personal note for Mare, how is Zabel’s death going to impact her? She’s already dealing with the remnants of grief left behind by her son Kevin’s (Cody Kostro) suicide. Will Zabel’s demise only worsen her mental state?

It changes Mare in that it’s sort of a moment of comeuppance, right? Like Mare, you can’t, go through life acting this way. So cavalier about things, you know. She hides the drugs and then she’s not supposed to be on the case. And yes, she saved the girls, but here’s Zabel, dead, and anyone could make a case. They’d go, “if you weren’t tracking down these tips, he would never have been there.” And so I think it’s a moment where Mare has to reevaluate her way of acting and behaving.

And I think it makes her a better detective. And there’s also like just drive in her in the last two episodes to solve this case, not just because it’s the murder of a local girl, but also in honor of Zabel. It’s sort of like unfinished business that the two of them had together. It’s a moment where Mare has to look in the mirror and give herself a really hard look and say, “is this the way I’m going to continue my life as a detective?” And it’s also, “I want to honor my friend and my partner by getting this thing done.” That’s what I really enjoyed about the last two episodes is there’s a new resolve in there that we haven’t seen before and we see the good detective in there come out.

On that note, is there anything else you can tease about the final two episodes?

I would say it’s a fun way of going back to the old suspects and saying, who was telling the truth and who was lying? I think that’s going to be the fun of the final two episodes.

Mare of Easttown, Sundays, 10/9c, HBO