**Warning: spoilers-ish? I mean I’m talking about a specific character arc that is a pretty obvious red herring early in the show. If you’re crazy like me & like to go into everything as blindly as possible, driving most of your friends & family insane from cutting them off mid-sentence when talking about just basic plot points, then skip this. Hey, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. But you won’t really find anything that will ruin the show other than writing off one early suspect that is just so obviously not the killer according to tv show logic.**
Authenticity in fiction is a hard target to hit. You need to balance between dropping clever hints that slowly accumulate into a coherent sense of place & hammering viewers over the head with constant location & product references. Harder still to subtly capture the communal spirit of a place without making the story entirely about the location itself. In this way, works of fiction will create plots that dance around major current events to avoid controversy & retain focus on the plot. After watching the final installment of HBO’s detective drama, Mare of Easttown, I believe this is precisely (& perhaps, unintentionally) what the show gets so right about Pennsylvania.
I won’t rehash the acclaim the show has garnered throughout its run for capturing the ever-elusive Delco accent, Kate Winslet’s excellent performance, or the handful of other articles that argue that the show succeeds due to its sense of authenticity. For the most part I agree with what is being said (my favorite part of the show honestly was seeing Evan Peters play a role that wasn’t ham-fisted together by Ryan Murphy), but I would like to get a little deeper into a specific character arc that struck a chord with me early: the accusation & redemption of Deacon Mark. I was very curious to see where his story would lead given the recent PA current events on the subject.
Early in the investigation of Erin Mcmenamin’s murder, Deacon Mark is shown at the pulpit of St. Michael’s Catholic church, imbedding himself as a voice of spiritual consolation to his flock, which conveniently includes most of the relevant characters in the show. In episode 3, it’s revealed that he had known her more than originally stated & that he communicated with her the night of her death. At the end of the episode it’s also revealed that he was in possession of her missing bike. Now, because I fancy myself a pretty good crafter of fiction & because I am also a seasoned veteran of murder dramas (don’t judge), these types of glaring red flags for one character, particularly this early in, are clearly red herrings. This is where I made a mental note to myself to see where Deacon Mark’s story would go.
You see, in the show’s fictional world, the characters are clearly aware of what has come to light concerning clergy and young parishioners in the past two decades. When Detective Zobel has his inevitable conversation with the deacon, revealing that he knows that he was reassigned to St. Michael’s due to a sexual misconduct allegation that occurred at a previous church, he references the sex scandals, although it’s not clear if he’s referencing the 2005 & 2012 grand jury reports on the Catholic Diocese of Philadelphia in particular or the more recent 2018 grand jury report, in which more than 300 priests were accused of abusing more than 1,000 children within the six PA dioceses outside of Philadelphia. It just can’t be ignored that in a show that is trying to be as authentic as possible about its location, there is a story line regarding a priest that was transferred to a new church due to a sex scandal. It’s as obvious as the opioid crisis, Wawa coffee, cheesesteaks, Eagles jerseys, Yuenglings, Rolling Rocks, & the overall drab, hilly, dilapidated color filter that all movies & shows bestow upon the actually green & beautiful state of Pennsylvania.
Ok so where does that leave us? According to tv show logic, this guy clearly is not going to be the killer, so where will his character arc go?
In a later scene, Father Dan Hastings, who is the pastor of St. Michaels, informs the deacon that his past is about to be revealed. While Deacon Mark gaslights the pastor, playing on his clearly conflicted perspective of belief, we see that the writers are positioning him as a perceived victim of wrongful accusation. Ostensibly, this tells us a few things. First, that Father Dan knew about Deacon Mark’s history & attempted to launder him through St. Michaels anyway. While this might have tracked prior to 2001, there is no way this makes any sense in the current time period of the show. Even if Father Dan has sought sanctuary inside the open arms of denial because the institution to which he has given the majority of his life is crumbling under the systemic, decades long, completely focused corruption of its own dogma--a dogma that it claims papal & universal authority on I might add--he still should have the sense of mind to not accept Deacon Mark into the flock just to insulate his own ass from ridicule & potential legal ramifications. I mean, he’s not motivated by his own catholic dogma or he would have been open about Deacon Mark to his parishioners in the first place.
You know, reconciliation & all that.
The second thing this shows us is that Deacon Mark, as perceived victim, is only going to have a character arc that goes one of two ways: redemption or comeuppance. Once exonerated in the Mcmenamin case, he would give a smug homily on forgiveness & everyone, now knowing full well that this guy has a history of sexual accusations within an institution that deserves absolutely no slack at this point as we unearth more & more of the evil they have been doing under the guise of religion & holiness, would say 10 hail marys for not believing him & carry on. Or, they take the risky move & tear him down. Would the writers have the balls, I thought, to say sure he’s innocent of this crime, but we should have had full transparency on Deacon Mark & there should be zero tolerance in Father Dan attempting to hoodwink his parishioners? So, Deacon Mark is held accountable for hiding his past & Father Dan is defrocked as an accomplice for attempting to launder him. Another fresh wound for Mare’s family to heal from (remember that Father Dan is Mare’s cousin). Ouch.
Anyone that has watched the show to its conclusion knows they choose the former path. After further drawing sympathy for Deacon Mark by having some kids beat him up while he’s just trying to pick up cheesesteaks from a local eatery, he’s eventually cleared & gets to give that great, big, bullshit homily about redemption & healing & moving forward as though, sure, this is about that girl dying, but it’s also, in a wider sense, about the catholic church as an institution & look, we’re not all that bad right? Everyone smiles at each other as the morning light filters through the stained glass & the deacon is seen as brave for giving the homily in the first place.
You’re probably wondering why I’m focusing so intently on a piece of the story that was really just meant as a red herring to drum up suspects for a murder detective show. These characters are necessary to the formula & anyway, not all priests are bad, right? Well, here is where I take issue with the show’s accolades for authenticity. Mare of Eastown, which arguably works so well because of its sense of place within Pennsylvania, had a chance to show the world how a catholic church scandal should be handled & it fell short. That, while there may be a few sour grapes in the wine, the real evil that Pennsylvania has had to pour out for the past two decades is the clear evidence that the church willfully created a systematic means of hushing, moving, manipulating, & laundering those grapes to avoid detection & that other men with probably good intentions (like our Father Dan here) swept it under the rug & are just as culpable. It could have been a call for remaining catholics to re-evaluate the foundations of what they believe & hold their church to the standards it tries to hold to the world. To confess, accept blame, say their contrition, & start building themselves back up with humility. That is the true path of redemption. I’m sure Jesus could have more concisely summed up this clumsy parable that I’ve been trying to make here, but the meaning would be the same. People mess up, take wrong paths, do horrendous shit, but can always come back if they are truly contrite & accept their humanity. I mean, didn’t that used to be the catholic message to the world, the one they sold us all on? They seemed to have forgotten that first there needs to be a complete acceptance of the evils committed.
But maybe having the characters of Easttown collectively sweep this sub-plot under the rug is the most authentic Pennsylvania thing it ever accomplished.