Long before we learned to call it “rape culture,” British poet Philip Larkin had some thoughts on the horrors that men visit upon women. “Even so distant,” he says,
…I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives…
The poem is called “Deceptions.” Larkin took his inspiration from Victorian hack Henry Mayhew. In the 1840s, Mayhew’s reportage gave London’s emerging middle class a part pornographic, part polemical gander at the forces and relations between private affluence and public squalor. The epigram to “Deceptions” comes from one of Mayhew’s interviews with what he would’ve called “a fallen woman”:
“Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.”
Brutality and Bathos
Larkin was a nasty customer, and a slippery one, too. Because of this (not despite it), he was able to penetrate liberal cant and come back with a raw, complex, real measure of the ways that men brutalize women and keep on brutalizing them. “Slums,” Larkin says, addressing that poor unnamed woman,
years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic.
Any time men write about women (Your Humble Correspondent types nervously), bathos lurks where brutality lags. Larkin’s mordant lines here about the “less deceived” are just nimble enough to avoid the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold schmaltz that choke so many lesser writers. If nothing else, “Deceptions” shows that even thwarted fascists have feelings.
Mare of Easttown
This is a long way of saying, have you seen Mare of Easttown? It scans as if creator Craig Zobel marinated in Larkin’s verses. Like “Deceptions,” Mare is a meditation on the unspeakable damage male self-pity does to everything around it. In it, women are tortured, beaten, smeared, kidnapped, raped, shot and tossed out like roadkill. The show broods on all this brutality without quite lingering on it. It finds that, for all the horrors visited on them, Mare’s women are the less deceived.
Mare may be a testament to the power—and limits of—male feminism. Zobel makes much of inversions. The easiest one to spot is Mare’s Kate Winslet. She’s the hard-bitten detective and fading hometown hero. It’s an amazing performance. Her face is a clay mask that hasn’t quite hardened. Like Bill Murray or W.C. Fields, she does quick-witted slowly: That face is the pure mud of long-haul clinical depression, but her eyes flash like… well, like, a drawer of knives.
That is probably the smallest inversion. Much has been made of the, um, misdirection around Guy Pearce’s Richard. You should read those tweets and Tik Tok videos as men discovering that the good wife thing is, now they think on it, pretty lame. (Sucks, eh, fellas?) Then there’s the descending action. The biggest emotional casualty of the show is the friendship between two women. Mare’s dedication to the job, however cynically discharged, costs someone she loves almost everything that matters to her.
‘A lot of things right’
That is the theme of Mare. In this small town—and Mare finally gets right that small towns aren’t (just) sinister or farcical backdrops but what Roger Ebert once called “a conspiracy of neighbors”—women lose their families, their lovers and sometimes their lives because guys just can’t get over themselves.
The show is awash in male self-pity. Evan Peters’ Colin Zabel is crippled by the realization that Mare doesn’t like him like that. We learn that Mare wears that depression mask because her son tortured her for years before killing himself. James McArdle’s Mark Burton doesn’t understand why people bring up that whole sexual predator thing. The lads that beat him are all drunk on booze and wounded male pride.
The first time we see Mare’s ex, Frank (David Denman), he can’t look Mare in the eye. We find out he and his new fiancé bought a home right in back of Mare’s. He’s also scheduled his engagement party on the same night as Mare’s big honor. He doesn’t see what the big deal is in either case. One of his first lines is his account of their failed marriage. “I was 20 years old, then, Mare,” he bleats. “I didn’t do a lot of things right.”
Then of course there are those Ross boys, three generations of whiners whose self-pity starts the action at the center of Mare. Joe Tippett’s John doesn’t understand why everyone’s hassling him about his affairs. Ryan (Cameron Mann) doesn’t understand why he can’t have his family. Billy (Robbie Tann) doesn’t understand… well, a lot.
Mare reads like a male feminist’s answer to HBO’s earlier hit, True Detective. (I refer of course to Season 1, which is The One, True Season. I’ll not be taking questions.)
Like Mare, the white men of True all wallow in their sanctimony and self-pity. Like Mare, the women in True are the less deceived. Here’s Andrea Frankle’s Jan, the steel wool-scrubbed madam at the hillbilly bunny ranch, telling Woody Harrelson’s Hart where to put his rectitude.
“What kind of provisions you think the world makes for a woman in these parts? My husband proved out to be a lying piece of dogshit, and the only thing I ever got off him was his daddy owned a little hunting lease. This. You want to know Beth’s situation ‘fore she ran out on her uncle?”
Hart refuses to get of his horse, and Jan won’t have it. “Such dick-swinging bullshit from you,” she says.
“Don’t people walk around this earth all the time having sex for free? And unprotected? You want to stop disease you should stop people having casual sex. Why is it you add business to the mix, boys like you can’t stand the thought? It’s ‘cause suddenly you don’t own it like you thought you did.”
In due course, we see just how solicitous Hart really is for the woman he ‘rescues.’
The limits of empathy
I said above that Mare shows the limits of male feminism. The women of Mare are tough, all right, and keen, from Angourie Rice’s Siobhan to Jean Smart’s (glorious) Helen. Even the doomed Erin (Cailee Spaeny) is made of sterner stuff than any of her antagonists.
Zobel is committed to his empathy. In the end, though, he finds he can only invert the old stories; he can’t create a new one. Nothing wrong in that. The best books, Orwell had it, tell us what we know already. The thing is, empathy might not be enough anymore. After all, Larkin demonstrates that even a beast can feel for the prey.