A friend’s recommendation recently led my wife and me to the HBO series Mare of Easttown, a crime drama starring Kate Winslet. We were pleasantly surprised. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, taking you through multiple, intersecting subplots, and keeping you guessing right up to the end.
The story takes place in a small, impoverished Pennsylvania town, and revolves around Detective Mare Sheehan, a woman with layers and layers of unresolved trauma, including a son who killed himself and a missing girl case she was never able to solve. But that’s not the main crime of the show. In episode 1, another teenage girl is murdered, and Mare dives headlong into trying to solve what she couldn’t solve before, and to distract herself from her sorrow in the process.
From there the show is, well, a veritable rollercoaster — one of those coasters that twist, drop, and even move backward at times. I think my wife and I both used the phrase, “That show wrecked me.” But my purpose here is not to summarize or spoil, but to highlight a surprise, well-placed nugget that caught us off guard toward the end of the show. One that underlines perhaps the main layer to the story.
After running into some initial obstacles, Mare’s boss calls in some help from the County, another detective named Colin Zabel who made a name for himself by solving a tricky cold case single-handedly. Mare is hesitant at first, as she likes to work alone, but eventually they become friends and work well together. As the show progresses, we learn that they both have similar story arcs: significant past victories that led to present-day sputterings. Zabel solved the cold case but has found little success since then. Mare, when she was in high school, made an incredible basketball shot to win a game that she’s still recognized for at pep rallies and community meetings, even though she’s now in her late 40s. But since then? Failure, dysfunction, addiction, and disappointment. Both of their lives started big like fireworks with a spectacular burst of color and excitement, only to fizzle out into a disappointing, anticlimactic finale.
But that sets up the climax to this particular subplot. Zabel at one point confesses to Mare, “I just want to do something great,” to which Mare responds: “Doing something great is overrated. Because then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is you’re just as screwed up as they are.”
Ahhh, ok. I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of show — clearly more than a crime drama, and a welcome one at that. In a turn toward the existential, even theological, Mare says doing something great comes with further (unsolicited) expectations that you can never measure up to. If it’s not an exponential growth curve upward, something must be wrong, the prevailing thought seems to be. But Mare of Easttown shows the folly of such a way of thinking. We’re all just as screwed up as everyone else is. Why do temporal successes blind us to the truth?
In Christian theology, salvation is positioned as something that is given by grace, not as a reward for past successes, nor as an expectation of a new level of greatness. It doesn’t say “What else you got?” but instead whispers unconditional love to screwed-up sinners, by way of a bloody cross. In fact, sometimes it’s in our pursuit of greatness that we miss God on the ascent. Jesus’s disciples once asked him who would be the greatest in his kingdom. But he pumped the brakes on that way of thinking by saying to be great is to not be that great, and to be ok with that. In God’s kingdom, the pursuit of greatness isn’t required, nor is even the pursuit of God, but coming to terms with our limitations and resting in the fact that he pursues us, relentlessly, at great cost to himself.
To say it differently, and maybe more controversially: grace doesn’t expect anything of us. That’s the key. And when we come to understand this, everything changes. Far from paralyzing us, it actually frees us. We can celebrate wins, but also not be crushed by our losses, as God’s love is given (and maintained) completely apart from our circumstances, work, and reciprocation.
Doing something great can be a good thing, but it’s overrated. Especially when we centralize it. Believing, however, in the one who did something great for us will never go out of style, and he’s the one who is actually able to meet the follow-up expectations. As Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” See, with grace, there is no exponential growth curve, just a downward pointing arrow, from heaven to the Easttown of our souls, signaling God’s willing, self-effacing descent to become “un-great” like the sinners he loved and was bound to save.