'Mare of Easttown' Creator on the 'Heavy Emotions' Revealing Erin's Killer In Finale (Exclusive)

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WARNING: Spoilers ahead! Do not proceed if you haven't watched Sunday's finale of Mare of Easttown, titled "Sacrament." 

John Ross (Joe Tippet) is the father of Erin McMenamin's (Cailee Spaeny) baby -- but he didn't kill her. Sunday's finale of Mare of Easttown took Mare (Kate Winslet) and viewers on a wild ride, through family secrets and heartbreaking realities. 

"Our goal was always that you arrived at the ending and that you were surprised, but also moved emotionally. And that the audience won't feel cheated or tricked in any way," Mare of Easttown creator Brad Ingelsby tells ET by phone, hoping the series has dropped enough hints along the way that viewers won't feel too thrown off by all the twists. 

Though the penultimate episode confirmed John's brother Billy (Robbie Tann) had something to do with the crime (and even showed him practicing his confession), in the finale, John took the blame, and went to prison for Erin's murder. 

John and Erin started their affair at a family reunion shortly after Erin's mom's death -- and John and Lori's (Julianne Nicholson) son Ryan (Cameron Mann) found out about it. Flashbacks revealed that on the night Erin died, she had been contacting John, with Ryan discovering the texts. Destroyed by the betrayal of his father's new affair and trying to keep his family together, Ryan messaged back as his father, agreeing to meet up with Erin. He stole a gun and took off on his bike, intending to scare Erin into leaving his father alone. 

It was Ryan -- a middle schooler! -- who killed Erin. John and Billy helped move the body, and when viewers saw Lori agree to protect her family, she was covering for her son, not her husband. 

Julianne Nicholson Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short/HBO

Mare only put all this together after learning from Glen Carroll (Patrick McDade) that his gun had recently been stolen (and then put back) -- with the only other person with a key to his shed being the kid who cuts his lawn, Ryan. His arrest was painful, and caused deep wounds between Mare and Lor. But at the end of the day, Mare did right by Erin, and started her own journey to healing. 

In an interview with ET, Ingelsby opened up about making Ryan Erin's killer, whether Mare could have ever just turned a blind eye to that reality and what's next for our favorite Easttown detective. (A possible season 2?!)

ET: Discovering it was Ryan who killed Erin was so tragic -- was this always how it was going to end? 

Brad Ingelsby: I had the ending in my head even prior to writing the opening episode page one, but I hadn't had Mare in my head, had a lot of these characters in my head. It was about eight months of just having these characters in my head, but not knowing exactly where it was going to end. And then it wasn't until I kind of landed on Ryan and I was convinced that was a really emotional way to end the show, but also it would speak to the show and the female relationships and the loss of a son. And it would speak to the themes of the show in a way that was honest and organic. And so once I landed on Ryan, we stayed with that. It never changed. It was always going to end with him.

Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short/HBO

Was there ever a world in which Mare would just let it go, and not arrest Ryan, like Lor mentioned? 

I think my hesitancy about that is, you know, a couple of things. One is, Mare crosses the line as a detective a few times. I'm not saying it's not possible that Mare would ever have done something like that, but I think more importantly, Mare made a vow to Erin to solve this case and to do justice by her. And I was always worried that if Mare would suddenly, you know, just hide the truth or let Ryan off that it would be a betrayal of her commitment to Erin, her commitment to her job as detective. And that, to me, would be disappointing. This is a woman who's willing to do something like this, arrest Ryan, and Mare has the fortitude to suffer the consequences. 

It's one of the things I admire about Mare most is her resilience in the face of incredible trauma and tragedy. And this ending is another one. But it's also her empathy as a character that I find really interesting. And that was something I would always say to Kate is, 'Mare has a tremendous amount of empathy, but not in the family structure with all these acquaintances and people in town.' That was always a complexity that I was interested in, a woman that doesn't seem to have much sympathy for the people in her family, but in the community as a whole, she has a tremendous amount of sympathy.

And there's a characteristic of Mare that I love, which is that, I feel like the people in the community always know they can lean on her. And that's what I wanted to achieve at the end of the show with Lori was her being like, 'I'm here, like I'm going to be here. And that's who I am as a friend.' I felt like if she just let it go, it was a betrayal to her job and also to Erin as a character, and so that's why we had to arrest Ryan. 

Julianne Nicholson Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short/HBO

You mentioned the female relationships in the show. What was it like crafting these storylines, and then working with Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Angourie Rice and Jean Smart to bring them to life? 

You know, I grew up around a lot of women, and so some of those characters were just based on the women that I grew up with. I just spent a lot of time around these women growing up. ... This show was a tribute to the women in my life and my aunts and my mom and my sisters, and so that was really that it was something I wanted to honor.

And in addition to having these amazing actresses, Kate, Jean, and Angourie and Julianne, if there's something that wasn't ringing true as a mom or a sister or a mother, they were able to advise, like, 'I wouldn't say this, I wouldn't do this. This is what would happen.' And, and my greatest ability as a writer is just to listen and to take the best idea in the room. And if Kate's telling you, 'As a mom, I wouldn't say that,' I'm going to take Kate's idea. Like, I think the ending scene with Kate and Julianne in the kitchen, I had written something that Julianne was supposed to say... and Julianne was like, 'I don't want to say anything.' I just went with it. Just being able to work with these actors, I think being able to listen to them...  it was a great joy. 

Let's talk about Evan Peters and his character -- viewers were devastated by the way you just killed him off. Talk to me about that decision. 

Listen, it's a testament to Evan's amazing acting and his ability to be such a wonderful likable guy. He was always written as that, and that was always that ending that we would give him. It was almost sad because on the page, he was a likable character. But then when you were in the edit, you were like, 'Holy crap, he's so good.' I remember watching the bar scene and being like, 'Guys, we got a little bit of a problem on our hands because the audience is going to hate us when we lose Zabel, because Evan is so good in the show that an audience is gonna want to crucify us. Like, it's going to be really.' 

And I will say this, so many of the great lines that his character has -- the "Goodnight, Mare" thing that he says, the "bagel" line in the bar -- all that was Evan's creation. So the character was written... but so much of the charm of the character was Evan. And he just knocked it out of the park. That bar scene was probably my favorite scene in the whole series.

Evan Peters Kate Winslet Mare of Easttown
Michele K. Short/HBO

It was such an unlikely partnership, but so interesting to watch. 

It was great. It was just so fun to be around, and they were so wonderful together. It was really fun.

In the wake of Zabel's death, Mare sort of reunites with Guy Pearce's character, Richard -- but they're not exactly together at the end of the finale. Do they get a happy ending in your mind? Where does that relationship go? 

I think what we -- and this is actually a good idea Kate had, because we had more scenes with Guy in the last episode that hinted there was a relationship that would continue -- but Kate had a really smart idea. And I think it was, it's true in that Mare's act of going over and seeing Lori and embracing her, it was too easy if Mare's life was perfect. If Mare had the guy, she's back on the force, everything in Mary's life was aces. It felt too easy. And so we couldn't have them have the happy ending or too much of a happy ending. We kind of left it ambiguous as to what would happen in between these two people.

But Richard was always written as a character that would give Mare moments of release,  just a breath of air that would take her out of the case or the family unit. And he was always written as like, a moment of tenderness in her life. He was a guy that came into her life at a very specific time, a very specific and challenging time and was able to somehow just get her through it. Not all relationships have to go on and be amazing, last a hundred years, but there are people that come into your life at a certain time and help you through it. And sometimes that's enough and in this case, that's what Richard was. 

We do see a lot of healing for Mare in this last episode. We have these therapy scenes, we see her start to go up to the attic for the first time since her son's death. How important was it to give those moments to the viewer and wrap up Mare in that way?

Oh, I think it was absolutely critical because the show, I mean, the last episode is quite heavy. It definitely is not a laugher in any way. It's heavy, heavy stuff and real heavy emotions. And so we had to end on a moment of hope... I wanted the audience to feel hopeful that when the credits are rolling, they can leave going, 'You know what? I think Mare and Easttown, I think they're going to be OK. It's not going to be easy, it's hard earned, but I think they're going to be OK.' I really wanted the audience to walk away with that sensation and not be like, 'What a downer.' I want them to feel like everyone's going to be OK now. 

Kate Winslet Guy Pearce Mare of Easttown
Sarah Shatz/HBO

The viewership for this show has grown week after week. Any chance we could Big Little Lies this thing and get a second season? 

I had planned it as one. I don't know if I was able to crack a version that I could make great. I would only want to go back to Mare of Easttown if I had a story I felt would be great and that we could give audiences what they want. So, I don't have anything. Now, if I did get struck by lightning or something and I get this great idea, then I would definitely give it a shot. Because listen, I love Mare. I love her, and I love the people in this town so much that if I felt I could give them a great season or a great second story, then I would absolutely go for it. Who knows if that will happen though.

All seven episodes of Mare of Easttown are available to stream on HBO Max. 

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