Mare of Easttown’s Prime Suspect Is Still Hiding in Plain Sight

Mare of Easttown’s Prime Suspect Is Still Hiding in Plain Sight

This article includes frank discussion of the latest episode of Mare of Easttown, “Illusions.” If you’re not caught up with episode five, now is the time to leave.

Everyone who had poor Detective Colin Zabel on their suspect list can probably cross him right off following his abrupt exit from the series in episode five. It also seems clearer than ever that rather than trying to solve one big mystery, Mare is going to have to track down one or maybe two more suspects—with just two episodes to go. So: Now that we know who kidnapped Katie Bailey (may he rest in pieces for what he did to poor Zabel), who is the real father of Erin’s baby? And who killed her out in that park? This week’s episode offered up a prime suspect in Billy Ross (Robbie Tann), but I think there’s actually one more layer to this onion. At any rate, in the end, “whodunnit?” may not be the most important question to ask. 

Several weeks ago, when director Craig Zobel appeared on the Still Watching podcast, he gave this bit of insight for those hoping to divine the culprit behind Erin’s death: “I feel like you have to have at least done enough of the breadcrumb-laying that maybe some amount of people will figure it out, rather than making it something zero human beings could figure out because it’s so out of left field. It still needs to be surprising. But it [should be] something that you can go backwards and go like, Oh, that’s why that thing happened.”

Billy Ross has been on some viewers’ suspect list for quite some time now and you can bet he shot to the top of Mare’s list this week given that he practically had a panic attack when asked about the time his young cousin Erin (Cailee Spaeny) came to stay with him. Though we didn’t see her bag that bottle of Rolling Rock beer with his DNA smeared all over it—and test it against baby DJ’s to see if Billy’s the father—I think it’s a safe bet that that’s exactly what she did. 

What will she find? When it comes to the paternity question, Billy appears to be the only eligible character who has somewhat ginger hair to match baby DJ. (You can see it in his beard when it catches the sun.) 

Billy’s other extremely suspicious moment came early in the season when his big brother John Ross (Joe Tippett) gave him this curious check-in. But are we paying attention to the wrong brother in this scene? 

John is revealed in this episode to be, at minimum, guilty of infidelity. That, at least, is what young Ryan Ross (Cameron Mann) lets his mother Lori (Julianne Nicholson) believe when she asks why he’s acting up. Notice Ryan doesn’t say anything himself, just nods along to her assumption. During a phone chat this week, director Craig Zobel said this scene will “mean something later.” 

Earlier in the episode Lori caught John trying to hold Ryan to a secret during the Easttown blackout. 

That is some creepy, classic groomer behavior there. You can easily see that something like this might be the foundation of Billy and John’s relationship as well as something that might have worked on a vulnerable young girl like Erin. Are both John’s brother and his son holding onto a bigger secret than mere infidelity? Let’s take a closer look at how the show has used Ryan throughout the series. Even though the story of Mare travels all over the town, the show still found a way to check in with an anxious-looking Ryan in every episode. 

Episode 4 was probably the most blatant. Why else is this scene here if not to hint that Ryan might know something about Erin’s case and give John the opportunity to sneakily caution his son to keep quiet. 

There’s also this quick look of alarm Ryan gives his family in episode 5 when he overhears them talking about eventually adopting Erin’s baby DJ. Does he know his father killed Erin? Does he know his father is also DJ’s real father? Also what does the “J” in “DJ” stand for anyway? Is it Dylan John?

Whatever secret Ryan has been keeping for his father erupted inside him in this week’s episode during a violent altercation in the cafeteria. 

In a show so preoccupied with passing on generational trauma and mental health issues, it’s worth noting just how vicious Ryan is here in defense of his sister. We’re meant to believe this is all about John’s pattern of infidelity but pay close attention to what he says to Ryan as he’s leaving the house. Doesn’t that sound like a subtle, manipulative warning for Ryan to keep his mouth shut about what he really knows?  

Let’s remember that the very first time we met John Ross in this show he was lying about whether he knew about Frank’s engagement. 

And if you want to take a closer look at his reaction to both Lori telling him Erin was dead and his inability to make eye contact with his cousin Kenny when breaking the news about Erin, well here you go. 

Billy looks torn to pieces about Erin when Mare meets them outside of Kenny’s house in episode 2 whereas John looks…shifty. 

Okay so what, exactly, happened? Mare has Erin’s phone records that show her calls only. We know the last person she called was Deacon Mark (James McArdle) who, if he is to be believed, picked her up and drove her to where she eventually died. She was, he said, distraught about a “betrayal.” The Deacon claims Erin got a message—which could be social media or a text but at any rate isn’t on the call report Mare has. So what betrayal was Erin most upset about in that moment? That would be Dylan’s (Jack Mulhern) ice-cold treatment of her in this brutal scene. 

I think in that precise moment Erin realized her whole plan to claim Dylan was DJ’s father in order to give the baby a better life had a major flaw in it: Dylan is an asshole. The kind of asshole who might briefly consider smothering a baby with a pillow. 

I think that moment in the park is when she decided she was going to come clean about who the father really was in order to get DJ away from Dylan. The official HBO description of her character reads: “The only love in her life is her infant son, DJ.” His safety, happiness, and health is her only priority. But if she told John that night that she wanted to tell the truth about him being the father, I can’t imagine he would have reacted well. 

Remember, John told Mare he dropped off a deliriously drunk Frank at 2:30am in order to clear Frank of suspicion. In fact, he was Frank’s only alibi. But that makes a blacked-out Frank John’s only alibi as well. Erin was killed between midnight and 1am. Her cell phone stopped pinging at around 2:30am. 

Okay but would John have actually shot Erin? Well, let’s remember the crime scene with its ricocheted bullet and Erin’s severed finger reads as more of a chaotic accident than anything else. It’s also good to remember that according to Detective Colin Zabel (RIP), Erin’s dad Kenny is the only one in town with a registered gun. We also know Billy and John know exactly where that gun is kept. They told us as much when they went looking for Kenny in episode 3. 

In episode 4, the Easttown police are due to get a ballistic report on Erin’s crime scene back “on Monday.” Between that report and a paternity check on Billy (which might exonerate one brother and damn another), John Ross should be pretty worried right now. 

If all this is true and John killed Erin (accidentally or no) because she threatened to reveal him as DJ’s true father (that’s incest and statutory rape if you’re keeping track), then this episode 2 scene with Kenny plays a little differently. Kenny is talking about Dylan here but that’s John Ross standing right behind him. 

Okay but what about Dylan? This week’s episode certainly tries to turn some suspicion back on the kid what with Brianna’s (Mackenzie Lansing) accusation that he went missing the night of the murder and his midnight journal-burning party. I can’t necessarily account for the night of the murder but I think the hunt for the journals has everything to do with the paternity question. As awful as Dylan was to Erin, it seems like he genuinely has bonded with baby DJ. 

In this episode, Dylan talks about his parents exploring keeping custody of DJ despite not being related to him by blood. If the real father were to enter the equation, Dylan would lose any hope of a claim. In episode 3, when Dylan’s father told him DJ wasn’t his kid, Dylan’s first question was “who’s saying that?” The answer, of course, was Erin’s friend Jess (Ruby Cruz) who, intriguingly, was disinclined to share that information in front of John Ross. (Notice how many times the show puts John out of focus but still in the background of frames.)  

If Dylan found out Jess was the one who knew about the paternity secret, he might have pursued her and convinced her DJ was better off with him. A good life for DJ was all Erin cared about and maybe in helping Dylan keep this secret, Jess still thinks she’s helping her friend. Just in case, though, she’s squirreled away some crucial evidence. 

Dylan is very very suspicious in this episode but I think his sneaky behavior is all about his attempt to hold onto this baby that he does actually care for. I think he’s taking that money so he can help the kid. 

Or, listen, maybe Dylan shot Erin after she told him the baby wasn’t his. But he seemed genuinely surprised by the news so though I can’t account for his whereabouts on the night Erin died, I don’t think he’s the killer. But the real reason the John Ross theory feels so right is because of how it will all land with Mare. The show is called Mare of Easttown after all. We all know why this reveal might be one of the more devastating options for our Lady Hawke. 

Lori. The one person always on Mare’s side. Listen, you don’t hire an actress like Julianne Nicholson unless you intend to really use her. She’s second billed in the cast list, I think this show has big plans for her yet. 

Something we’ve seen Mare do over and over again is bend and shape the rule of law to fit what she thinks will benefit the community. The most extreme (and awful) example being the time she planted heroin on Carrie (Sosie Bacon) to keep her away from Mare’s grandson Drew. But we also saw Mare decide that Beth’s (Chinasa Ogbuagu) brother Freddie (Dominique Johnson) should go to a shelter instead of prison in episode 1 and that a local teen shouldn’t be punished for vandalizing a cranky old lady’s house. 

So what is she going to do when she finds out evidence that will rip her best friend apart? We saw what happened the last time Mare arrested someone related to an old friend of hers. She got a gallon of milk through her window. There’s also another potentially devastating wrinkle. This is a show about tribalism and secret-keeping that sometimes runs along family lines but also sometimes runs along gender lines. If John is the father and the killer, I suspect both Ryan and Billy know. They are, under consistent pressure, keeping silent. But what about Frank? He seemed to think it was particularly ironic that the idea he might be DJ’s father came from Lori. 

Why was Frank delivering diapers and formula to Erin McMenamin? And why did he lie about it to Mare? Does he know John is the father and was helping cover it up? Does he even know about the murder? Is this why things aren’t going well with Faye? Whatever his degree of involvement it will be one more betrayal for Mare to grapple with. 

There are a number of fine suspects to keep an eye on and all of this is conjecture, of course, but it’s worth noting who is and isn’t listed on the official HBO character page. These are the people the show is telling you to pay attention to. Billy Ross isn’t on there. Dylan Hinchey isn’t either. John Ross certainly is and this is what it says about him there: “Lori’s good-natured husband and high school sweetheart, who serves as a protective father to their children Ryan and Moira, and has an unbreakable bond with his brother Billy.” Unbreakable you say? We’ll see how well that bond holds up once Mare gets the results of that DNA test.          

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