Mare of Easttown and thoughts on writing a killer TV pilot


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis, theme

We talk about movies a lot around here but I know many of you are also interested in TV, so this week let’s look at the Mare of Easttown pilot script. We’ll talk about what a pilot really needs to do and glean some lessons about writing a great pilot script.

First, a little background:

HBO’s Mare of Easttown was created and the pilot script was written by Brad Inglesby. (And if you need any proof of the success of Mare, he now has a 3-year overall deal with HBO.) Several years ago, his script The Low Dweller was one of those buzzy specs that everyone in town loves, and it eventually became the movie Out of the Furnace.

Mare of Easttown, which recently finished airing it’s 7-episode first season, is arguably a cultural phenomenon. I don’t know if it will have a lasting impression, but when Saturday Night Live and every nighttime talk show references you, you know you’re on the pop culture radar. It stars Kate Winslet as a detective investigating a murder in a small town near Philadelphia.

What does a pilot script need to do, really?

Understanding which targets you need to hit makes hitting them that much easier (and more likely). So let’s talk about what you’re trying to achieve when you write a pilot.

A pilot needs to:

  1. Stand on its own as a complete episode, and
  2. Launch the series to come.

Sounds simple. But it’s deceptively simple, let me tell you. There’s a lot involved in hitting each of those targets.

Really the pilot needs to:

  • Weave together A, B, and (likely) C stories, each with their own setup, escalation, and resolution.
  • Establish whether the series is episodic or serialized.
  • Plant seeds to let us know where the series is headed after the pilot episode.
  • Introduce compelling characters and relationships we want to come back for episode after episode.
  • Make sure we know who the main characters are (i.e. who will be generating storylines in future episodes) and what they each want in the series.
  • Create stakes for each character.
  • Establish the series idea and entertainment hooks.
  • Establish the franchise elements.
  • Show us why the series starts now.
  • Launch the central conflicts of the series.
  • Establish what the show is about, thematically.

How does the Mare of Easttown pilot hold up?


Want to read the script and consider those criteria for yourself? Download the Mare of Easttown pilot here.

And here’s my take on it:

The pilot episode introduces us to both Mare and Easttown, PA with great specificity. Which is important because this character and this world are actually two of the main entertainment hooks of the series.

Mare’s a detective and we see what that’s like, the culture of her precinct, and how she does her job. And we’re shown that Mare’s job is important to her and how dedicated she is to it.

By the end of the episode a murder has been committed, which launches one of the season’s main story engines – the investigation of Erin McMenamin’s death. Mare also has an old case that has new urgency, which gives us another season engine – the investigation of Katie Bailey’s disappearance.

This episode also establishes that Mare’s home/personal life will provide storylines for future episodes. In the pilot we see that her ex-husband Frank has just gotten engaged, while right now Mare is more likely to have a one-night-stand than a committed relationship. Character-wise, there’s something intriguing there — why is she the way she is, how will this play out?

Mare also has custody of her grandson, Drew, and, while we don’t get all of the details surrounding the situation, we do know that her son (Drew’s father) is dead and this still haunts her in some way.

Why this story now?

Mare of Easttown is a serialized show and there are two main reasons the story starts now, today of all days:

  1. New urgency in the Katie Bailey disappearance. It’s the one-year anniversary of Katie’s disappearance and her mom, Dawn, along with other supporters in the community are turning up the pressure on the police, which trickles down onto Mare’s shoulders and conscience.
  2. Teen mom, Erin, will be murdered today by an as-yet unknown killer. The murder doesn’t happen until the end of the episode, but what we see in the pilot is the series of events that will result in her death and set up the mystery that Mare will investigate for the rest of the season.

The launch of these two main series conflicts (and season-long arcs) creates the “why now” of the series. It’s why we enter the story at this exact point, rather than a day, a week, a month earlier or later.

And, fittingly, these two storylines establish some of the big thematic ideas that the series will explore going forward: surviving vs. thriving in this environment, what the bonds of family mean, how we’re shaped by the past and how we move forward, and what defines us.

The big question: does it work?

After reading this pilot, are you engaged in the Erin McMenamin mystery? Do you want to know who in this small, seemingly close-knit community is responsible for her death?

Are you rooting for justice for Katie Bailey, and curious if and how her disappearance will dovetail with Erin’s murder?

And are you invested in main character Mare and her internal struggle?

Reading and analyzing pilot scripts can be really instructive, and this is one that made an impression. It’s worth breaking down why and how it works.

And if Mare isn’t for you, that’s okay! Find pilot scripts that have a similar tone to your own project or that inspire you in some way, and analyze those. Figure out how and why they work so you can apply those insights to your pilot.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.