On Sunday, May 30th, at approximately 10 PM ET, HBO Max crashed for consumers all over the United States. Twitter and social media were ablaze with subscribers complaining that they were missing the TV event of the spring. But it wasn’t the Friends reunion or even a lavish fantasy series like The Nevers that brought HBO Max down like the old days of Game of Thrones. It was the Mare of Easttown finale.
The understated Kate Winslet murder mystery became a pop culture sensation over the course of its seven episode run, sparking heated debates about who killed Erin McMenamin and the accuracy of British actress Kate Winslet’s put-on Delco accent. In a time where streaming services have sent audiences spinning off into their own private binge-watching worlds, Mare of Easttown brought viewers together. According to TVLine, the show’s finale is currently the most watched piece of original TV programming on HBO Max.
The man responsible for giving Mare of Easttown the greenlight in the first place is HBO President and Chief Content Officer Casey Bloys, who oversees all of HBO and HBO Max’s original programming. While he told Decider last week that he knew Mare of Easttown “was good, no question,” knowing whether it would connect with audiences was trickier.
“I always know when a show is ‘good’ but you never know how it’s going to be received by the world,” Bloys said, adding that he caught wind that Mare was going to be a hit as soon as it premiered. “I can tell when people don’t need to tell me or email me but go out of their way to do so. You know, hearing from family who have no reason to say they like it or not. You can just sort of feel it anecdotally.”
“You can kind of tell when something is building,” Bloys said.
Mare of Easttown was indeed a wild success for HBO and Hollywood’s prognosticators maybe should have seen its success coming. Mare of Easttown is just the latest in a string of wildly popular limited series that HBO and HBO Max have produced since the first season of Big Little Lies premiered in 2017. Sharp Objects, Chernobyl, The Outsider, The Undoing, The Flight Attendant, and Mare of Easttown have all helped cement HBO as the foremost place to watch chilling limited series, usually with a star-studded murder mystery driving the action. Mare of Easttown epitomized this new sub-genre that HBO has become all too proficient at making, even if Bloys claims the network doesn’t actively go out of their way to seek this kind of programming.
“I’m not looking for the next HBO murder mystery. But, you’re right, we have had success with some,” Bloys said, before explaining how he does order series for HBO and HBO Max. “Usually, it begins with the writing. Is the writing special? Is it something we haven’t seen before? [Are] there roles for interesting talent? You evaluate it show by show so it’s less about fulfilling that particular genre and just looking for a really good show that we think will resonate.”
So far the types of shows that are resonating the most with HBO Max’s streaming audience fit into this murder mystery limited series “genre” to a tee. Before Mare of Easttown‘s finale took the crown, the two most popular episodes of original programming on HBO Max were the finales for The Undoing and The Flight Attendant. The Undoing, like Mare of Easttown, was anchored by a movie star, Nicole Kidman, as a mother whose world falls apart when her family is linked to a shocking murder. The Flight Attendant is an HBO Max original series starring Kaley Cuoco as the titular jet setter, Cassie. When Cassie wakes up in a handsome stranger’s hotel room, she is horrified to find her hookup murdered and her memory of the night blacked out. The Flight Attendant was envisioned as a limited series, but its success led to a Season 2 renewal.
Bloys said that although The Flight Attendant seems to fit into a similar niche as Mare of Easttown and The Undoing, it arrived on HBO Max to fit an entirely different programming goal.
“One of the ideas for HBO Max is to have a place to do some programming that wouldn’t necessarily be on HBO, and I think Flight Attendant is a good example, as it feels somewhat broader than an HBO show,” Bloys said, adding that he thought the show, which was developed before he took the reins at HBO Max was “great and incredibly well-executed.”
“So one of the things that we’re trying to emphasize on Max is female programming because we have a good core of male subscribers on HBO,” Bloys said.
Bloys quickly added that although HBO has traditionally had “fantastic female-led and -created series,” HBO Max’s slate would reflect the demographic in a “more sustained way,” citing series like Hacks and Gossip Girl, in addition to The Flight Attendant. “The idea is that the programming on HBO and HBO Max are complimentary, but when you look at them at a whole, it’s a much broader spectrum,” Bloys said.
The next two big murder mysteries on Bloys’s slate are both set to land on HBO Max as streaming service originals. Colin Firth will play Michael Peterson in a dramatization of the landmark crime doc The Staircase, while Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons will star in Love and Death, based on a real-life Texas murder case. As for the latter, Bloys said, “There is probably a handful of shows that straddle the line [between an HBO show and an HBO Max show], and I would say that [Love and Death] will probably be one.”
The rise of popular female-led murder mysteries like Big Little Lies, The Undoing, and Mare of Easttown raises other questions about the interests of HBO’s and HBO Max’s core audience. Over at Slate, writer Anna Nordberg wondered what these shows would look like without a core murder mystery driving the plot. “Is it just the cold hard math that complex, layered stories about women need a murder to sell the plot?” Nordberg wrote. Does HBO need a grisly murder to yoke audiences into female-centric stories?
Bloys said, “I would like to point out, if you don’t want to see murder, and you do want to see female-led shows, you could watch My Brilliant Friend, which is a beautiful show about female friendship. You could watch Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. You could watch Mrs. Fletcher. You know, I want to make sure people understand this is not the only female-led storytelling that we offer, by any means.”
Still, Bloys understood the power of a great whodunit in an HBO show. “Look, I think, not just in television, but in literature and movies, people have always liked a murder mystery. I think TV lends itself to whodunits and solving crimes. I think the fascination with mysteries is I think it does give viewers another thing to invest in. You know, the fun of solving a crime or trying to figure it out,” Bloys said.
“I think what’s great about Mare is it did have that element for sure, but it was a really beautiful portrait of families dealing with really weighty and distressing topics in an every day way,” he added.
Bloys, a native of nearby Lehigh Valley, added that his favorite part of Mare of Easttown‘s success was how it highlighted the struggles of people living in the Philly suburbs in the wake of the loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of the opioid crisis. “I think the way that Brad (Inglesby) and Craig (Zobel) and Kate and the actors brought them to life was really admirable.”
One of the biggest questions on the minds of Mare of Easttown fans is whether or not HBO will give the limited series a second season, along the lines of Big Little Lies. Mare creator Brad Ingelsby told Decider that he would happily write a second season if he could “crack a story that was great.” As of two weeks ago, Ingelsby told Decider that he didn’t have that idea and he was loathe to push ahead without a good plan.
Casey Bloys told Decider he was “aligned” with Ingelsby. “The show was conceived as a limited series and it was so incredibly well executed…I think [Season 2] becomes a natural question. But there are high hurdles,” Bloys said. “I kind of agree with Brad. If he has something he thinks is amazing, he could certainly come and talk to us, but we’ll see what he has to say.”
“The important thing is that we get to work with these talented people again,” Bloys said, mentioning that a future collaboration with Ingelsby or Winslet wouldn’t have be a second season of Mare.
Bloys has a lot more lined up for HBO and HBO Max’s future than just more murder mysteries. Throughout 2021 Warner Bros. will be premiering new films in theaters and on HBO Max for an exclusive 31 day streaming window for subscribers. This means that Bloys has such hotly anticipated movies as In The Heights, The Suicide Squad, and Dune to serve as HBO Max tentpoles for the rest of the year. Some of these films are also setting up HBO Max original series. The Suicide Squad spin-off series Peacemaker will debut on HBO Max in early 2022 and Bloys confirmed to Decider that Dune: The Sisterhood is still very much in development.
The next major HBO series on the horizon will likely be Succession Season 3, which Bloys said was still on target for a Fall 2021 premiere. “Yeah. We’re still shooting, so the only caveat is, you know, production[-wise] COVID is still an issue and sometimes we get slowed down, but it’s still looking like Fall.”
After that, HBO’s focus is on the first Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. The series is shooting now with a 2022 release date in sight. When asked if the show, taking place during a ferocious Targaryen civil war known as “The Dance of the Dragons,” would be more action-focused or character-driven, Bloys said it was something of a family drama. He also confirmed that there had been conversations about carefully portraying the era’s complex female characters.
“As opposed to Game of Thrones, [House of the Dragon] is much more about the Targaryens, so it’s centered on one family, but I think the Targaryens have enough drama — like most families — to fuel a series,” Bloys said. “And there are prominent female protagonists and any time you approach that, you want it to be done in a way that is careful and thoughtful and interesting. I think we’re doing a good job on that. The show will be out next year, so you’ll tell us.”
The news at HBO isn’t just concerned with Mare of Easttown‘s success and how to follow it up, though. Warner Media and Discovery are in the opening stages of a major media merger. Decider asked Bloys if he had spoken yet to Discovery chief David Zaslav and what he thought would be the advantages for HBO and HBO Max in the merger.
“It’s actually far too soon to comment on. You know, I met David [Zaslav] and he was great, energetic, and really excited about the possibility of bringing the companies together. But the unfortunate part of mergers is you have to wait. The process can take up to a year where you can’t really coordinate or do anything,” Bloys said. “We’ll have to see how it all develops. It was great to meet him and their team seems really excited about getting to work whenever the Department of Justice says we can.”
If nothing else, the success of Mare of Easttown has proven that HBO has a lot more incredible stories to tell both on its traditional network and the HBO Max platform.