The all-encompassing Stephen King series introduces Misery and Salem’s Lot to the mix.
Castle Rock is a series that rewards patience. In the first season, the anthology series – broadly informed by the works of prolific horror author Stephen King – was never in a rush to reveal its mysteries. Season 2, which tackles elements of Misery and Salem’s Lot, is similarly slow-paced, but audiences who are willing to invest in the family drama at the series’ center will find plenty to enjoy.
Arguably one of the wisest decisions that creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason made is adopting an anthology format, which scatters plenty of Easter Eggs for viewers of the first season, as well as King fans, but doesn’t require new viewers to have a vast prior knowledge. Season two is a mostly standalone story, which is made more enjoyable for those with a greater awareness of the source texts.
Front and center is new protagonist (or is it anti-heroine?) Annie Wilkes, played marvelously by Lizzy Caplan. The first episode, “Let The River Run”, sets the stage by opening with the disarming image of a teenager Annie Wilkes on the shore of a lake, covered in blood and holding a banker’s box. Flash forward to a montage of adult Annie, covertly stealing drugs from various hospital pharmacies as her young daughter grows up next to her on the road over the years. The pair routinely discuss their journey to find “the laughing place”, a place (which has a distinctly King-like sound to it) where they can stop and call home.
Clearly Annie is a woman on the run who has fabricated a web of lies in the guise of protecting her daughter Joy (now played by Eighth Grade break-out Elsie Fisher) as they journey around the country, changing license plates and avoiding social media.
The ruse comes to an end when Annie crashes the car on the outskirts of Castle Rock. The pair are forced to stay put while their vehicle is repaired, though Annie’s distrust of records and authority means that Joy’s hand injury is treated by her nurse mother, who keeps her locked up like a princess in a fairytale.
The narrative expands when Annie takes a temporary nursing position at the hospital in order to secure herself a specific cocktail of anti-psychotics, which she uses to keep visions of a blood soaked man (John Hoogenakker) at bay. Annie soon encounters the Merrills, Castle Rock’s most influential family: Pop (Tim Robbins), the cancer-stricken mayor; his nephew Chris (Matthew Alan), who runs the Emporium Galorium garage ; and Pop’s foster kids, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Nadia (Yusra Warsama), the entrepreneur and the doctor, respectively.
And then there is the black sheep of the family: John ‘Ace’ (Paul Sparks), who acts as Annie’s landlord and manages the Somali Mall with his gang of intimidating flunkies. Ace is the instigator of most of season two’s conflict. He has a petty rivalry with Abdi that constantly threatens to escalate into all-out war and, at the end of the first episode, he attacks Annie in her home, prompting her to kill him in self-defence. It’s gruesome and great.
That’s less of a spoiler than a tease because, of course, that’s not the last we see of Ace. Annie makes the mistake of disposing of his body in Jerusalem’s Lot, an old burial ground at the bottom of a hill below the deserted Marsten House. This act is the origin of a creeping menace that slowly begins to infect the town.
The key word here is “slowly”, if only because the first five episodes of Castle Rock made available for review, are far more interested in developing the two families than they are in bloodletting. There are several exciting set pieces, but significantly more time is dedicated to flashbacks that reveal how characters came to their present circumstances. Some of these mysterious back stories are not difficult to decipher (Pop’s adoption of Abdi and Nadia; why Annie never speaks of Joy’s father), but Castle Rock’s commitment to methodical, deliberately paced storytelling is admirable.
Annie is constantly one second away from an outburst, her energy all coiled up in tensed muscles, just waiting to be unleashed. It’s a performance unlike any other Caplan has given.
As the de facto lead, Caplan anchors the series with her committed performance as Annie Wilkes. There’s a clear acknowledgment of Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance from Misery (especially in the way Caplan says “dirty bird”), but playing a younger interpretation of the character helps Caplan to make the role her own. Her physicality, in particular, is quite visually distinctive: Annie’s dominating personality and black & white perspective on life makes her prone to hurriedly walk/run with stiff arms locked rigidly at her side. Annie is constantly one second away from an outburst, her energy all coiled up in tensed muscles, just waiting to be unleashed. It’s a performance unlike any other Caplan has given.
The other actors are solid, albeit more subdued. Fisher’s Joy is mostly forced to react to Annie’s increasingly irrational behaviour and, as a result of her home-schooled status and her mother’s self-imposed isolation, Joy lacks a basic knowledge of the world. Her burgeoning exploration of a potential lesbian relationship with local girl Chance (Abby Corrigan) is sweet, while her investigation into her mother’s secrets help to shed light on Annie’s origin story. This comes to fruition in a super-sized fifth episode which is entirely dedicated to Annie’s troubled upbringing.
The Merrils also have their share of family drama, though it is slightly more formulaic. At times, Castle Rock evokes the early seasons of Bates Motel, which similarly explored how the seedy underbelly and pervasive rot of secrets undermine the stability of families and small towns. In this way, the show is performing a much larger cultural critique, exploring racism and corruption through the personal lens of the Merril family.
With all of these storylines to juggle, restless audiences hungry for violence and supernatural events may find their patience tested by the second season’s early episodes. Episode four leans more into the looming threat that Ace poses as his nefarious plan begins to take shape, which will presumably come to fruition in the season’s back half. In its first half, however, Castle Rock keeps the supernatural elements lurking on the periphery, focusing instead on characters and family melodrama, anchored by Lizzy Caplan’s commanding performance at the center.
It’s good stuff…for those with patience.
Castle Rock season two creeps into town on Wednesday, October 23 on Hulu.