Even in retirement, Detective Bill Hodges is still haunted by the serial killing he never solved
Another day, another limited series based on a Stephen King story. But unlike last year’s 11.22.63, Mr. Mercedes is not set in the romantic, colorful world of ’60s America. It is, rather, set amid the wreckage of modern America. Several shots in the premiere portray the closed-up businesses and abandoned streets that the Great Recession left in its wake. In fact, the show itself starts at the early-morning wait outside a job fair, as tons of recession victims (including a young mother and her baby) line up in the early morning for a shot at some kind of salvation. Instead they get damnation, when a man in a clown mask drives his Mercedes through the crowd, brutally killing them all (yes, even the baby — that was tough to watch). The crime scene is grotesque, but the police’s first assumption is that the driver must have lost control. Detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) knows better as he surveys the damage: “He didn’t lose control.”
Flash forward two years, and it doesn’t seem like things are going great for Hodges. Now retired, we see him wake up one morning in dirty clothes. As we watch him pee and brush his teeth, it becomes clear that old age has gotten to him — as well as the soul-killing inertia that can come with solitary retirement. He meets his old friend Detective Peter Dixon (Scott Lawrence) for lunch at a diner. Towards the end of the meal, the waitress asks Hodges why he keeps staring at his spoon. The retired detective notes, “Everything’s upside down on a spoon” — just as true for Hodges’ own life, and for America writ large.
But this isn’t one of those detective stories where the killer’s identity is a mystery. Not long after we check in on Hodges, we get a look at the Mercedes killer himself: Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway). He’s driving a car with his windows down and (in a nod to another King work) blasting “Pet Sematary” by The Ramones. Brady works as a computer engineer, not only because he’s skilled with technology but also because his boss fancies himself a beacon to wayward youth. It’s safe to say this guy’s mentorship isn’t exactly working.
Hodges, for his part, doesn’t blast loud music as he drives. Instead, he’s listening to a speech by President Obama about how the GDP is up and thus the economy is improving, even as he drives through deserted, broken-down streets. Some of the ruin in Hodges’ life is his own fault, of course. His neighbor Ida (Holland Taylor) chides him for letting his lawn get overgrown. When he pulls a get-off-my-lawn at the kids playing hockey in the street, they note that he creeps them out when he watches them through the window. At least Ida invites him to dinner. (Recap continues on page 2)
Ida soon reveals herself as perhaps the strangest character in this whole mix, and she’s not even a serial killer or a washed-up detective. At dinner with Hodges, she asks some personal questions, including the last time he had sex. This soon turns into a proposition, with Ida even pulling out a naked picture of herself (which freaks out her neighbor). However, she admits that the ask has more serious undertones. She watched her husband wither away and die after his retirement, having lost all purpose in life, and is seeing signs of the same happening to Hodges. She warns him that he needs some kind of purpose in life. Casual romance with a neighbor seems as good as any.
Though Hodges seems somewhat intrigued by Ida, he finds purpose in a different area: solving the case that still haunts him. His interest in the Mercedes killings is revived when he suddenly gets a message from the killer. The message features a talking smiley face and Max Headroom-style glitch aesthetic as it mocks Hodges for publicly promising to catch the killer and then failing to do so. As if mocking the dead weren’t creepy enough, the killer says he actually wore a condom that night, because he was worried all the killing would excite him so much he might ejaculate and leave behind DNA evidence. In a final “screw you,” the message deletes after playing once. Hodges asks Jerome (Jharrel Jerome), the young man Ida pays for yard work, for help, but Jerome notes that whoever did this really knows their stuff.
We then cut to the man himself and get a look inside Brady’s twisted psyche. It turns out his mom (Kelly Lynch) is an alcoholic who spends all day in front of the TV, and there is quite a bit of an Oedipal complex going on — after she gives Brady a kiss, he goes off and immediately masturbates.
Hodges’ interest in the case is by now totally revived, to the point where he pressures a former co-worker into letting him see the car again. Hodges even sits in the car and imagines himself driving it and running all those people over. And his connection with Brady is only growing — at episode’s end, they come close to finally meeting. After getting off from his computer job, Brady transitions to his second job driving an ice cream truck. As all the kids rush out to get treats, Hodges finds another tennis ball in his yard. He thinks it’s those damn kids again, until he turns it over and finds the ball emblazoned with the smiley face from the video. The game, as they say, is afoot.
This episode was a little slow, but I’m interested in seeing where it goes. Brady’s an intriguing villain, and I’m digging the socioeconomic commentary running underneath the plot.