The anthology has learned from its mistakes with season 2, a sort of modern-day prequel centering on one of Stephen King’s most famous characters: Misery’s Annie Wilkes.
In its first season, Castle Rock — a horror thriller comprising the “Stephen King multiverse” and based in his fictional Maine town — crafted a compelling, convoluted tale that ultimately, and unfortunately, collapsed under the weight of its own complexity. But the anthology series seems to have learned from its mistakes with season two, a sort of modern-day prequel centering on one of King’s most famous characters: Misery’s Annie Wilkes.
Though Castle Rock takes place in present day, we meet Annie (Lizzy Caplan) some years before she holds any romance novelists hostage. Still, she is not well. An efficient opening montage lays out the particulars of Annie’s peripatetic life: Find a job as a nurse; work a few weeks before stealing all the Lithium in the hospital’s supply closet; switch out her license plates and leave town with her daughter, Joy (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher), in tow; repeat indefinitely.
When Annie crashes her car one night a few miles outside of Castle Rock, she and Joy are forced to settle in a long-term rental owned by local thug and recurring King character Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks). Meanwhile, Ace and his adopted brother Abdi (Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi) are at increasingly tense odds over their dueling real estate interests, which involve the growing Somali community in nearby Salem’s Lot. By the end of the first episode, these threads are cleverly, violently entangled (you’ll never look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). What follows is a propulsive story that encompasses not only Annie Wilkes’ origins, but a haunted burial ground, the Battle of Mogadishu, reanimated corpses, and Tim Robbins growling through a sharp-cheddar Maine accent as Ace’s cancer-stricken father, Pop Merrill.
For Castle Rock, the decision to build a narrative around a well-known Stephen King character — rather than placing new characters in the author’s preexisting universe, as the first season did — is transformative. Annie Wilkes is an anchor, bringing with her an emotional connection for even the most casual fan, as well as providing the writers with a swath of as-yet-unexplored backstory. This is the Annie Wilkes we know, with her prim bob and corny turns of phrase (Ace, she tells Joy, is a “dirty bird”), yet every revelation about the character feels both urgent and canon-correct. Episode five delves deep into her adolescence in Bakersfield, California; it’s an intense, electric outing that deploys Easter eggs with tactical precision (three words: “number one fan”) while also delivering a major reveal that sets up the second half of the season.
Caplan, who is in the unenviable position of following Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning turn in the 1990 film Misery, does a remarkable job portraying Castle Rock’s reimagined Annie. Her performance is masterfully physical, from her carefully impassive smile to the way she holds her arms stiffly at her sides as she walks; the actress embodies a woman who is struggling to control a constant surge of inner turmoil. Sparks, whose borderline-flat affect belies an impressive range, simmers with sleazy menace, while Fisher is keenly authentic as Joy, a sheltered teen longing for something more than her mother’s mythical “laughing place.” Joy and Annie have a loving bond undercut with tension, a childlike woman and a wary woman-child, ever vigilant to make sure that mom’s taken her meds. Yusra Warsama is a standout as Dr. Nadia Omar, Annie’s boss at the hospital and Abdi’s level-headed sister.
The only thing holding me back from giving Castle Rock a straight A is history; Hulu made just five (out of 10) episodes available for review, and it was around the midway point when season 1 began to fall apart. “In this world, you’re either good or you’re bad,” a teenage Annie (Ruby Cruz) tells her tutor Rita (Sarah Gadon). “And if you’re bad, you pay!” Fortunately for us, the experience of watching a story unfold is far more nuanced, and as Annie herself might say, this one is off to a doggone good start. Grade: A-
Castle Rock season 2 premieres Wednesday, Oct. 23 on Hulu.
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