It’s good to be the King, and —these past few years more than ever — the King is good. Scratch that: Stephen King’s doing great, whatever screen you’re looking at.
Hollywood has long been fascinated by the macabre maestro’s creep-filled canon, but lately it actually seems to have cracked that most essential element of King’s writing: his unparalleled ability to conjure an ambience so immediately chilling you consider fetching a sweater before turning the page.
IT nailed the town of Derry by leaning into the oh-so-important idea that its underlying darkness had seeped into every local and locale, slowly turning both rancid. Gerald’s Game, less showily, used a tiny, claustrophobic setting and one powerhouse performance (from Carla Gugino) to accentuate the heartbreakingly intimate nature of its horrors. And over at Hulu, Castle Rock — while basically a Halloween treat-or-treat for King aficionados —is elevated beyond mere fan service by a marvelously unnerving atmosphere and performers fiendishly clever about how they stew in it. (Side note: We’re all still in agreement The Dark Tower never happened, right?)
But for my money, Mr. Mercedes — premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET after a crackerjack first season that flew largely under the radar at AT&T AUDIENCE Network last year — is fast on its way to becoming the best Stephen King TV show for a few reasons, just one of which involves that question of ambience. It’s set not in Maine (as is standard for King) but rather in the small, economically strapped city of Bridgton, Ohio, which as the series kicks off its sophomore run is just one year on from narrowly escaping a second massacre at the hands of malevolent Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway).
For the uninitiated: Season 1 opened with Brady — a teeth-gnashing basement creep, bred of class rage, toxic male entitlement, and a healthy dose of straightforward sociopathy — plowing a stolen luxury car through a crowd of job-seekers queuing up outside an employment fair. That ghastly deed went unpunished, though the crime understandably consumed the detective who failed to solve it, the cantankerous but eminently lovable Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson). This brought the increasingly deranged Brady no shortage of delight, inciting him to draw the detective out of retirement with fiendish messages promising another attack. Their high-stakes chess match — one that racked up quite the body count — dominated the first season, so much so that when Brady was finally apprehended (read: brained by Bill’s valiant sidekick before he could blow up an arts fair), one naturally wondered if the show could sustain itself.
Thankfully, the first few episodes of season 2 dispel such fears; if anything, Mr. Mercedes has actually grown more gripping in the wake of Brady’s capture. If the first season was broadly about purpose, its two leads finding a sick fulfillment in their deadly game of cat-and-mouse, the second is at least initially more concerned with stasis, what happens inside a person when they’re locked into unsatisfying holding patterns, increasingly restless and seeking a new way forward.
For Bill, chasing Brady was an unexpected redemption, a chance to prove himself holistically while rising above the boozy, broody haze to which he’d previously consigned himself. And for Brady, being chased was much-craved validation, another twisted way to assert his own dominance over others’ lives after a lifetime of abuse, ostracism, and anonymity. They got off on each other’s attentions, and it was to Mr. Mercedes‘ great credit that it never sugarcoated the deviancy of such a dynamic.
Except now that Brady’s been taken into custody, neither have anywhere left to run; and moreover, both have reason to believe staying still is basically just rolling over and submitting to a slow death.
“I’ve lost my moorings a bit,” Bill admits to ex-wife Donna (Nancy Travis), as they contemplate a devastating loss he suffers early in the new episodes. Without his quarry, Bill’s just waiting around, at risk of falling back into the same destructive habits he was only able to curtail when someone else’s life depended on it.
Brady, for his part, isn’t stalled by choice; he’s been in a vegetative state since Bill’s aforementioned sidekick — Holly (Justin Lupe), who’s since become Bill’s partner at a freelance detective agency — delivered some brutal, entirely justified blows to the back of his skull.
Bill visits him often, still obsessed with his much-hated archnemesis and hopeful that one day he’ll awaken to face prosecution. That’s not an entirely likely scenario based on his injuries: that is, until his doctor (Jack Huston) — egged on by his enterprising wife (Tessa Ferrer) — juices Brady up with some experimental Chinese serum, which (spoiler alert) quickly brings the evil mastermind back toward the land of the living. This is really, really bad news for the land of the living, mind you, especially because the serum gives Brady the ability to hijack other people’s minds, pushing them to carry out his will as he lounges in a hospital bed.
Herein lies the tricky bit: Having expended King’s first novel by the end of season 1, head creatives David E. Kelley, Dennis Lehane, and Jack Bender (who also directed the first four episodes) were faced with the prospect of either excluding Treadaway’s Brady to adapt second novel Finders Keepers, in which Brady doesn’t feature, or glazing over it to focus on trilogy topper End of Watch.
They made the right choice, undoubtedly, in skipping ahead and keeping the character; Brady’s sinister relationship with Bill is the jet-black engine fuel coursing through this series. But King’s novel took the psycho in a strange direction, imbuing him with essentially supernatural powers so as to ensure he remained a serious menace even while comatose.
That transformation, one the Mr. Mercedes team honors, is frankly at odds with the awards-worthy performance Treadaway turned in last year. His Brady was a statedly mortal monster, a sneering nerd with an axe to grind and the kind of warped internal logic Thomas Harris would have killed to have written. He was also a creepily current kind of adversary, a resentful outcast convinced the world (especially women) deserved to die for not delivering what it so obviously owed him all along. One gets the sense he voted, and not for Hillary.
All of this is to say Brady terrified so ably because you believed he was out there somewhere. What he wasn’t was a mind-controlling supervillain, and turning him into that denies Mr. Mercedes some of its rough-hewn relevance. Of course, the genre shift is handled nimbly by the writers (one dream sequence too good to be detailed here improves on a similarly calibrated sequence in IT); and Treadaway gamely sinks his teeth into scenes that occur inside Brady’s head, which he envisions as his basement computer lair. But, at least in the early going, it’s a little strange.
The new season accounts for this by otherwise reaffirming the show’s central ideas, mainly those concerning masculinity, mortality, and how the former treats the latter — paradoxically — as a threat. Season 2 packs in scenes set at funerals and in graveyards, not to mention a local hospital; Bill and Brady are both surrounded by death, so much so that when Brady muses to Bill that “I’m what keeps you alive,” you actually believe him.
Still infallible are the actors, who remain rooted in the same bleak but recognizable humanity that made Mr. Mercedes such a treat in its first season. Gleeson often has a melancholy air that hangs about him like musky cologne; his Bill remains the most stubbornly Irish character on television, uttering phrases like “I’ve built many a bicycle whilst pedaling it” and pouring whiskey into his frozen yogurt.
More peripherally, Lupe is doing exceptionally strong work as Holly, who becomes something of a guardian angel for Bill while remaining terribly fond of him as a person and detective. Though Mr. Mercedes hasn’t officially diagnosed Holly, Lupe’s efforts to sensitively depict her OCD-like tendencies are some of the most dramatically satisfying to watch in a series full of fantastic performances. Jharrel Jerome, Breeda Wool, and Holland Taylor are all also back, and they’re good enough you hope Mr. Mercedes will find more natural ways to fold them into its story.
Four episodes in, the season’s still in cruise control, taking its time to build mood and character in ways a lesser show might deem unneccessary but that continue to make Mr. Mercedes one of the most sturdily constructed thrillers on television. One gets the sense it’ll jam down its accelerator sooner rather than later, and at that point it’ll become apparent whether Brady’s newfound gifts take the show in a direction its gruff, tense tone isn’t equipped to follow. But for now, what’s the harm in relishing what’s still one of television’s darker, most compelling rides? B+