After watching one-and-a-half seasons, I remain a little unsure about what Hulu’s Castle Rock wants to be.
The first season took a Fargo-esque approach to the world of Stephen King, tip-toeing adjacent to famous characters and names from the horror maestro, while still spinning a completely original central story. It was a mixed bag — though Sissy Spacek absolutely deserved an Emmy nomination — and, for me, it took too long to focus on the main plotline rather than coy references.
Through five episodes, the second season is almost the reverse. Even with an expanded world that now includes the notorious Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock isn’t quite as invested in the little nods to devoted fans. Instead, the season is focused on a couple huge salutes to King-dom, almost as if renewal hinged on giving Hulu a tangible hook to promote this time around. With Annie Wilkes, she of Misery, as the season’s point of focus, Castle Rock has become the Stephen King version of Maleficent. There’s no period of wondering what the season’s big-picture story is. It’s a superfluous, occasionally spooky, somewhat superficial origin story made watchable mostly by some very good performances and the series’ commitment to tangible New England atmosphere.
Actually, maybe the second Castle Rock season isn’t actually an origin story for the Annie Wilkes whom book and movie fans remember for her faithful devotion to novelist Paul Sheldon. The series is set in 2019 and initially follows troubled nurse Annie (Lizzy Caplan) as she traverses the country with daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher), running from who-knows-what and self-medicating with purloined anti-psychotics at various stops along the way. A car accident leaves Annie and Joy temporarily stranded in Castle Rock and leads to Annie, under a different name, seeking employment at a local hospital and Joy beginning to realize how disturbingly sheltered her upbringing has been.
Now are we supposed to believe that these events will be followed in several years by Annie’s migration to Colorado and her growing appreciation for the character of Misery Chastain and Misery‘s creator? Or after a first season that played around with alternative realities, is this a different path that Annie’s life could have taken, one with some familiar background and yet a new set of trigger events? The car-accident catalyst is just one of several points of Misery role-reversal that yield easy irony instead of illumination. I’m not honestly sure, nor am I sure the story benefits from having the “Annie Wilkes” name attached to it.
Certainly Caplan benefits. At times her mannerisms and costumes seem to be adapted directly from Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance, as the character maintains Annie’s rigorous morality and proclivity for euphemism — brace yourself for multiple “dirty-bird” callbacks. There are only hints at Annie’s surface-level kindness, because this version is constantly at the wrong end of a pharmaceutical cocktail and Caplan plays that worrisome intensity to the hilt. Fisher (Eighth Grade), for her part, continues to build out a résumé as an expert embodier of teenage unease.
But the Annie side of the story lacks sufficient shadings after starting at an already heightened place and by the time the season reaches the backstory-expanding fifth episode, with Ruby Cruz jumping in as a teenage Annie, fatigue with Annie’s various auditory and visual hallucinations has already set in. That fifth episode, the last one sent to critics, features a great guest appearance by Sarah Gadon — already part of the Hulu King-verse via 11/22/63 — and proved effective enough to restore my interest in the season, which had slipped to near-zero.
Wherever Annie’s story fits into what we know about her, it’s only half of the season’s plot. The other part also revolves around established King names, though not nearly on the Annie level. Tim Robbins plays “Pop” Merrill, owner of Castle Rock’s Emporium Galorium. A minor local crime figure, Pop is dealing with unrest between his nephew Ace (Paul Sparks) and adopted children Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Nadia (Yusra Warsama). This mirrors the unrest that the entire Castle Rock community, reeling from the opioid epidemic, has been experiencing with a recent influx of Somali immigrants.
In ways I wouldn’t dare spoil, this storyline connects with Annie’s story and with the Marsten House, a pivotal Salem’s Lot location and this season’s nod to the general theme about some places just being born bad. King’s books are already layered with the history of the region and of many of these characters, but over-explaining elemental characters and towns is somehow reductive and, for me, rarely makes them more interesting.
Abdi and Warsama are both standouts in a Somali storyline that starts off intriguing and timely only to sputter a bit by the season’s halfway point. Robbins, no stranger to the world of Stephen King or to exaggerated New England accents, is surprisingly subtle as the local crime patriarch, letting Sparks chew scenery a little as the family’s bad seed in the role played by Kiefer Sutherland in Stand by Me. So far, I don’t buy the supernatural side to the Merrill storyline at all.
Whatever my thoughts on the first season, I felt like creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason had a very good sense of what they wanted to see about the generational rot infecting Castle Rock. Due in part to the needless detour into Jerusalem’s Lot, these new episodes are much fuzzier. What connections are the writers trying to make between the influx of Somali immigrants, a local history with Satanic witches and the things that readers already know about both of these communities? I’m not quite sure. How does it tie into the apparent critique of U.S. military policy in Africa or an insidious national addiction to narcotic painkillers? I can’t tell if the new season is over-reaching, under-reaching or if the Annie Wilkes of it all is just overshadowing the story to an unanticipated degree.
One thing I can say is that you don’t need to have watched the first season to check in here, if you happen to be lured by the prospect of a Misery prequel (or whatever). The new season has some of the same Massachusetts filming locations and at least one overlapping character, but it mostly stands alone. These episodes, especially the Greg Yaitanes-directed premiere and the aforementioned fifth episode, are maybe more viscerally effective, but they’re also perhaps less engrossing overall. It’s not like Disney’s various evil character origin stories have been all that great, so it’s not a surprise that doing Stephen King’s Maleficent isn’t instantly satisfying either.
Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Paul Sparks, Yusra Warsama, Barkhad Abdi, Elsie Fisher, Matthew Alan
Creators: Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)