'Mr. Mercedes' Season 2: TV Review

Doesn't quite have the coiled intensity of the first season, but still tense.

The second season of Audience Network's Stephen King adaptation doesn't benefit from the addition of supernatural elements, but Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway and Justine Lupe all still shine.

If you didn't watch Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes in its first season, or don't know what Audience Network is, you missed an impressively grounded Stephen King adaptation carried by leads Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway.

With Gleeson confidently playing gruff-yet-lovable ex-cop Bill Hodges and Treadaway offering scary intensity as increasingly deranged Brady Hartsfield, Mr. Mercedes functioned well as a cat-and-mouse thriller even though the two stars barely shared the screen. The finale, climaxing at an arts district gala premiere rather than the book's under-attack pop concert, fizzled a little but didn't detract from the harrowing intensity built by much of the season.

The show's creative team, led by director Jack Bender, and writers David E. Kelley and Dennis Lehane, correctly recognized that Bill and Brady were both integral to the success of Mr. Mercedes. That meant skipping the second book of King's trilogy, the basically Brady-free Finders Keepers, in favor of End of Watch and following King's lead and injecting supernatural elements into a series that eschewed such things previously. It's hard not to feel like this is a shift that violates some of the central themes of the show, even as the Mr. Mercedes team fights valiantly and often successfully to keep these early episodes compelling.

When we left Mr. Mercedes, Brady's plans to blow up the arts fair had been thwarted and the malevolent genius was left in a coma. After suffering a heart attack, Bill has gotten his life back together and is now working with Holly (Justine Lupe) doing freelance detective work that seems to combine being a repo man, a skip chaser and a bonded gumshoe. Bill remains obsessed with Brady and visits him regularly, even though there are no signs that Brady will ever recover, at least not through ordinary means. Extraordinary means come in the form of neurosurgeon Felix Babineau (Jack Huston), who is goaded by his wife, Cora (Tessa Ferrer), into making Brady a guinea pig for an untested Chinese serum that could help Brady recover brain activity. This is already a bad idea and that's before Brady begins to recover his demented internal monologue and discovers that, presumably related to the serum but not necessarily explained by the serum, he now possesses the ability to hack into particularly susceptible people's heads and, tentatively at first, make them do his bidding.

This is Stephen King's twist and it's not for me to tell the Master of Horror that there's a time and place for mind-controlling psychopaths and this isn't it. The essence of the show's first season is all of the things Brady is not. He's not a vampire, telekinetic, firestarter or Satan incarnate. He's just a horrible, horrible man haunted by metaphorical and personal demons. He's scary because he's real. He viewed people as chess pieces and the game he played for most of the first season was trying to make Bill kill himself. The gap, though, between what Brady is doing in the first season and having the literal ability to hijack a person's brain is a big one and it pushes Mr. Mercedes from one genre into another and alters Bill's pursuit of Brady from one of dogged persistence to one of fantastical credulity. It's one thing for Bill to believe and follow evidence and another for him to abandon rational thought, though it thankfully doesn't undermine Gleeson's performance to have the character go down this rabbit hole. It's still an authentic and lived-in turn, still elevated by the willingness to let Hodges simply be Irish, rather than forcing Gleeson to swear in a generic American non-brogue.

Bender, who directed all four of the episodes sent to critics, does a nice job with visualizing this genre shift, turning Brady's basement lair from last season into something of a memory palace/fortress of solitude, letting Brady encounter several characters from his past so that he isn't just typing frantically at his computers. Bender finds other ways of using Brady including a premiere sequence I quite enjoyed and won't spoil. In the early going, with Brady figuring out what he can and can't do, this is Treadaway in simmering mode, though the performance is still colored by how far the show pushed him last season, peaking with Kelly Lynch's last episode as Brady's mother.

Treadaway is on a bit of an island, because even when he's interacting with people, he doesn't get to do so directly. Virginia Kull has a great season-opening guest turn as a nurse with a medical condition that makes her particularly open to Brady's machinations. Mike Starr also guests as a hospital orderly who I guess has developmental disabilities, which makes him a representative of one of my least favorite King tropes/fetishizations.

Lupe's Holly is an example of how an actor can, by actually inhabiting a role, make something better than what registers as a collection of occasionally endearing tics on the page. The Holly in the book is meandering between undiagnosed OCD and Asperger's and without committing to (or understanding) any one thing. Lupe makes Holly funny, sweet, sad and surprisingly real. Lupe is coming off of a memorable turn as Connor's prostitute-playwright girlfriend in Succession and she's an actress in need of more recognition. Holly's scenes discussing private-eye procedure with Bill and talking about Bill with Holland Taylor's always welcome Ida are easily my favorites of the new season.

Some of those character-centric scenes stand out because, unlike the first season with its vehicular homicide opening and instantly established stakes of Brady's next target, the second season struggles initially to find propulsive momentum. The new cast regulars, especially Huston's Felix, are bland and the efforts to bring in favorite characters, including Breeda Wool's Lou, sometimes feel strained. There's still a lot to be interested in with Mr. Mercedes, assuming you can figure out if you have access to Audience Network.

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Jharrel Jerome, Justin Lupe, Scott Lawrence, Holland Taylor, Breeda Wool, Jack Huston, Tessa Ferrer
Showrunner: David E. Kelley from the novel by Stephen King
Director: Jack Bender
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Audience Network)