Season one of Hulu’s Castle Rock cemented the series as a risky, ambitious, flawed and fascinating experiment. It cherry picked details from across the spectrum of Stephen King’s works — characters, themes, locations, even actors from the film adaptations — and molded them into something original. Or should I say, original-ish? The result was far greater than a pastiche, but also somewhat less than another fully-fleshed addition to King’s universe. It was, as so many experiments are wont to do, still finding its footing. Which is why I’m delighted to say that the second season of Castle Rock is already starting off on firmer ground (except for that one scene where the ground literally gives way under our protagonist). Hulu dropped the first three episodes this week, and what they prove is that the show is bolder than ever — both in the way it pulls from the source material and the way it twists it all together into something completely new. This is already a more confident outing for the series, and I’m excited to see where it leads.
So if you haven’t seen the first three episodes, beware that from here on out I’ll be talking SPOILERS — though I suspect that none of these details will really spoil the surprises left to come this season.
Castle Rock was set up as an anthology series, where each season new characters and storylines are launched in the same mysterious Maine setting. So far there haven’t been too many references to the events of the first season, beyond a passing mention that the nearby Shawshank Penitentiary — where, presumably, The Kid is still locked up underground — will be re-opening soon. However, the idea that this area is home to some very bad vibes does get some more concrete exploration, particularly as this season broadens the scope beyond the boundaries of Castle Rock and into the neighboring town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Yes, that Jerusalem’s Lot — a.k.a. ‘Salem’s Lot, a.k.a. the town with the vampire infestation from King’s second novel. And from what I can tell, Castle Rock seems to be paving the way to tell its own version of a town overrun by an undead menace. But are they vampires? That’s what I’m still waiting to see.
Still, it’s clear that even if Castle Rock is planning to re-tell ‘Salem’s Lot this season, it isn’t the only King story the show will be re-telling. After all, our main character this time around is Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse from King’s Misery and played here by a fearless Lizzy Caplan, clearly undaunted by the task of filling Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning shoes. At first glance, this would appear to be an origin story for Annie. She’s younger, she’s on the run from a murder investigation, and she’s trying to protect her 16-year-old daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher) from… something. The dirty birds of the world? Her real father? The truth? The thing is, Annie is on a whole mess of anti-psychotic medications, and it’s hard to parse her hallucinations for any semblance of reality — but what’s interesting is that most of her hallucinations involve a bloody man in a hat, and come with a telltale auditory cue: The sound of a typewriter. Is he Joy’s father? Did Annie murder him, or is she suspected of another death? Is Joy even her child, or did she kidnap her as a baby? There are a lot of details left to be filled in, but so far there are an awful lot of hints that the mysterious man in Annie’s visions is a writer, which leaves me wondering if this Annie isn’t a version of the character from before the events of Misery, but instead a different take on the character afterward. What if Annie was the hero of Misery, and the man haunting her is villainous take on Paul Sheldon? Did she hold him in captivity and now he wants revenge? Is he looking for his daughter? What is going on here?!
Ahem. As you can tell, I have a lot of questions about Annie’s past, but I can happily tell you what’s going on with her in the present. After an accident on the outskirts of Castle Rock, Annie and Joy get stranded in the town while they wait for their car to get repaired. Desperate for a refill on her meds, Annie signs up as a temp nurse at the local hospital, using a false name, with the intention of raiding the drug closet and then leaving town. In the meantime she rents a cabin from Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), a small-time thug and nephew of local fixture Pop Merrill (Tim Robbins, fulfilling the “Stephen King Movie Actor” quota filled by Sissy Spacek last season). The Merrills run a small-scale mafia operation of sorts, acting as money lenders and keeping certain cops on their payroll. Ace intends to succeed his uncle as the leader of the underground business, especially now that Pop is taking a step back to deal with his cancer diagnosis. There’s just a few problems with his plan. One: Ace is a violent idiot, and is not fit to fill Pop’s shoes. And two: Pop already has successors. Back in the 90s Pop helped settle a wave of Somalian refugees in the Castle Rock area, and chose to foster (and later adopt) two siblings named Nadia (Yusra Warsama) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi). Nadia is the golden child of the group, unaware of the unhanded business dealings that helped Pop pay for her to go to Harvard and become a doctor. Abdi, on the other hand, is a shrewd and morally vague businessman very much in Pop’s mold. At the moment Abdi is constructing a Somalian business and community center over in Jerusalem’s Lot — and poaching the businesses that have been renting retail space from Ace along the way. The Somalian community is looking to have their own foothold, rather than being subject to Ace’s predatory gang, and Pop is struggling to keep the peace.
It all comes to a head one night when Ace decides to threaten Abdi by chucking a few Molotov cocktails through his window. Unbeknownst to the two men, however, Annie had already broken into the house to look for Nadia’s security card (the key that would allow her access to the drug closet) and witnessed the event. She escapes in the confusion, only to be confronted by Ace back at her cabin for entirely different reasons: He thinks Joy saw him making the explosives, and tries to blackmail the pair into silence by threatening to expose Annie’s real identity. Protecting Joy is Annie’s trigger, and the woman lashes out — killing Ace in spectacular fashion using an ice cream scoop (not kidding even a bit). Desperate for a place to dispose of his body, Annie drives out to Abdi’s construction site and digs a shallow grave — which quickly turns into a big grave when the ground collapses, dumping Annie and Ace into a massive, 400-year-old underground crypt. The nature of the crypt is a bit of a mystery, as there is a local legend about witches being buried nearby — though Pop at one point corrects that talk, ominously saying they weren’t witches but satanists who “made a deal with a bad hombre.” I’ll get to my theories about the nature of the crypt soon, but it’s enough to know that the thing is massive and has a secret exit that leads Annie… into the basement of the abandoned Marsten House.
The Marsten House was ground zero for the vampire nest in the ‘Salem’s Lot book, and so far it’s being given a similar treatment here — although instead of being the home base of a bloodsucking outsider, it’s the place where Ace Merrill seems to be setting up shop. Yup, something underground brought Ace back from the dead, and he in turn is going around killing people and then reanimating them in a, ah, rather gloopy fashion (shout-out to Greg Grunberg, a regular J.J. Abrams easter egg who guest stars as a cop that Ace kills and then brings back in episode three!). It takes awhile for Ace to make his reappearance, though, and in the meantime everyone in town thinks he’s missing and presumed dead — with all indications pointing to Abdi as the culprit, as revenge for the Molotov incident. It certainly seemed like this misunderstanding was a set-up to further inflame the simmering tensions between Merrill’s thugs and the Somalians, so I was surprised that Ace made his presence known before the plot turned into an all-out turf war. But while his return may lower tensions in the community, it only serves to ratchet up Annie’s own paranoia and insanity, as she knows she killed him. By the end of episode three the show lands in a fascinating position, where Annie is the only person who knows that something strange is going on, but she can’t tell anyone — except for Joy, who thinks Annie’s murder confession is a sign that her mother is spiraling out of control again since, as far as Joy can tell, no murder has taken place. Annie is definitely crazy, and definitely capable of murder, but she is also sympathetic and genuinely trying her hardest to be a good person for Joy. As a protagonist she is unreliable, but she’s the closest thing the show has to a hero moving forward.
Which is why it’s such a gut-punch when the episode ends with Annie’s mysterious man-from-the-past hallucination telling her, “You know how this story ends. You’re going to kill her.”
So we’re definitely dealing with a mash-up of Misery and ‘Salem’s Lot, but there are plenty of other King references sprinkled throughout these first episodes. The Merrills themselves are reoccurring characters, referenced in a lot of King works. In an extended riff on his novella The Body (and the movie adaptation, Stand By Me), Joy joins three other local teens on an adventure to hunt for Ace’s body, assuming he’d been dumped somewhere in Castle Lake. Later, when Joy restrains Annie in bed for her own protection, it’s both an inversion of what Annie did to Paul in Misery AND slightly reminiscent of Gerald’s Game. At one point Annie stands in the rain, covered in her own blood, and I couldn’t help but think of the famous shot from Carrie. The crypt, too, holds a lot of potential references. What if we’re not dealing with vampires at all, and instead the crypt itself brought Ace back to life, à la Pet Sematary? Or perhaps some otherwordly force is at play, like the alien gas from The Tommyknockers? For that matter, could the “bad hombre” Pop mentioned be a character like Randall Flagg, or even Pennywise (when Pop asks Ace where he’s been, the resurrected Ace answers, “Derry” — the town from IT)?
The biggest homage to King’s works in Castle Rock, however, has nothing to do with all these references. Instead, it’s the way the series ties them together. Fans of Stephen King are used to seeing towns returned to in different novels and short stories, or familiar characters and events mentioned in passing. Even without the grand unifying Dark Tower series to prove the existence of this shared universe, readers knew they were reading pieces of a larger tapestry — and that’s the feeling one gets as the camera floats over the town of Castle Rock here. It makes for a richer viewing experience if you have knowledge of King’s novels, but it isn’t strictly necessary because the show has built in its own internal logic that follows the same pattern. The kids make passing reference to finding the missing head of Warden Lacy at Castle Lake, and Annie talks about the rumors of massacres she’s heard about the town — all nods to the events of last season. The biggest change is that this season, Castle Rock isn’t trying to construct a King-esque story set in a King town — it’s taking real characters and plots straight from the source material and remixing them into something new. Seeing these three episodes made me realize that last season the show, as fascinating as it was, was pulling its punches — and by contrast, this season isn’t afraid to really try to one-up Stephen King on his own turf. It remains to be seen whether the end result will be a success, or end with the sort of vaguely disappointing whimper last season landed on, but for now I’m absolutely thrilled by the guts the show has found.
Header Image Source: Hulu