TV Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Castle Rock: Season 2

Once touted as enjoying “the most successful inaugural season of any Hulu Original,” the show is back with bigger names in the cast (Tim Robbins, Lizzy Caplan), a more marketable premise (Misery prequel!), and a slicker execution. As with most TV anthologies, you can jump in fresh with season 2 or not miss anything. So, with its renewed lease on storytelling life what is Castle Rock doing with it?


After Castle Rock’s first three episodes dropped last year, Hulu didn’t even wait a full week to enthusiastically hand out a second season renewal. Well, it’s a year later now. The first three episodes of season 2 have been on Hulu for nearly a week. Hulu isn’t saying much. A third season doesn’t feel guaranteed. However, with a storyline mixing Misery with Salem’s Lot and a cast headlined by Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Elsie Fisher, and Barkhad Abdi, season 2 should be a slam dunk. This should be their mulligan season, their “sorry for how that first season totally petered out at the end, but, hey, look, we’re doing a Misery prequel this year!”

How’s that working out so far?

I don’t disagree.

Castle Rock has always been a slightly odd duck. It is a spiritual companion to the works of Stephen King set in his most famous fictional town but it does not directly adapt any one of his actual stories. In essence, that makes Castle Rock fan fiction, and what often held back the first season is though it had many of King’s familiar tropes and a plethora of easter eggs it felt more like a signature J.J. Abrams mystery box narrative than an actual fun yarn in the style of the master of horror.

Using King’s world as a framework, showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason attempted to fill the void with a hodgepodge collection of (mostly) original characters working through a puzzle box narrative about an enigma of a man found hidden in the Shawshank prison basement. The true character of the season, however, was the town itself, as if the brick & mortar buildings and various plots of land contained a morally corrosive, supernatural element which eats away at all who live there. That’s why the entire season is bookended by solemn speeches from men attempting to explain why any normal person would choose to stay in a town like Castle Rock.

Thankfully, the second season has mostly dropped this particular fixation. Instead, Shaw and Thomason are getting down and dirty with an interlocking murder storyline connecting a just-passing-through-town woman and her teenage daughter and the local gang turf war breaking out between the townies and Somalian refugees. This woman just happens to be Annie Wilkes, the role which got Kathy Bates her Oscar, and the head of the local gang just happens to be Pop Merrill, guardian to frequent King fuck-up Ace Merrill (Keifer Sutherland in Stand by Me). Annie, Pop, and Ace are being played here by Caplan, Robbins, and Paul Sparks, and after three episodes the murder has already turned supernatural, touching directly on Salem’s Lot and possibly even Pet Sematary.

It has been a highly bingable season so far, perfectly tailored to peak TV era with what-happen’s-next episode cliffhangers. From this point forward, however, the episodes will drop weekly instead of all at once. I have no idea where they’re going with it, but I do know the clear MVP of the season so far is Lizzy Caplan. Her version of Wilkes is a single mother suffering from several undefined mental conditions which she seeks to medicate with drugs pilfered from the various places she works as a temp nurse.

The scene of the season – and possibly of the entire show – is at the start of the premiere. A wonderfully simple montage shows us Caplan and her young daughter singing along to Carly Simon as they drive from city to city, escaping an unidentified threat. By the close of the montage, the daughter has aged up into Elsie Fisher, who barely sings along with the song anymore, her character looking weary and increasing concerned about the kind of mother she has.

After the montage ends, a car wreck leads to them living for a spell in some housing owned by the Merill clan. However, in a way, we already know everything we need to about this mother and daughter pair. The small fissures in their relationship only widen as the episodes progress and Annie’s vicelike grip on her daughter’s life inevitably loosens. Similar to Sissy Spacek’s dementia-sufferer from the show’s first season, the greatest horror on display is domestic and relates to the mind – a daughter confronting what it’s like to live with someone hiding a mental illness.

The season, thus far, is a tad less successful with its world-building for the Merill clan and the Somalians, two of whom are actually Pop’s adopted son and daughter. This feels like a ripped-from-the-headlines effort at placing Castle Rock in a modern context, and as of yet it’s nowhere near as compelling as what’s happening with Caplan and Fisher. Robbins, however, is no stranger to playing a working class person with a Maine accent, and he’s clearly up to the task here.

Going forward, the show seems likely to unfurl a flashback episode explaining exactly what Annie is running from, and there certainly remains the possibility that some crossovers with the characters from the first season might be forthcoming. However, for now, Castle Rock is essentially a brand new show again, far more economically told this time with fewer extraneous characters, and rather than wax poetic about a bunch of original creations dropped into Stephen King’s world it’s taking some of the author’s more interesting characters and having a ball with their origin stories.

Where to Stream

Hulu

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Heading to the worst dinner party ever.

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