A nurse on the run with her teenage daughter ends up in a small Maine town where something evil lurks in the second season of Castle Rock, Hulu’s psychological horror anthology series inspired by the work of Stephen King. The series was a surprise breakout hit last summer and this new season doesn’t disappoint, with the same slow burn and unexpected twists leading to a gripping finale.
(Mild spoilers for season one and season two below.)
The fictional town of Castle Rock features in so many of King’s novels that co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason thought they could use it as an organizing principle for their stories. The series is less of a direct adaptation of King’s works and more of new stories set in the fictional city that occasionally bumps into different books. The biggest King influences for season one were: The Shawshank Redemption and The green mile-in other words, a prison-oriented setting with themes of crime and punishment. Shawshank tells the story of a prisoner’s disappearance, while Castle RockThe focus is on the mysterious appearance of a prisoner that no one knew about.
Season one began with the suicide of the local prison warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), and the discovery that he had been secretly holding a mysterious young man – known only as the Kid (Bill Skarsgård) – for decades. Not only did the Kid not age, violent outbursts seemed to follow in its wake. The show remained coy about who the Kid was, whether he was a monster or a victim, even in the finale, with its signature King-esque denouement.
The highlight of the season was the heartbreaking seventh episode, “The Queen,” told entirely from the point of view of Ruth (Sissy Spacek), whose age-related dementia is rapidly deteriorating and impairing her ability to distinguish between the present and the past. (At different times, she walks out of a conversation in the present and into another conversation in 1991.) The episode has deeply personal resonances for Shaw, whose own mother suffered from dementia and died unexpectedly a few days after he began writing the series . I called it “the most beautifully crafted, fantastically acted hour of television you’re likely to see this year.”
Castle RockSeason 2 doesn’t have a single episode of the same caliber, but it still packs a punch. The source material this time around is King’s award-winning 1987 novel Troublefeaturing one of its most memorable characters, Annie Wilkes, a psychotic (and murderous) former nurse.
In the novel, a middle-aged Annie rescues her favorite novelist, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident in which he breaks both legs. Paul’s last novel killed off the central heroine of his Victorian romance series, Misery Chastain, because he was tired of the character and wanted to write crime novels. But his “fan number one,” as Annie calls herself, refuses to accept Misery’s passing and holds Paul captive, forcing him to bring Misery back to life in a new novel – or else. In the 1990 film, Kathy Bates starred as Annie, who won an Oscar for her performance, including an infamous scene where Annie hobbles Paul with a sledgehammer to keep him from escaping (a watered-down version of the book, where she an ax cuts off his foot and sears it with a blowtorch).
In King’s novel it is clear that Annie suffers from schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. Paul Sheldon discovers a scrapbook of newspaper clippings showing that Annie was charged and acquitted of killing babies in a maternity ward at a Colorado hospital and possibly murdering as many as 30 people. Castle RockThe storyline centers on a youthful Annie (Lizzy Caplan) on the run from an unspecified past with her teenage daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher). Annie works as a nurse in several hospitals, staying just long enough to steal the drugs she needs to control her mental illness before setting out in search of a utopian vision she calls the “place of laughter.”
Naturally, the couple ends up in Castle Rock and Annie takes a job at the hospital in nearby Jerusalem Lot – the second of King’s trinity of fictional Maine towns, the third being Derry (the setting for THE† When Annie’s killer instincts take over, she tries to dispose of a body at a local construction site and discovers a hidden burial ground connected by a tunnel to the abandoned Marsten House. (King fans may remember that the Marsten House was home to the vampires in the 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot’.) And she accidentally awakens something evil that has been lurking for four centuries.
Caplan gives a fantastic performance as Annie, capturing the character’s signature clumsy seriousness, lack of direct eye contact, stiff gait, and strange speech patterns and phrasing (“dirty bird,” “cockadodie,” and the like). It’s a very human (and humane) depiction of someone struggling to control her mental illness. Annie may be a little crazy, especially when her meds run out, but she’s mostly driven by her love for Joy and proves to be a formidable adversary to anything that could threaten her daughter.
In season two, Tim Robbins also plays the role of a veteran named Reginald “Pop” Merrill. Despite his late-stage cancer, he keeps a firm grip on the local business with the help of his two cousins, Ace (Paul Sparks) and Chris (Matthew Alan). Pop also adopted two Somali refugees as teenagers, now adults: Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), who is building a shopping center in Lot in Jerusalem, and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), the medical director of the hospital where Annie works. The family is also drawn into the supernatural threat facing the city(s). Over the course of ten episodes, tensions flare, secrets are revealed, and we learn the true nature of what woke Annie.
As always with a Shaw-created show, the writing is strong and emotionally evocative. It’s intricately plotted, with strong character development. Admittedly, for the first few episodes of the season, the two narrative threads — Annie and Joy’s relationship and Annie’s secret past, and whatever’s going on at the Marsten House — almost don’t feel like they’re part of it. of the same series. Annie’s storyline feels much more engaging, especially the flashback episode “The Laughing Place,” which introduces us to Annie’s childhood.
But gradually the two threads come together as we learn more about the city’s history, including an unexpected twist that links season two to season one. Here is the hope Castle Rock is getting a third season so we can learn more about this common element that loosely connects the anthology’s storylines.
List image by Hulu