castle rock season 2 review

Castle Rock returns to Hulu with a whole new story set in the world of Stephen King. The show’s anthology format allows Castle Rock to focus on a different King-inspired tale, with all new characters, every season – and season 2 promises to dig even deeper into the prolific horror writer’s bibliography. While season 1 was only tangibly connected to King’s books – merely using familiar characters and locations – season 2 goes further, pulling storylines directly from King’s books Misery and ‘Salem’s Lot. The end result is a blend of creepy and curious. There’s plenty of spooky stuff afoot, but Castle Rock never manages to be scary. And Misery and ‘Salem’s Lot, two vastly different King novels, make for strange bedfellows.

The first season of Castle Rock served as a love letter to fans of Stephen King. Every episode was full of references to King’s work, and part of the fun of the show was trying to spot them all. Yet as enjoyable as spotting Stephen King easter eggs may be, a series is only as good as its story – and the story of season one never quite came together. After a strong start, it ran out of steam rather quickly, resulting in a wholly disappointing conclusion.

Season 2 fares a bit better. The show is still far too obsessed with trying to ape producer J.J. Abrams’ infamous “mystery box” formula, where only tiny bits of info are doled out in frustrating fashion. But the story is stronger overall, as is the cast of characters. Castle Rock has expanded in its second season, both story-wise and geographically. Because Castle Rock isn’t the only King town to play a part here. A huge chunk of this season is spent in Jerusalem’s Lot, the setting of King’s vampire novel ‘Salem’s Lot. The town isn’t merely used for background color, either. Many of that novel’s ideas and trappings – including the infamous Marsten House, where the novel’s main bloodsucker set-up shop – play a part here. And without giving too much away, let’s just say there’s a running subplot involving dead characters who don’t quite stay dead for long.

But the main focus of Castle Rock‘s second season is Annie Wilkes, a character any King fan will recognize. She’s the infamous homicidal nurse at the center of King’s Misery. Kathy Bates famously portrayed Annie in the Misery movie adaptation, and here she’s played by Lizzie Caplan. Caplan is relishing the role, really laying into Annie’s corny, folksy way of talking. At the same time, it’s painfully clear she’s also doing an impression of Bates – right down to the voice she uses, which sounds identical to the voice Bates used in the Misery film. That’s not to say Caplan doesn’t make the role her own, eventually. But her insistence on mimicking Bates’ work is overly distracting at times.

When we first meet Annie Wilkes, she’s on the move. She travels from town to town, taking jobs as a nurse at local hospitals. She’s not in it for the pay, or even for the satisfaction of helping the ill. Instead, Annie uses her nursing gigs as an excuse to raid medicine closets and steal the anti-psychotic drugs she so desperately needs. Annie has been self-medicating for years, all in an attempt to fight down her violent urges and terrifying hallucinations.

Annie isn’t alone on this journey. With her every step of the way is her daughter, Joy (played by Eighth Grade break-out Elsie Fisher). After a car accident waylays the mother and daughter in Castle Rock, Annie takes a job at a local hospital. But this hospital’s medicine closet is under heavy lockdown, and scoring her pills won’t be so easy.

The arrival of Annie sets off a type of Yojimbo-style plotline, with the outsider intentionally causing two warring factions to butt-heads, escalating into violence. Those factions are related – though not by blood. On one side is the sneering, violent Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), who owns several pieces of property in Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot, and who operates as a kind of local gangster. On the other side is Ace’s adopted cousin Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), who is in the process of building up a large mall to lure away many of Ace’s tenants.

Abdi and his sister Nadia (Yusra Warsama) – a doctor at the hospital Annie now works – are Somali orphans who were adopted as teens by Ace’s uncle, Pop Merrill (Tim Robbins). Pop isn’t what you’d call an honest citizen, but he’s also trying to make amends. He’s sick now, and he wants his affairs in order before he shuffles off this mortal coil. He also wants to keep some of his deep, dark secrets buried.

Caplan’s performance keeps things lively, as does Fisher, who gets her own subplot about finally finding friends – and a potential love interest – after spending years being sheltered by her overprotective mother. Sparks is also a treat as Ace, playing the character as a big ball of slimy menace. Out of everyone here, though, it’s Robbins who shines brightest. Pop is the most complex character of the season, and Robbins is able to bring out the man’s inner turmoil perfectly.

Annie ends up in the middle of all this while also trying to keep some secrets of her own hidden. The mystery box nature of the series guarantees that practically every character on the show has some sort of deep, dark secret, and finding them out is going to be like pulling teeth. In many ways, Castle Rock is a show that just can’t get out of its own way. King’s novels don’t lend themselves to this type of mystery. He was never one for big shocking twists. Instead, he cares more about character – and telling a cracking good story. Castle Rock would be much better off if it could just remember that.

***

Castle Rock season 2 premieres on Hulu October 23, 2019.

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