For decades, Stephen King fans have regarded the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine as the cornerstone of his loosely connected universe of novels, with references to it in his works serving more as Easter eggs than as required knowledge. Following the announcement that an all-new series would unfold in the iconic town, fans were thrilled, though the debut season of Castle Rock struggled to find the balance of whether it was King fan-service or if it was its own original storyline, with references to the author's library arbitrarily peppered throughout. Luckily, the second season of the series has overcome a number of hurdles to both fully embrace iconic King elements to draw audiences in, allowing the narrative to become its own engaging storyline that adds complexity to underexplored territory.
After some unexpected car trouble, Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) and her daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher) find themselves stranded in Castle Rock, having previously traveled across the country with fake plates as Annie takes jobs as a nurse, only to steal medications to treat her own various psychoses. As the Wilkes women mostly keep their heads down, tensions arise in the community over a real estate deal unfolding in town over a plot of land in the nearby Jerusalem's Lot. The rise of these tensions puts the Wilkes family right in the middle of the conflict in an unexpected way, complicating not only the lives of the community's residents, but the entire town as well.
King fans know Wilkes as the antagonist of Misery, where she rescued a man who turned out to be her favorite writer, forcing him to write a story that met all of her needs. She was brought to life in a film adaptation by Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance, setting the bar high for Caplan. The actress proves to be more than up for the task, finding a way to not merely replicate Bates' performance, but find key vocal inflections and body language that echo that powerful portrayal, with the material itself allowing Caplan to make the character her own. No matter what your familiarity might be with Misery, viewers will know instantly that there's something not right with Annie, though this is manifested in her fierce devotion to her daughter, mixed with the occasional deception to get her medication.
What makes Castle Rock's depiction of Annie so compelling is that it neither tries to make her a hero nor a villain, rather it adds a number of layers to her character that applies the debate of nature vs. nurture to how she grew to be the character we had already met in Misery. While her backstory doesn't absolve her of her sins, she has many more layers added to her that endear you to her as you witness that, while she has an intense demeanor, that character trait can also serve as a strength in the right situation. We grow both more afraid of her and more empathetic towards her, as she has experienced a number of troubling events yet handled them in questionable ways. Wilkes expresses the same unhealthy devotion towards Joy as she does towards Paul Sheldon in Misery, solidifying the duality of the previously straightforward villain.
The rest of the ensemble cast all deliver competent performances, which includes Tim Robbins as Pop Merrill from King's Short story "The Sun Dog," which appears in his Four Past Midnight collection. Robbins gets to lean more into the caricature of a curmudgeonly New Englander, attempting to keep the peace between his nephew and adopted son, who are the key figures in the real estate squabble. As the series unfolds, we learn more about Pop's backstory and, while it's not entirely necessary to understand the character, adds some complexity to the show's overall narrative.
The key difference between the first and second seasons of Castle Rock is that the debut story felt like it was written as an homage to King and was ultimately able to change the names and locations of its characters to officially be part of the author's impressive mythology, leading viewers to wonder how connections to his characters and locations would be revealed, distracting the audience through much of the narrative. Fans had a more difficult time investing in the complex narrative, as we wondered when a key King figure could appear to make sense of the whole ordeal. By putting Annie Wilkes front and center in this season and by directly tying her story to Jerusalem's Lot, which fans know was featured in Salem's Lot and had a vampire problem, those King connections are immediately evident, allowing this story to unfold in its own way. The effectiveness of not just the characters but the story itself is so strong and compelling that we don't need any other references to King and his memorable characters throughout the rest of the season, with those possible nods likely only heightening the rivetting story that we already get to witness take place.
Castle Rock Season Two is a major leap forward for the concept of this anthology and, after five episodes, we're just as invested in seeing how Annie and Joy's journey unfolds as complex characters as we are in the more traditionally horrifying events taking place in Jerusalem's Lot. If the first season didn't grab you, then it's worth tuning into this new adventure, largely due to Caplan's unhinged and endearing portrayal of Wilkes and the ways in which the story aims to serve as a reimagining of the horrors of Salem's Lot.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Castle Rock Season Two debuts on Hulu on October 23rd.