By every measure, Castle Rock should be a huge deal. With J.J. Abrams and Stephen King’s names in the credits, a memorable and undoubtedly expensive Super Bowl ad, and much written about its deeply mysterious first season (which nabbed the top spot on our best TV scenes of 2018 list), the multiverse-exploring horror drama has felt too big to fail.
The first season had a star-studded cast that included Bill Skarsgaard, Melanie Lynskey, Andre Holland, Jane Levy, and Sissy Spacek, and while it made superfans dizzy with speculation, the uneven pacing and the ambiguous ending didn’t land well for everyone. The series’ supposed central question — ”Who is The Kid?” — was really superseded by another even more interesting one: what exactly is this King-inspired puzzle box show? And that, at least, was answered by Season 1’s end.
So now, with a dwindling sense of mystery balanced out by the intrigue that comes with an entirely new cast of characters, Castle Rock is back for a second outing. This season follows a few characters from King’s work: Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) is the antagonist of the novel Misery and both “Ace” Merrill (Paul Sparks) and “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, perhaps the only king alum in the cast this time) step out of the pages of multiple novels and short stories, including Needful Things.
Not all plots are created equal, though. Castle Rock’s first season created inspired original characters. While Season 2 includes a few, including Annie’s daughter Joy (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher), the newly introduced members of the Merrill family come across as at once underwritten and out-of-place in the narrative.
Pop, owner of the Emporium Galorium antique shop and a number of enterprises around town, has raised four kids: his nephews, town asshole Ace (a character previously seen on screen in Stand By Me) and average joe Chris (Matthew Alan); and two adopted Somali refugees, developer Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and doctor Nadia (Yusra Warsama). They’re all at odds in a conflict that (at least in the first five episodes Hulu presented for review) consists of threatening conversations, oddly understated scenes of violence, and distractingly inconsistent accents.
The Merrills’ internal feuding intrudes on the season’s otherwise strong horror aspects. Themes of familial conflict, trauma, and greed do belong in a King story, just maybe not this one.
The season isn’t a complete loss, however. Its saving grace comes in the form of one wide-eyed nurse on the lookout for dirty birds. Annie is one of King’s most beloved characters, and Kathy Bates won the rare genre-rewarding Oscar for her portrayal of the cuckoo caretaker in Rob Reiner’s 1990 film adaptation of Misery, so naturally, these are big orthopedic shoes to fill.
Whether you love or could leave the rest of Castle Rock, know this: Caplan will blow you away. As a younger version of Annie, she’s fiercely protective of her daughter, obsessively straight-laced, and pathologically frightening. Caplan infuses every goofy curse word alternative with a sense of earnest intensity and is riveting in her ability to balance Annie’s maternal affection (“Little Love,” she softly calls Joy in the sweetest moments) with her harrowing, screaming-and-clawing mental illness.
From the very first scene of the season, pill-popping Annie is plagued by visions of a past that involve a clicking typewriter, a lakeside box, and a lot of blood. One of the season’s strongest episodes sees actress Ruby Cruz step into the role of Annie as a teenager, and as the character’s heartbreaking past becomes clearer, her present eccentricities and triggers crystallize into something that’s uncomfortable yet understandable.
Caplan’s greatest trick, which is pulled off with the help of deft writing, is keeping Annie sickeningly sympathetic. The character has a violent streak when pressured by circumstance or delusion, but she’s also thoroughly honest, almost confessional. Caplan’s Annie has tears swimming in her eyes at all times, but they rarely spill over. She’ll never be admirable, but with the ever-present look of a kicked puppy (which, of course, could be an act), she’s almost naturally pitiable.
The season premiere establishes that this version of Annie, while at times softer than the one King fans know, is still far from a hero. She’s a beautiful villain in that the depths of her capacity for evil are unknown even to herself. Her fears and loves are inextricably linked, and both are tempered by her commitment to keeping up appearances even as she becomes increasingly, obviously unhinged. As determined as she is disturbed, Annie continues to plaster a smile on her face and take on a world that she thinks is out to get her again and again.
Two seasons in, Annie Wilkes is not only the proper villain for the series but she’s the most interesting character in the Castle Rock universe so far. And as the show veers further from her source material, it’s impossible to guess what she’ll do next. Caplan may be carrying this entire season, but she makes it look easy.