Castle Rock Season 2 is Pulpy and Entertaining
“There are other worlds than these.” That quote, from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, is the jumping-off point for Hulu’s anthology series Castle Rock. The King-adjacent show utilized the alternative universe conceit in its first season as it remixed and remade some of King’s most famous characters and lore inside the titular Maine town. Since King’s body of work is so vast, it became easy for the first season to reference as many titles and characters as it could. (There was literally a character named Jackie Torrance, who said she had an uncle in Colorado who went crazy.)
The result was a first season with an ambiguous ending. It was catnip for King nerds, but may have felt too much like inside baseball to the uninitiated. Season 2, streaming now, changes that.
Oh, sure, it’s still got enough allusions and references to keep the Internet SEO churn full of articles that explain every single piece of King minutiae. And there are still plenty of clever remixes of characters and plot points that serve as winks for King fans. This season alone has referenced The Dark Tower, ‘Salem’s Lot, Stand By Me, The Sun Dog, Pet Sematary, and more. But for the most part, Castle Rock season 2 moves past the references and Hallowen Eggs to tell a pulpy, fun story that entertains even when it falters.
This season focuses on a young Annie Wilkes. You may remember her from Misery as the crazy nurse who took in a famous novelist after he had a car accident and then imprisoned him and forced him to write a whole new book about her favorite character. In the 1990 adaptation of that King novel, Kathy Bates won an Oscar as Annie. Here, Lizzy Caplan plays her.
As the first episode begins, we see Annie and her daughter Joy (the opposite of misery, played by Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher, playing an entirely different type of teen here) road-tripping across America so Annie can get temp nursing jobs that allow her to steal the pills she needs to keep her hallucinations at bay. In a nice nod to Misery, the two of them get into a car accident, forcing them to hole up in the town of Castle Rock while they wait for a mechanic to fix their car.
The focus on Annie and her psychosis keep this season more grounded than the first. Unconstrained by executive producer J.J. Abrams’ devotion to mystery-box storytelling, this version of Castle Rock is free to tell a character-driven story. We know that Annie ends up evil. And we know, through flashback, that she’s already been through a lot of trauma. But we’re never meant to encourage her behavior, only understand it.
By examining a pre-Misery Annie Wilkes in this What If? sandbox that creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have built, Castle Rock also ditches the self-seriousness of the first season. Gone are the ambiguous themes and vague mythology. Some places are just born bad, as King has written, and the Annie Wilkes season has a lot of fun placing one of King’s most notorious villains in one of his roughest locales.
The end of the first episode features an act of violence so sudden and shocking it’s almost comical, and laughing or covering your eyes would both be appropriate responses. This is pulpy fun, an old-school King frightfest. A few too many coincidences early on make some of the plot points hard to believe, but it’s so much fun to watch unfold that it doesn’t matter. And what’s more, it’s easier to understand if you have no prior knowledge of King’s interconnected universe, but it’s always fun to spot the references.
And I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast, which is more fleshed out than last season. King alum Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) plays Pop Merrill, a character from King’s short story “The Sun Dog.” His nephew Ace (Paul Sparks, the guy who wrote the Underwoods’ memoirs in House of Cards) helps run his extortion business, while his adopted children Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Nadia (Yusra Warsama) have grown up to become pillars of the Somali immigrant community in town. The ways that all of these characters set on a path to meet Annie is more organic than season one’s plot (mostly), and makes for some fun acting scene. Robbins does a Downeast accent while questioning Caplan in full Annie Wilkes mode. It’s pure popcorn entertainment.
Speaking of Caplan: It’s a challenge to take a role so definitively tied to one actor and make it your own. Caplan manages to take some of the best parts of Bates’ performance and combine it with enough of her own spin to make Castle Rock’s Annie seem new. The stilted speech pattern, the purposeful walk and the aversion to swearing are all there, but Caplan also does a lot of acting with her eyes to convey Annie’s fragility, aided by stutter-step editing and extreme close-up shots from cinematographer Jeffrey Greeley and editor Tammis Chandler. Her comic chops are also on full display, whether used for physical comedy or the way she pronounces “dirtybird.”
Annie Wilkes may turn into a stone-cold killer. But this remix of her story proves that while we may know the ending, the journey to get there is just as entertaining.