Monday, October 21, 2019

TV REVIEW: Hulu's 'Castle Rock' - Season 2

Hulu's Castle Rock will return for its second season on Wednesday, October 23 with its first three episodes. The new season stars Lizzy Caplan, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Yusra Warsama, Elsie Fisher, Matthew Alan and Tim Robbins.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first five episodes.

In its first season, Hulu's Castle Rock was all about a mystery that needed to be solved. True identities were withheld from the audience in the hopes that it would all make sense in the end. That often left a talented cast with very little to do than offering a few teases that it would all be worth it eventually. The final result was a mixed bag. There were absolutely moments that worked. Characters did pop in some terrific and profound ways as they discussed the value of life. But it never really came together in a cohesive way. The smartest thing the creative team has done so far is make the show an anthology drama that changes up its cast and premise each season. Yes, it is still set in Castle Rock and follows a collection of characters from the Stephen King universe. However, the story of Season 2 doesn't connect with the events of the first year at all - at least not in the first five episodes. It's a completely new story with different narrative ambitions. Gone is the emphasis on an overwhelming mystery. Now, grounded characters drive the story forward in ways that grow more and more complicated with each passing episode. It's a major improvement that manages to earn every thrilling moment of fear, dread and uncertainty. Audiences may think they know where the story is going because of the infamous protagnost this time around. However, the narrative does such a wonderful job in subverting expectations while embracing new aspects of life in a small town in Maine that has such a deep history of terrifying and sinister acts happening.

The second season is essentially designed around Annie Wilkes, one of the main characters from King's novel Misery and the subsequent 1990 film with Kathy Bates playing the role and winning an Academy Award for it. In this story, the mentally disturbed nurse is played by Masters of Sex alum Lizzy Caplan. She commands every second she is on the screen. It's such a physically demanding and unhinged performance as well. This version of Annie is constantly on the run. She moves from town to town never trying to stay in one place for too long out of fear that legal consequences will catch up to her. She has the simplistic view that the world is full of people who are either good or bad. The good will be rewarded in the end while the bad will be severely punished. She sometimes views it as her responsibility to ensure the evils of the world get what's coming to them. However, life is so much more complicated than that - especially since her traveling companion is her 16-year-old daughter, Joy (played by Eighth Grade's Elsie Fisher). This season could essentially be seen as a two-hander between Caplan and Fisher. They have the most outwardly emotional and demanding roles. The narrative is grounded in the lives they have lived for years before they find they way to Castle Rock. They are forced into staying here for longer than what has typically defined their lives. That forces many important questions to be asked and the truth to be confronted. It's such a twisted mother-daughter dynamic that comes with the eery tragedy that something deadly awaits them at the end of this journey. Joy is not a character in either the novel or the feature film. That may signal her death at some point. The early episodes ensure that the audience has such empathy for her though and a desire for her to escape that it may make that inevitability more certain. It's profound character work that highlights just how the bonds of family can inform so much but can destroy just as much too.

Annie and Joy interrupt the lives of several Castle Rock locals too. The threat from them is hardly the only sinister thing going on at the moment. The show is very upfront about the mysterious and insane connections amongst humanity. At any moment, the lives of strangers can intertwine and dramatically change the fates for all of them. All Annie and Joy have to do is fill up space in order for the town's energy to shift. But the town has long-simmering identity issues long before these newcomers arrive. Tim Robbins returns to the Stephen King world as Reginald "Pop" Merrill, an influential Castle Rock citizen who looms large in the community. He is well-connected and seems to be able to do whatever he wants. However, he is a man resigned to death due to his failing health. As such, the various members of his family have been stepping up to try to fill the void left by him. He's still alive though. He still has contributations to make to society. That can either tear the town apart or bring it back together. He has the power to do both. But he too may be playing with forces he may not entirely understand. The gruesomeness of this world still has the ability to viscerally hit people - even the ones who know that death consumes so many lives in this community. Annie may not see this as a suitable place to plant down roots. However, circumstances keep her and Joy around for much longer than anticipated. That could present as cheap plot obstacles. Instead, they inform the bond in desperate ways that highlight the search for something more. Everyone is essentially looking to feel fulfilled in their lives. Joy has compassion and empathy for her mother because she believes she understands why she does what she does better than anyone else in the world. The show may state that Annie Wilkes has bipolar disorder but it also argues that no therapist has ever been able to properly diagnose her. She causes damage and despair. But there is a sense of hope too. She may do evil things but she thinks she is justified in them because the world left her with no other options. That narrative is deconstructed to brutal effect. Annie's simplistic view of the world is never as easy as anyone would likely believe. Those complications allow the show to feel more rich and complex this season. That makes the rewards come early and often. This year the show finally lives up to all of its potential while keeping the body count high.