What really impressed me about the first season of Hulu’s underrated “Castle Rock” was how deftly the writers created their own vision within the construct of a show that gets the most attention for how it reflects someone else’s work. “Castle Rock” takes place in Stephen King’s universe of characters and settings, but it reimagines them to tell its own story. So while the first season took us back to Shawshank Penitentiary and Scott Glenn played technically the same character as Ed Harris in the adaptation of “Needful Things,” it told its own riveting story. And without emphasizing it, the story of “Castle Rock” is one that King himself could have crafted – a narrative about family drama woven into a supernatural construct.
Could they do it again? The start of the second season answers that question with a confident yes. I have to admit to being concerned about a premise that sounded like it hinges too much on one of King’s most-loved books, but the season two narrative of “Castle Rock” quickly affirms itself as its own story, a narrative about people running from their past, grabbing for things as they fall. And, once again, the team behind “Castle Rock” prove to be masterful with casting and performance. The first season featured great work by Scott Glenn, Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, and a particularly amazing Sissy Spacek. Season two’s ensemble may be even stronger.
At the center of that ensemble is a very familiar name: Annie Wilkes. The maniacal kidnapper who won an Oscar for Kathy Bates in “Misery” has been reimagined in 2019, and is played here by the great Lizzy Caplan. Annie is on the run from something, seen in the opening montage bouncing from pharmacy to pharmacy, where she steals drugs to feed what looks like at the very least a Lithium addiction. She drags her daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher) through this cross-country journey, which stops after a car accident in Castle Rock. Annie gets a job there as an RN to feed her addiction, and she tells Joy they won’t stay long. Famous last words.
Relatively quickly, Annie and Joy get caught up in the spiral of a crime family facing major change. Reginald “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins) is dying of cancer, and having to negotiate a family crisis at the same time. His nephew Ace (Paul Sparks) has been used to running things in Castle Rock, but Pop’s adopted son Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) is spearheading the construction of a community center in nearby Jerusalem’s Lot that’s taking away some of the Somali workers that Ace is used to exploiting. Abdi’s sister Nadia (Yusra Warsama) is a doctor at the hospital at which Annie gets a job; Ace runs the motel at which Annie gets temporary lodging. And I didn’t even mention the creepy house on the hill over in Salem’s Lot.
Fans of King’s second book or its adaptations will know what that means, and the writers here incorporate other works like “The Sun Dog,” “Needful Thing,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “It,” while also dropping references to the first season. However, this season feels even less reliant on the King nostalgia than the first, even though Annie Wilkes is in the center talking about “dirty birds” and yelling “Jiminy Christmas!” (Heck, “Stranger Things” had as many indirect references this season.) Caplan makes Wilkes her own, a more desperate, frightened version of the character made so famous by Bates. This Wilkes clearly battles severe mental illness, her bipolar disorder forcing her into some very bad decisions. Without overdoing it, Caplan captures a woman who will do absolutely anything to protect the only thing she believes is really keeping her sane, her daughter. Robbins is as good as he’s been in years as a man who knows he has done bad in his life and struggles with what that means now that it’s nearing its end. Abdi, Fisher, Sparks, Warsama – they’re all excellent. A lot of horror anthologies hinge on concept instead of character or performance, but I’m happy to see “Castle Rock” bucking that trend.
If there’s a complaint it would be that the mystery at the core of season one was more instantly compelling – missing kids, Bill Skarsgard possibly playing Satan, chaos at Shawshank. It had more instant zip to it than a woman on the run and the dangers she faces in a creepy Maine town. However, allow the second season to work for you in different ways and it absolutely will do so. Even more than season one, I’m appreciating the minor character beats here; unpacking the subtle connections between people trying to turn awful situations into positive ones. Like King’s best fiction, the concept may be what pulls people in, but the show uses that hook to dig into something deeper. I truly hope they keep doing it for years.
Four episodes screened for review.