As an anthology series, “Castle Rock” always planned to start a fresh story each season. Given the sheer volume of Stephen King content at co-creator and showrunner Dustin Thomason’s disposal, there’s no real concern of running short on new stories to build from old bones. Season 1 showed how connecting themes, locales, and people through the mysterious Maine town could deliver further thrills, chills, and deeply moving character studies enriched by a brilliant formal structure that mimics a memory-ravaging disease.
But Season 2 differs from Season 1 even more than one might expect. Though Hulu and Bad Robot’s sophomore effort sticks fairly close to the series’ pre-set plans, its central focus isn’t an original creation, but Annie Wilkes. The character made famous by Kathy Bates in “Misery” (and plenty of re-stagings thereafter) is the star again, embodied here by Lizzy Caplan. Unlike Henry Deaver, the Season 1 lead played by Andre Holland, a famous figure like Annie comes loaded with expectations, associations, and comparisons.
And yet originality wins out yet again. Despite tying itself to Annie, “Salem’s Lot,” and “The Body” — not to mention casting Tim Robbins, best known for his work in King’s “The Shawshank Redemption” — “Castle Rock” Season 2 forges its own footsteps without leaning too heavily on references or tie-ins for giddy thrills. Lots of camera framings are creepy as hell, the episodic structure consistently shakes things up, and the performances are just outstanding. It may not be as instantly enticing as the first entry, but there’s more than enough to hold you captive.
Season 2 is a tale of two families, one of which is split in two. Reginald “Pop” Merrill (Robbins) is the dying family patriarch. Pop has been a steward of Castle Rock all his life, if not always for the right reasons. On the one hand, he’s a generous ex-Army man who adopted two teen Somali refugees decades prior. Abdi Omar (Barkhad Abdi) and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), were raised right. Abdi is a construction manager looking to open up a new cultural center for the town’s increasing Somali population, while Nadia is the chief doctor at the local hospital.
But Abdi’s actions threaten Pop’s nephew, Ace (Paul Sparks), who grew jaded by the attention his uncle paid to his adopted cousins, and now runs a local flea market filled with Somali salespeople. As the property owner, Ace is taking a big cut of their earnings — too big, and now they’re threatening to leave him and work out of Abdi’s new complex for much more reasonable rates. The brewing business battle ignites old tensions, and Pop isn’t the only one caught in the middle.
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Through five episodes, each family member is well fleshed out and Thomason does an admirable job avoiding stereotypes and inauthentic storylines. Abdi and Nadia speak English and Somali; their motivation to move stateside is shown in flashback, rather than assigned sight unseen; there’s a subset of locals harboring ill-will against the growing immigrant population, but their racism isn’t strictly overt and is often confined to allegorical horror constructs. (A plot twist in the first few episodes sets up a pretty effective way to draw out the literal blood feud between genetic and adopted descendants.)
Still, performances are more important than ever when you’re dealing with famous characters or famous faces associated with one character, now playing another. Robbins, for his part, does a fine job recreating the angry Bostonite we’ve come to know from “Mystic River” and “War of the Worlds,” mumbling his way through Pop’s dying days with enough world-weariness and last-chance desperation to make you forget about Andy Dufresne. But among the Merrill family members, Sparks is the real showstopper. His brimming, over-the-top attitude in Episode 1 sets up a pivot later on, making both versions of Ace all the more intimidating and awful. Sparks seems to be having a lot of fun playing a layered bad dude, and the scripts give him plenty to work with.
But like the premise itself, Season 2 would fall apart without a convincing, additive turn from Caplan — and she delivers. Annie still casually deploys childish replacements for profanity (“fudge” instead of “fuck,” among other words not so easily transposed), a wide-eyed stare, and a ruthless streak when pushed to her paranoid limits, but Caplan lets her breathe a bit. Rather than risk becoming a self-parody, the “Masters of Sex” star trusts in the story unfolding around her to support pure human moments (often stressful, scary, or otherwise panicked).
There are a number of scenes where Annie’s left alone, considering whether her mind is breaking or it’s the world around her. She’s forced to question things she refuses to question, and in these scenes, Caplan lets her nurse operate from a place of fear. She doesn’t always have to be the one holding the sledgehammer (or an axe). Annie is on the run, so letting her be afraid is an effective pathway toward pushing her over the edge.
“Castle Rock” Season 2 hasn’t quite found the tour de force episode its predecessor did, but we’re still in the early goings. What’s here is still effective, affecting, and original — despite appearances. With more stories to tell, “Castle Rock” continues to prove there are many ways to tell them.
“Castle Rock” Season 2 premiered Wednesday, October 23 with three episodes on Hulu. New episodes will be released each subsequent Wednesday.