This Castle Rock review does not contain spoilers.
Castle Rock Season 2 Episode 1
Reinterpreting a beloved Stephen King villain like Annie Wilkes is a tall order, but Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) makes it look easy. Channeling a nervous energy and an obsessively clean mouth (although no “cockadoodies” just yet), Caplan completely transforms into the unstable Wilkes for a new take that pays homage to Kathy Bates’ legendary turn in Misery while also revealing a different side of the character.
Caplan is absolutely fantastic, shuffling nervously from scene to scene, trying to keep a low-profile even though she’s all some of the other characters can see in the room. This version of Annie is odd, but not exactly in a menacing way, at least not at first. Showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have teased out a few things about the character that go relatively unsaid in the King novel and movie that will have Constant Readers coming back for more. Caplan is just so electric every time she’s in front of the camera, and it helps that we sort of symphatize with her this time around. She has a very specific reason to be in Castle Rock and I unexpectedly found myself rooting for her. I know that’s vague as hell, but I really can’t say much more than that.
Alongside Caplan’s Annie is Joy, played by Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher, who, interestingly enough, more directly expresses the loneliness that you’d expect from Ms. Wilkes. Joy brings a perspective that was sadly missing from the first season — here is a teenager growing up in Maine’s most messed up city. As we watch her traverse this haunted town — mostly when overbearing Annie isn’t around — we get to meet Castle Rock’s quirky youth. No, they’re not performing mock trials in spooky masks this time around, but they’re fun all the same. And there are hints that there’s more to these teens than meets the eye.
Annie and Joy’s connection should be somewhat obvious, but I won’t spoil it here in case you’ve not watched or read any promo material. What you need to know is that these two are the heart of the show and you’ll immediately want to know more about their story. My favorite scene between the two features a stunning musical cue (guess which?) that left me humming the tune for days.
King’s obsessive villain isn’t the only major inclusion from the books this season. Tim Robbins plays Pop Merrill, the stoic patriarch of Castle Rock’s very own crime family. The Shawshank Redemption actor is a major get for the series, but don’t expect hints of Andy Dufresne in Robbins’ performance. Pop is a different sort of creature, introverted and stoic, a guy with a bad side that’s only hinted at in the premiere. While Pop is a bit cartoonish in “The Sun Dog,” the novella in which he originally appears, the show’s version gives us a more understated take. Robbins shows just the tiniest hint of menace, but there’s also kindness, especially when it comes to his adopted children, Nadia and Abdi, played by Yusra Warsama (The Last Days on Mars) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), respectively.
Nadia and Abdi are at the center of this season’s other major storyline. It seems that we’re going to spend quite a bit of time in the neighboring town of Jerusalem’s Lot this year. While the cursed town might be the setting of one of the writer’s most haunting stories (‘Salem’s Lot), the conflict as presented in the premiere is surprisingly a bit more grounded: a growing Somali community is putting down roots in the town and some people, including the creepy and violent Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks from House of Cards), have a big problem with that. Ace and Abdi might be “family,” but the former shows no love for the latter in the premiere, as a territorial dispute threatens to bring bloodshed to both towns.
Sparks is by far the show’s most chilling villain to date. Ace, who also comes from both the stories and movies, will make your skin crawl — so much so that he’ll make Annie look like the show’s true hero by the end of the episode. These characters intersect throughout the premiere in an interesting way, Ace casting a long shadow over Annie and Joy’s new life in Castle Rock.
All of these seemingly disparate parts do converge by the end of the episode, which truly feels like the perfect first chapter of a great King novel. For example, Nadia makes a big decision in “Let the River Run” that will likely change Castle Rock forever, and we see how her choice affects many of the other characters, even if she doesn’t share any screentime with them. There’s a real forward momentum to this premiere that the first season seriously lacked, especially in its top half. Season 2’s energy is already so infectuous, like the early parts of King stories often are, and I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for me on the next page.
Castle Rock season 2 premieres on Oct. 23 on Hulu.