This Castle Rock review contains spoilers.
Castle Rock Season 2 Episode 10
Was that the ending you expected? While there was a sense that the show always knew where it ultimately had to go, the journey Annie Wilkes takes throughout the season is nothing short of breathtaking. Lizzy Caplan turns in her best performance to date as the nurse, mother, and daughter who’s just trying to survive the “filth” of the world and shield her daughter from it. Shining a light on Annie’s undiagnosed mental illness was an absolutely inspired way to explore facets of the character that the source material didn’t. It was important for Annie to take back her narrative in 2019, and we should give a round of applause to showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, as well as the rest of the writers and directors, for allowing her to do so. Caplan and Elsie Fisher, who played Annie’s daughter Joy, remained the major highlights of the second season until the very end.
It’s when the season finale returns to the relationship between mother and daughter that the story regains its power. Season two was at its best when spending time with Annie and Joy, who end the season back on the road, in search of a Laughing Place that seems so close to Annie, even if her traumatized daughter knows that they’ll never truly get there. Heartbreak doesn’t begin to cover how their story ends. I am in shambles, Constant Readers.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about why the first half of the episode — and the entire Angel storyline — feels so out of place with the rest of the finale. Playing like an extended action scene where characters plant explosives, pull out their guns, switch allegiances at the last second, and blow shit up, “Clean” has the tough task of wrapping up the larger story of the first two seasons in a neat bow. That ending is anything but neat, and shows just how much weaker the bottom half of the second season was for including all of the baggage from season one. The Kid/Angel isn’t a very captivating villain, nowhere near as interesting as Ace, Amity, or Annie herself, but yet the focus is ultimately on the supernatural being that haunted Henry Deaver last season. (We learn later in the episode that Henry went missing at some point before Annie and Joy arrived in Castle Rock.)
Season one often times felt too constricted in its storytelling to be interesting. It’s best parts, like with its successor, dealt with mental illness. But, as if checking King tropes off a list, it often went back to the supernatural threat, an honestly bewildering character lacking in personality or any real motive besides being pure evil (The Kid’s dual identity as alternate Henry Deaver from another universe doesn’t really stick anymore, does it?). Bringing back this threat for another scare only weakens the second season and distracts from the drama that had already been unfolding naturally among the characters. Sure, the supernatural threat is used much more effectively here as a way to explore elements of ‘Salem’s Lot but nowhere near well enough as to justify taking time away from more interesting storylines, such as Annie and Joy’s deteriorating relationship.
In the end, do we get any more answers regarding the Kid/Angel? Nope. When the Marsten House and the statue are blown to hell by Nadia and Abdi midway through the episode, the Angel simply vanishes to parts unknown. That’s it. The Bill Skarsgard cameo barely matters.
The evil forces working to doom Castle Rock just aren’t very grabbing, the invisible portal located at Castle Lake only slightly moreso. The strength of Castle Rock always goes back to the “regular” people trying to make a life there. How did they get there? Why do they persist? Castle Rock so clearly sucks, but this is their town.
Pop dies defending his home, a moment that carries the rest of the action-heavy shenanigans through. There’s real desperation in Tim Robbins‘ performance, who portrays a man fighting his very last round. He knows he’s going to hit the mat, but he’s not going down without landing one last punch. While predictable, the Pop twist lands and gives the first half of the episode some momentum.
But the season always had to return to its core relationship, Annie and Joy. If you were hoping to see how Annie went from sympathetic mother to Paul Sheldon’s worst nightmare, you’ll find the harrowing answer in “Clean.” Caplan and Fisher save the episode from an otherwise very ordinary conclusion with their final tense moments as mother and daughter. Fisher shows the growth of Joy as young woman in scenes where she breaks away from her mother, whom she knows doesn’t always know best, but also proves her own growth as an actress. Much of the uncertainty of her breakout character in Eighth Grade returns in her final scenes but there’s something else hidden behind the veil of childhood. Annie thinks its Amity, whom she believes has taken over Joy as a vessel, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The traumatic events in Castle Rock have affected the severely mentally ill woman, but Annie is comforted by the presence of her mother (played by Robin Weigert, another of the season’s shining stars), who counsels her in moments of doubt, confirms that what she sees in Joy — Amity’s filth — is real. Of course, Joy is planning something — to run from Annie, to find a place to heal away from her mother, as Joy’s posthumous note to Annie reads.
But it’s too late. Joy, like Annie, will never escape her mother. While the season has been full of blood and guts, including a gruesome death involving an ice cream scoop, nothing could be more violent than Annie and Joy’s final scene together. I love the way the show plays with reality here, giving us two possible versions of what’s happening. In one, Annie is saving her daughter from Amity, while the other is so clearly the truth of the matter: Annie has finally reached her breaking point.
To make matters worse, Joy is robbed of her own perspective in those final scenes, as if the show is commenting on Annie’s lack of a voice in Misery. We see the dangerous nurse as a monster through Paul Sheldon’s eyes, but not why she is the way she is. Castle Rock sees things from Annie’s side, but it’s at the cost of what her own daughter is feeling in her final moments. We’re left only with the interiority of Joy’s drawings that might have never even existed in the first place. What is real when the veil of madness is lifted from Annie’s eyes is Joy’s letter, which is full of love for her mother.
The tragedy of the final scene is palpable. Having lost the only thing keeping her remotely grounded, Annie gives in fully to her new obsession, which gets its own little origin story in the finale. “Misery’s Quest” by Paul Sheldon is the book Annie read to Joy in the days leading up to her death, and Annie’s final fantasy is of their equal admiration for Sheldon’s work. Annie hopes to one day have a Misery book dedicated to her as Sheldon’s number one fan, while the memory of Joy dreams of illustrating his book covers. And at last we understand why Sheldon’s books are so important to Annie. Her obsession doesn’t just come from an unsound mind but from her own pain. The Misery books are a way for Annie to keep Joy with her.