This Castle Rock review contains spoilers.
Castle Rock Season 2 Episode 5
A year ago, I would have cringed at the thought of an Annie Wilkes origin story. Surely, a character as iconic as Stephen King‘s psychotic fiction fan needs no prologue in 2019. A ham-handed “Misery: The Beginning” Hollywood movie would almost certainly defile the character worse than when Paul Sheldon decided to kill off his most famous heroine. Yet, here is Castle Rock to prove me completely wrong. “The Laughing Place” is not only an Annie Wilkes origin story but one of those special King-inspired stories we’ll be talking about for a long time.
Castle Rock has seriously met its potential in season 2, with stories that not only pay homage to the master of horror’s cruel universe but at times also challenges and (dare I say it?) even improves King lore. The latter is in fact the case with the tale of Annie Wilkes, who is not so much a fully-formed killer as a very sick, undiagnosed woman with a dark past. Lizzy Caplan has played the role gloriously, stepping out of the shadow of Kathy Bates’ legendary performance to turn the character into her very own. But tonight’s episode doesn’t belong to Caplan but to Ruby Cruz, who shines in scene after scene as a younger Annie.
Much of “The Laughing Place” plays out as a flashback, with present day scenes interspersed throughout (Annie tries to reconnect with Joy to no avail and ends up drinking at the Mellow Tiger Bar). We first meet Annie in elementary school, where she struggles to fit in with the other kids, who make fun of her because of her trouble with reading — we see from Annie’s perspective as the letters become jumbled together, forming illegible lines of text. After Annie hits a bully in the face on their school bus, her parents (played by John Hoogenakker and Robin Weigert) decide to home school their troubled daughter.
The home schooling doesn’t go all that well, either. We next meet Annie as a teenager, who diligently transcribes her father’s never-ending novel, The Ravening Angel, onto a computer. Her father thinks that writing the words of his creepy historical fiction novel will help Annie learn to read. But after years of writing and transcribing, Annie still can’t read well enough to pass her GED, which is why her mother decides to call Rita Green (Sarah Gadon, who previously appeared in Hulu’s adaptation of King’s 11.22.63) to tutor her. This is when the trouble truly begins.
Cruz does a great job of portraying both the black-and-white innocence of young Annie, who has learned a very rigid sense of right and wrong from her mother, while also expressing a darker side. This Annie finds the most comfort in her more free-spirited father, who at first is very close to his daughter, the person he most trusts with his fiction. She’s his “Laughing Place” for a large portion of the flashback until Mr. Wilkes confides in Rita.
It was a brilliant move on the part of showrunners Dustin Thomason and Sam Shaw, as well as episode writers Vince Calandra and Daria Polatin, to base so much of Annie’s origin on her ability to read and understand fiction. Not only does this storyline make thematic sense for the character, but it also teases new things about her, like the fact that she might have a knack for storytelling herself. It’s a talent she uses later to manipulate Joy with her own fantasy about the Laughing Place as well as to give Paul Sheldon “constructive criticism” in Misery.
The direction is also beautiful, as director Anne Sewitsky gives us both the season’s most chilling sequence (Mrs. Wilkes’ suicide) as well as its most heartwarming (Annie’s camaraderie with the well-meaning Rita). The episode is also aided along by Thom Yorke’s synth-heavy Suspiria score, including the inspired use of the movie’s theme in the climactic river scene. Castle Rock season 2 has teased the arrival of witches and Satanists in its first five episodes and there’s no more fitting a musical cue than “Suspirium” as an innocent girl gives way to someone much darker and sinister.
I also can’t laud Robin Weigert enough. She steals every scene she’s in as Mrs. Wilkes, who will turn out to be the biggest influence in Annie’s trauma-filled life. It helps that she’s basically Annie-lite herself, displaying the clear rigidness and obsessively clean mouth that will one day be her daughter’s signature characteristics. Her final scene, as she starts the car to drive herself and Annie into a river, is heart-wrenching and shocking — her last lesson to Annie; the clean getaway.
Annie’s relationship with her mother serves as a clever parallel to the fragile connection with her own daughter. Young Annie finds her mom overbearing, even a bit troubled after her dad leaves to raise a family with Rita, but it’s Mrs. Wilkes who pushes her to be better, to pass her GED, to get away from her small life in a small town. While her beloved father decides to simply abandon the family when life as a failed writer becomes too hard, Annie’s mother is there doing the important work. Annie realizes that in the end, and her decision to become a nurse seems like a loving tribute to the woman who raised her and made her strong. It’s a bit of a cliche for a woman to drown herself after having her heart broken (and both Mrs. Wilkes and Annie do during the episode), but Castle Rock subverts this trope a bit by allowing the river to become a place of rebirth for Annie, now a mother to Joy.
The climactic scene of the episode is as gory and horrifying as you’d expect. Annie accidentally impales her beloved but shitty dad when she discovers that he’s dedicated his novel to Rita, “his Laughing Place.” The sequence where Annie attempts to pull her father off the newel post is absolutely stomach-churning, too.
Perhaps the episode’s only stumble is when Annie goes full-on slasher with Rita, stabbing her in the baby’s room (her old room). It’s hard to believe that, despite her trauma, that this Annie would go there, to murder someone in cold blood, but maybe that’s the anger Annie had been storing up all along — sort of how Carrie White breaks at the prom. In storytelling terms, it’s an easy way to take Annie from innocent teen to murderous fugitive.
Unlike Carrie, Annie didn’t finish the job, though. We learn that Joy has been reading The Ravening Angel in the present day. When she discovers the dedication to Rita at the end of the novel, Joy decides to find out who that is in hopes that she can learn more about her own origin.
“The Laughing Place” feels like the culmination of the first half of storytelling, bookended by rivers and a manuscript, and I can’t wait to see what Castle Rock dishes in the second half. Annie is still sitting at the bar but now an undead Ace has come to join her; Joy calls Rita and her real mother answers. This is Stephen King storytelling at its very finest.