Castle Rock: Season 2 Review

While Castle Rock’s first season was ambitious in its own right, bringing us into a mixtape world of Stephen King — filled with a few notable book characters, locations, and an avalanche of Easter eggs — Season 2 is downright admirable insanity.And where Season 1 gave us an original tale involving a mysterious young man (Bill Skarsgård) who had to be caged/protected lest calamity continue to fall on the community, Season 2 notably blended two famous King books (one of which became an award-winning movie): Salem’s Lot and Misery.

It all sounds more complicated than it actually is, as the premise, when broken down, is basically the answer to the question “What if Annie Wilkes battled the vampires from Salem’s Lot?” It was bonkers and, thanks in large part to Lizzy Caplan’s powerful performance as Annie (which even garnered praise from Kathy Bates), it worked. Caplan was masterful, presenting us with a damaged, wholly misguided protector who could elicit sympathy from fans even though, all the while, she was severely damaging a poor young girl under the guise of love.

Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher’s was also remarkable here. It’s a very tricky interaction to pull off, the push and pull between Annie and Joy – who had to be both rebellious and loyal. She had to want to flee her trappings but then also desperately need the unhealthy amounts of love and doting that Annie heaped on her. She had to be curious enough to seek out the truth, but then also emotionally trapped enough to crave her prison. Caplan and Fisher dazzled throughout the season.

This season’s devious demons, who’d been dormant for 400 years underneath Castle Rock’s neighboring town, weren’t exactly vampires like in King’s book. One of the most surprising things about Season 2 (aside from the “Holy s***!” moment in the premiere when Annie killed Ace with an ice cream scoop) was that its back third tied us directly back into Season 1 – into Henry Deaver, the woods, the lake, and the “Schisma.”

The “angel” that the original French settlers aligned with was some other form of Skarsgård’s Deaver, making the evil cultists, who had a few vampiric qualities, more black magic practitioners than anything else. In a weird and comforting way, Season 2’s tethering to Season 1 made the Season 1 finale, which didn’t contain the payoff or closure we’d hoped for, feel better in hindsight (in the sense that all of this, each season, is designed so that it adds onto, and feeds into, the Deaver tapestry).

Robbins was this season’s “movie star who headlined a famous King film,” succeeding Season 1’s Sissy Spacek. Pop was a smaller character in the King-verse, appearing in the novella The Sun Dog. Robbins fit in well here as the (flawed) adult of the mix, an old-timer who had tons of atoning to do and a responsibility to take care of his family. This story needed a town elder to give it a sense of historic weight; someone who would, for the sake of plot, know a few more things than his kids.

Notably though, the Merrill family drama (which also included stars Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama), and the initial “vampiric” takeover of the town, gave us some of the flimsiest moments of the season in its early episodes. But everything picked up nicely in the third act when the splintered family had to come together, with Annie, to fight back against the brainwashed hordes. In fact, the Merrill drama before the endgame was thin enough that it afforded the season a chance to give us an entire episode, “The Laughing Place,” dedicated to Annie’s brutal backstory with baby Joy. In fact, it was a two-parter if you include its follow-up, “The Mother.”

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Another odd choice here, in Season 2, was the fact that Sarah Gadon’s Rita vanished completely after she was killed off. Not that I expected her to return, per se (though people were getting resurrected left and right), but all traces and mentions of her stopped. Then (and this isn’t a story element really), there was the curious casting of really good character actors — like Greg Grunberg, Chris Mulkey, The Americans’ Alison Wright, and even a returning Frances Conroy — in roles where they were mostly zoned-out drones.

That being said, Season 2 was able to pull off a better story than Season 1 because it often focused on very direct physical threats — from Annie’s tribulations to the Body Snatcher story — and not a metaphysical mystery that wasn’t going to be solved. Everything really began to gel more with Episode 7, “The Word,” as the town’s horrific history was revealed and the Merrills’ story collided more fully with Annie’s tragic arc. This season didn’t have an episode as good as Season 1’s “The Queen,” but an earnest effort was made with “The Laughing Place” to hone in on one story. And it had the extra challenge of giving us another actress, Ruby Cruz, playing Annie for an entire episode and making her sync with Caplan’s version (and, in the back of our minds, Bates’ take). It was a great chapter that really helped add layers to Annie while crazily contextualizing her relationship with her half-sister.

The finale was truly harrowing. It was a great way of using the entire cultist plot, and the fact that Joy was their prime target, to feed into Annie’s unreliable narrator nature. It could have truly gone either way: Annie could have been delusional or Joy could have had the remnants of dark sorcery inside her. Of course, at that point, we didn’t know what the show was ultimately going to do with Annie. Was this particular Annie just meant to exist like this, within the show’s bubble? Were we ever supposed to really think that she was going to, one day, do a Misery?

Honestly, even with her entire backstory involving her dad being a struggling author, I didn’t need to be led towards Annie’s eventual collision with Paul Sheldon. At that point, after ten episodes of her and Joy and their diabolical dynamic, it risked feeling like unnecessary icing. All in all, it worked fine, but it’s because the episode “Clean” wisely focused more on Annie’s shattered mind with regards to her dead sister-daughter. Of course, you could interpret the moment when Annie “rescued” Joy as real, and that Joy just wound up leaving her afterwards – but we know that’s not what happened. Annie drowned her girl, like she’d almost done when Joy was just an infant. It was the roughest scene this show’s ever done, making for a truly malicious and meaningful finale.


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