The first season of Hulu’s ambitious Stephen King universe anthology, Castle Rock, ran afoul of its surfeit of ideas and general lack of narrative direction. That combination resulted in a mostly incoherent season of television that was nevertheless anchored by strong performances from André Holland, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, and Bill Skarsgård. Though it meandered and struggled to find a consistent pace or balance between its universe-building aspirations and its more fan-focused inclusion of go-nowhere Easter eggs, the season worked as a proof of concept, if not much else. That concept has been refreshed and refined in season 2, eschewing the more abstract ideas and lingering mysteries of its predecessor for a more straightforward story of madness, corruption, and the intrusion of the supernatural into a not-so-sleepy little town.
Castle Rock season 2 owes whatever success it has to the inclusion of Annie Wilkes to the central storyline. Played by Lizzie Caplan, Annie is arguably one of the most recognizable characters from King’s oeuvre, due in part to her having earned Kathy Bates an Academy Award in Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Misery, and to the fact that the character doesn’t require a supernatural explanation for her actions. She’s unstable and violent and oddly proficient in the latter, to the point of being sadistic, which makes her something of an outlier with regard to female antagonists, and a reliable point of fascination for fans, as most have, in one form or another, witnessed or read the sort of misery (sorry) Annie’s ire can bring.
The decision to have Castle Rock season 2 focus on Annie isn’t nearly as sacrilegious as it may seem. Though it takes liberties with the character’s story, it does so in a way that repositions Annie in the present-day, on the road (or on the run) with her daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher), without diluting the potential for homicidal madness and dismemberment that made her so memorable in the first place. More importably, Annie provides audiences with a much-needed anchor point in the larger King universe that Castle Rock aims to continue playing around in. Watching the first few episodes of season 2, it’s clear how sorely this was missed in season 1, which took a broader, less focused approach to its shared universe, aside from a starring role for Shawshank Prison and a few shallow nods to King’s work sprinkled throughout.
Needless to say, season 2 is an all-around improvement over season 1, as creators and showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason are intent on putting their best foot forward from the moment go. That means making use of Caplan and Fisher, but also Tim Robbins as Pop Merrill, Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire) as Ace Merrill, and Barkhad Abi (Captain Philips), as a criminal family threatening to tear itself apart over the construction of a new Somali mall in Castle Rock. It also means using one of season 1’s greatest assets in Greg Yaitanes to direct the season premiere. Yaitanes helmed arguably the best episode of the series with ‘The Queen,’ gaining a stunning performance from Spacek in the process.
All of this is evidence of a much more focused and propulsive season of television, one that offers clear objectives for each of its many characters, while also blending elements of psychological terror with those of a distinctly supernatural variety. The result is a surprisingly entertaining mashup of Misery and Salem’s Lot, one that better fulfills the lofty promises inherent in the series’ design and its connection to the J.J. Abrams-style of mystery box storytelling. But, rather than feel tacked on or fan service-y, the various elements, disparate though they are, actually function as a cohesive whole, one that better capitalizes on its eerie sense of place and inclusion in this burgeoning King universe.
The success of season 2 is due mostly to a committed performance from Caplan, who imbues Annie with surprising depth, even as she struggles and fails to keep her demons at bay. The series doesn’t let Caplan do all of the heavy lifting, however, as it offers a glimpse into her past that hints at a violent encounter which put Joy’s life in Annie’s hands. Additionally, Robbins and Sparks are engaging as a pair of antagonists who are fighting to maintain the stranglehold they have over Castle Rock and, to a lesser degree, Annie herself. Abi, meanwhile, brings an unexpected storyline to the fold, one where he and his sister, both of whom were adopted by Pop, find themselves at odds with Ace, resulting in a fiery family feud that’s as fascinating as it is unexpected.
Where Castle Rock season 2 succeeds, however, is in the scaled back approach to its King universe. Perhaps it’s because the series is now in its second season and the pressure to try and include as many King Easter eggs as possible has eased somewhat. That gives the series a chance to put its energies into telling a more coherent story. There’s still plenty of King paraphernalia floating around for eagle-eyed viewers to latch onto, but Castle Rock is no longer so insistent of its importance to the overall story. Instead, the series mercifully lets the narrative speak for itself.
Castle Rock season 2 premieres Wednesday, October 23 exclusively on Hulu.