The Person That Loves You Most and Best: Looking Back on ‘Castle Rock’ Season 2
By Sara Century
The following contains spoilers.
The first season of the Stephen King-inspired Castle Rock was a paradoxical set of episodes, intriguing and often brilliant, playing with canon but refusing to give definitive answers on just about anything. Rather than continuing its story in the second season, it took a hard turn into left field and introduced a new cast. This season, a young Annie Wilkes and her daughter Joy are temporarily stranded in Castle Rock. At the same time, racist aggression toward the city’s Somali population triggers a long-simmering supernatural plot to overtake Castle Rock and the neighboring Salem’s Lot, all in the service of one of King’s mysterious, charismatic strangers.
Much in line with the previous season, this set of ten episodes is unrelentingly bleak, occasionally beautiful, and ultimately devastating in its portrayal of a town that seems cursed down to its core. Continuing the theme of those that love you hurting you the most, the failure of parental figures defines much of the conflict in this series. Violent, desperate, and tragic, Castle Rock goes out with a bang, teasing threads of hope only to pull them away at the last moment, leaving nothing but devastation in its wake.
Why We Are the Way We Are
Season two kicks off with a car accident caused by Annie Wilkes’s drug dependency and lack of sleep. The blocks to her future as a killer nurse are falling into place as we see her behaving recklessly, though she is loyal to her previously unmentioned daughter Joy above all else. They hole up in a local motel waiting for their car to be repaired only to come face to face with local nogoodnik Ace Merril, son of Pop and brother of Chris, who threatens Annie only to be brutally murdered with an ice cream scoop. Wilkes attempts to bury him where he won’t be missed, a construction site in Salem’s Lot that just so happens to be connected to the labyrinthine tunnels under the Marsten House of King’s novel. This kicks off an ancient prophecy of old, and a possessed Ace reappears on the scene seemingly good as new but even creepier than before.
Meanwhile, we discover that Pop had other adopted children, Ace’s brother Chris and two Somali refugees, Nadia and Abdi Howlwadaag. Abdi has bought the cursed plot of land in hopes of building a new mall, which is causing tension between him and Ace along with Ace’s other racist friends. Nadia became a doctor and left Castle Rock, returning only to care for Pop as he battles cancer. However, he does not want her help as he’s plagued with guilt over a misguided life, including that he caused the death of Nadia and Abdi’s mother when he was in the military, which Nadia only learns later in the series.
As Joy attempts to form her own identity away from her mother, Annie suffers a mental break, and Joy flees. During this, we get a flashback episode to Annie’s early days. The undiagnosed mental issues of her mother as well as a familial refusal to seek psychiatric help combined together to create a ticking time bomb in young Annie. Infuriated by her father’s perceived betrayal in starting a new family after her mother’s death, she lashes out and kills her father, injures her stepmother, and escapes with the baby Joy. This is revealed when Joy’s birth mother Rita returns, still traumatized all these years after the attack, though she is killed by Joy when she attempts to execute Annie out of revenge.
Meanwhile, a flashback episode shows us that season one’s The Kid has been around a lot longer than the first season implied, and he caused a demonic cult uprising in the early days of Castle Rock. The spirits of his followers are now attempting to return, and the number of possessed townspeople grows until it’s nearly the whole city, with a small group including Nadia, Abdi, Pop, and Annie taking refuge in the Emporium Galorium. This leads to a standoff with the ragtag group taking out the main cultists through a series of explosions. Annie takes Joy away from it all, but her paranoia grows, and she becomes convinced that Joy is still possessed, ultimately killing her, and opening the door to the Misery yet to come.
Of all King’s many creations, it’d be hard to argue against Annie Wilkes as one of his most memorable. Introduced in his novel Misery, she was brought to life on the big screen by the great Kathy Bates in 1990 opposite James Caan. Tapping into very real horror stories of “angels of mercy” like the infant-killing nurse Genene Jones, alongside an arrangement of stories about celebrity stalkers, Wilkes is easily one of the most influential villains of the 20th century. Using childlike language while flying off on hate-filled rants, praising her favorite author before breaking his legs so he wouldn’t be able to leave her, Wilkes is terrifying because she seems genuinely incapable of understanding the harm she inflicts.
Among general criticism of modern fiction’s inclination toward humanizing villains to the point that they are no longer villains regardless of their brutal crimes, Castle Rock’s take on Wilkes is unique. The series took one of King’s least sympathetic characters and chose to grant her a backstory, and it’s indeed difficult not to feel for Wilkes as she goes through life with mental health issues that seem impossible for her to overcome. Lizzy Caplan is perfect in the role, and conversation around her performance tends to dominate critical reviews of the second season for obvious reasons as she runs with Bates’ substantial character work and builds on it.
Still, at every turn, Wilkes’s paranoia and anger issues leave a path of destruction that would be hard to justify. By the end of the season, she is not defanged by the sympathetic portrayal, but all the more horrifying as we see the way her love twists and turns and justifies the most terrible actions against even those she swears to protect. In episode one, we see Annie’s pattern, stealing meds and fleeing town after town with Joy in tow, in search of their “Laughing Place.” Joy’s complicated feelings toward Annie dominate much of the story as we see a mix of love and fear that overpowers every scene they share.
The glimpse into Wilkes’s backstory might have derailed the season if not for its ultimately nonjudgmental view of a young woman incapable of understanding moral gray areas. Expecting others to adhere to strict guidelines of right and wrong, her father finding a new love rattles her to her core. In another remarkable performance for the series, Robin Weigert steps in as Annie’s mother, a woman whose life is likewise destroyed by mental illness, conspiracy theories, and paranoia. Attempting to kill her daughter along with herself, she dies by driving into a river with Annie in the car, which her father expects her to get over while pushing her aside in favor of his new family. This breaks Annie completely, and it’s impossible not to feel for her. Yet, she has her own victims, primarily among them, Joy.
Tragically, Joy never has the ability to live a life free from Annie’s influence. Though she and a local girl named Chance experience the beginning of a teen love affair, Annie stomps out any possibility of happiness in her life at every turn. In this way, her declarations of love turn sour as the series goes on. Her need to protect Joy only hurts her, offering commentary that “the person that loves you most and best” can so often be the biggest threat to your ongoing happiness.
And the Rest
While the return of Annie Wilkes understandably sparked much of the hype around the season, her story is complemented by that of Tim Robbins’ Pop Merril. This recurring King antagonist previously appeared in The Body and The Sun Dog. An exploitative business owner who took advantage of desperate people unloading personal items at his junk shop, Pop may not have ever reached Annie Wilkes’s levels of depravity, but he’s still not a great guy. His adoptive son Ace is blatantly racist, and his aggression toward Abdi and Nadia is constant, while Pop seems ill-equipped to navigate that and too preoccupied with his own guilt to fully address it.
Meanwhile, Abdi and Nadia may be the most interesting new characters of the season, making it a bit tragic that their stories end on such a vague note. Top-notch performances from Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama pull a lot of weight, grounding the story when it threatens to fly off the rails into general King-influenced supernatural cult vagaries. Though Pop is full of exceptional one-liners and backed by his own top-notch actor in Robbins, his story would never have had the weight it does without the clear effect of his actions as seen through Abdi and Nadia’s eyes. Meanwhile, the racism of small-town New England is regularly ignored or even partaken through characters in King’s novels; Castle Rock excelled by showing it to be both a clear and present danger while giving Nadia and Abdi plenty of room to breathe as their own well-developed, even heroic, characters.
In the End
Castle Rock was a series that neither critics, the network, nor fans seemed particularly inclined to fight for, and in that way, its ambiguity might indeed have proved to have been a double-edged sword for the series. Still, it’s hard to look back on its twenty-episode run without feeling remorse for what might have been. With its second season setting up an untold story with season one’s Henry Deaver missing and The Kid free from the prison that held him, the series had all the pieces in place for an epic third season, especially after its gut-punch of a closing episode.
The foray into Annie Wilkes’s history may have been a less subtle story than that of Henry Deaver and The Kid. However, it still left plenty of unanswered plot threads in its wake, making it a puzzle of a show from beginning to end. Connected to the lore but not defined by it and character-driven with traditional King-inspired occultist overtones, Castle Rock will stand the test of time as one of the greatest fulfillments of King’s work simply by never being afraid to ask questions of the canonical, even when it couldn’t answer them. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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