Stephen King is having a moment. Nowadays, it seems like the list of television and film adaptations based on King-related IP runs nearly as long as the author’s body of work. (Which is mind-blowing in and of itself, considering King’s propensity to continuously churn out new novels well into his fifth decade of professional writing; call him the anti–George R.R. Martin.) Granted, King has been a Hollywood fixture since he began writing books; the big-screen adaptation of his first novel, Carrie, arrived in 1976, just two years after it hit shelves. But what makes this period of saturated King IP so unprecedented isn’t just that there are tons of projects in development, but that something like Castle Rock exists.
The Hulu anthology series is hard to describe; I’ve found “Stephen King’s MCU” to be a reliable, if not quite accurate, shorthand. Castle Rock, in essence, takes inspiration from various characters and settings from the expansive King Shared Universe to craft an entirely new story that’s fully appreciated by viewers who are, themselves, King fanatics. (Castle Rock is a fictional town in Maine that’s featured in several of King’s novels, including all-timers like The Dead Zone and Cujo.) In its first season, Castle Rock was littered with Easter eggs to King’s larger oeuvre, and it carefully laid out clues to a slow-burn mystery about the town, its inhabitants, and the spectral presence of a puzzling character known only as “The Kid,” played with a muted malevolence by Bill Skarsgard—himself a King-IP alum who portrayed Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Andy Muschietti’s It films.
Castle Rock’s first installment was Stephen King by way of mystery box storytelling: a popular framework in the era of Peak TV that didn’t quite suit something deferential to the author’s material. Castle Rock was much better at establishing a quintessentially creepy Kingian mood—the dread that comes from a feeling that there are sinister forces interrupting the mundanity of small-town life—than building a compelling mystery. So while the first season wasn’t without some breakout moments—the seventh episode, the Sissy Spacek–led “The Queen,” was among the best episodes of 2018 across television—Castle Rock was weighed down by unnecessarily weighty ideas. Complexity isn’t the same thing as profundity.
But the sour taste Castle Rock left at the end of Season 1 was immediately washed away by a new approach for the second season, to be led by one of King’s most infamous characters: Annie Wilkes. The antagonist of Misery—who imprisons and gruesomely tortures a famous novelist, forcing him to write a new book bringing her favorite character back from the dead—was already the subject of a 1990 film, which netted Kathy Bates an Oscar. (Because of the Misery movie I have a deep, irrational fear of Kathy Bates.) In Castle Rock’s second season, a slightly younger Annie (played by Lizzy Caplan) is driving across the States with her teenage daughter, Joy (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher), when a car accident leaves them holed up in the town. Inevitably, Annie and Joy get sucked into new drama enveloping Castle Rock—including dueling real estate interests in the neighboring town of ’Salem’s Lot, and how that relates to the local Somali immigrant community.
Because this is Maine—specifically Stephen King’s depraved version of Maine—any fears that something malevolent is happening within Castle Rock and ’Salem’s Lot are, obviously, quite warranted. (’Salem’s Lot is also the subject of a pretty scary book!) But that overwhelming sense of dread is particularly captivating when you’re looking at the two towns from Annie’s point of view. Annie is extremely paranoid and prone to hallucinations. She attempts to control her paranoiac impulses and visions with a pharmaceutical cocktail of stuff she steals from hospitals where she works as a nurse. (Appropriate for the Misery canon, since the character used to be a nurse.) One of the most interesting parts of Castle Rock is looking at the community from Annie’s unreliable headspace while trying to discern which threats are real or imaginary.
With such an intimate focus on Annie, Castle Rock’s second season doesn’t have much in common with its predecessor; instead, it takes some cues from Bates Motel, the underrated A&E series that centered on a young Norman Bates. Bates Motel wasn’t a canonical Psycho prequel—no joke, Rihanna shows up in the final season as Marion Crane—but its spin on Norman and his oedipal relationship with his still-alive mother Norma added some complexity to one of cinema’s most infamous killers. Similarly, you don’t have to treat Castle Rock’s second season as actual Misery canon to appreciate what the show’s trying to do with Annie Wilkes. Fleshing out the character—including a captivating fifth episode that delves into her troubled adolescence in California—doesn’t absolve Annie of any abhorrent behavior, but does gives you a better understanding of how some monsters are born out of tragic circumstances.
None of this would work without an able Annie, and while Bates’s Oscar-winning performance is a really difficult thing to live up to, Caplan makes the character her own. Her giant eyes tend to linger on people a little too long—it’s very unsettling!—and her strange gait can probably best be described as the walk of a homicidal duck. True to Misery, Annie doesn’t swear, preferring to say things like “cockadoodie” and “dirty bird,” which is somehow much worse.
The rest of the season’s first five episodes aren’t nearly as engaging as Annie’s descent into becoming King’s fabled “nurse from hell.” The narrative threads at ’Salem’s Lot and the introduction of the Marsten House (another infamous hallmark of the writer’s iconography) will feel very familiar to anyone who’s binged the third season of Stranger Things; Tim Robbins, as the head of a local family that sort of functions like Castle Rock’s mafia, largely seems to exist to remind you of The Shawshank Redemption. But with less time spent trying to keep the audience guessing at the show’s enduring mysteries in favor of a gripping Annie Wilkes character study, Castle Rock’s second season represents a marked improvement. The show might not seem all that appealing to people who aren’t King zealots, but when there are enough of them out there to sell more King books than the population of the United States and foster a cottage industry of scholars meticulously studying the author’s work, that’s not exactly a death sentence. For King’s biggest fans, Castle Rock’s second season won’t be a hard sell—Annie Wilkes or otherwise.