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Castle Rock asks if you wanna see a dead body, and you do, you really do

Elsie Fisher
Photo: Dana Starbard (Hulu)
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“You wanna go look at a dead guy?” It’s poetic justice that Ace Merrill, the villain who terrorized the children trying to beat him to the site of a dead body, is now the dead body kids are hiking to find. But not for long, he isn’t.

Joy’s ghoulish but fundamentally innocent day of fun—an outing to the lake on the pretext of looking for the body of a man who isn’t even known to be dead—comes home in a horrible way when she returns to the cabin. Ace is dead, Annie insists, and she killed him. She’s sure she did, she tells Joy, though she cleaned up so well even she cannot find a trace of evidence.

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Throughout the first three episodes, we see Annie fracturing, losing time, losing memories. Boosted by shutter-fast cuts and a choppy, unsettling sound design, Lizzy Caplan’s portrayal of wary restraint captures an ever-shifting image of Annie’s interior life. Misery’s protagonist described Annie during her “spells” as “a woman untethered,” and Castle Rock has found a way to immerse us in her flickering, uncertain existence. In this existence full of blank spots and stranger memories, Annie wants to believe she killed Ace and he came back from the dead, because having a new, hellishly vivid hallucination would be even worse than murder and revenants.

Annie barely hesitates before telling her daughter about the murder. She’ll do that and much more if it keeps Joy safe. Elsie Fisher has been doing quiet, smart, subtle work conveying Joy’s shyness, her smarts, her love and guilt and patience and anger, but in “Ties That Bind” (get it?) she shows more facets of Joy: her whooping laugh echoing across the lake, her charged excitement during their goodbye as Chance (Abby Corrigan) steps closer and Joy follows suit, and especially her calm realization of power after her mother wakes restrained to her cabin bed.

The interior of Stargazer’s Cabin 19 could be a tourist version of the Byers’ house (without the recurrent cube motif), but the lighting in this beige, brown, and sienna haze is impeccable. Annie’s almost luminous as she gazes out the cloudy window at nothing, but when Caplan turns her head, shadows pick out every hollow in her face, clear and mournful.

But it’s Fisher who steals this scene. In her face, she shows the gravity, the burden, of what Joy must do, what she’s promised and promised to do, what she’s hinted at before when asking pointedly “Mom, is it an emergency?” No child should have to subdue her mother, and maybe even Joy knows that Annie shouldn’t place this responsibility on her. Between her moments of pained love, there are frames in this episode where Elsie Fisher could be channeling Jodie Comer’s chilly intensity in Killing Eve.

Apparently the notion that antipsychotics always have delayed onset is out of date, in case you (like me) were scoffing at Annie and Joy’s plan for The Emergency. But if we chose to scoff at that detail, where would we stop? I’m not talking about the impossible supernatural events bubbling under the surface of Salem’s Lot; I’m talking about the oversimplified, downright silly storytelling mechanics. Some of the plot points of “Ties That Bind” have the blatant convenience, the guileless unlikelihood, of a fairy tale or an urban legend or a cheap potboiler. Joy learns Annie’s been cheeking her meds because some mice—not a mouse, not a magical mouse, not kin to Mr. Jingles—just some mice come along just in time to nibble at her pills, then die in conveniently plain sight.

Alison Wright
Screenshot: Hulu

Ace Merrill, or whatever’s riding around in Ace Merrill’s skin, has a taste for red wine and opera, and some unsavory sounding plans involving the cop he lured and the realtor eager to shift the old Marsten House. That’s Alison Wright as Valerie, walking into this part and making her breathe from the first glimpse. Her excitement at the thought of a sale, her unease when she realizes John Merrill is Ace Merrill, her doggedness in brushing aside his increasingly strange behavior: This is a living, breathing person conjured in a few words and gestures. And that’s a lucky break for us, because next time we see her, I don’t think Valerie will be living or breathing. And even if she is, what exactly will she be?

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Paul Sheldon isn’t a character is Castle Rock (not yet, anyway), but King completists will spot him all over this season. [Plot points for Stephen King’s Misery ahead.] Tied to the bed by Joy, fed pills and drinks, offered the bedpan, Annie stands in for Paul, warder become prisoner. But Annie’s also tied in place, as Paul was, by her need for pills, the steady stream of pills that make life possible. The pills as much as her missing windshield kept her tied down in Castle Rock.

And Paul Sheldon—writer of “two kinds of novels, good ones and best-sellers,” all-time champion of his childhood version of Exquisite Corpse, who killed his cash cow and then resurrected her against all common sense and his own will—is present in the wild leaps and plot eruptions (not even twists) that burble up under Salem’s Lot and throughout these first few episodes of Castle Rock’s second season. There is a strange thrum humming under Castle Rock, and it isn’t all coming from the lake.

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Every time I think I have a grip on where this show is heading (an occupational hazard, and a hazard for genre aficionados everywhere), Castle Rock slithers out of my grasp and squirms somewhere new, somewhere slippery and weird and are you having fun? Because I am. This show is as slippery as a stripped-down cop in a tub of goo, as the old saying goes, and if it’s a little choppy, a little inept in its exposition, that’s just pulpy good fun.

Stray observations

  • Along with Misery, the scene of Annie restrained to her bed throws in a nod to Gerald’s Game and another to The Stand’s Lloyd Henreid, with his bloodied cot leg and his precious dead rat. [Swept away by the logic of you are what you eat, I originally misidentified Lloyd as “Lloyd Trask.”]
  • “But you’re still able to have children, right?”
  • “My pills! The recipe! What did you give me?” “Who’s this?” Annie and Nadia’s brief phone call is encapsulates Castle Rock’s treatment of Dr. H., as if she is a device ever-primed to help others. She deserves more than this token push-back; Nadia needs and deserves her own goals, her own plans, her own arc.
  • Someone please cast Elsie Fisher, Kiernan Shipka, and Jodie Comer as sisters, preferably in a big-budget horror film.
  • Not cool of Chance (Abby Corrigan) to dose her sheltered new friend, but Annie Wilkes’ daughter has no doubt been slipped one drug or another one the way to The Laughing Place.
  • Annie’s dream of Ace twisting Joy’s neck gave me a yelp, but it’s cheap and shallow jump. Castle Rock is better, even this less meditative season when it fathoms the suspense of possibilities, like the kids chattering above while the camera immerses itself in the ominous promise of that sound, or cutting away from Ace as he draws the police officer into his trap, only later to reveal what has become of him. By the way, exactly what has become of him? I can’t wait ’til next week, when we find out.
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.