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Castle Rock is in the remembering business, then the action business

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In which Castle Rock finally gets to the fireworks factory, sort of

Maybe it’s her anchoring effect on even the loopiest seasons of American Horror Story, or maybe it’s the way she brings subtle, complex life to every role. Either way, seeing Frances Conroy loom up out of the dark is momentarily reassuring—an assurance that’s dashed as abruptly as Mrs. Lacy’s brains and blood are dashed across her husband’s framed photograph. The warden’s widow is reintroduced to the camera, killed, and transformed in seconds, all so one of the finest actors of a generation can tell Ace Merrill’s possessing priest where a dead woman’s dead husband’s letters are.

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“The collector,” Martha tells Augustin. “The one who takes cast-off things.” (Mrs. Lacy’s name is Martha, did you remember? That’s okay, the writers didn’t care much, this season or last.) Is there a single audience member who needed to be reminded of Pop’s cache of letters? Or a single other reason to reintroduce this woefully neglected season-one character, only to drop her again? Frances Conroy deserves better, and so does the audience.

Frances Conroy
Screenshot: Hulu

If Augustin is as savvy as he seems, if (as the dialogue keeps reminding us) he has all of Ace Merrill’s memories as well as Père Augustin’s, he would remember where all of Castle Rock’s secrets turn up; he would have looked in Pop’s desk drawer first. That’s what Nadia did. Pop is a collector, a gleaner, a man taking in what looks to anyone else like trash. A dealer with a keen eye for hidden value, whether he can extract it from an object or an individual. And his children know it better than anyone.

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Castle Rock is a collector, too, a magpie grabbing at traces of story and character. And as with Pop Merrill, when you bargain with Castle Rock, caveat emptor. There’s no telling what you’ll get: a pastiche of shallow Stephen King influences to set the scene, a slapstick murder so gruesome it circles back around to gleeful, or a complete tonal shift.

In “Caveat Emptor,” many of those surprises are welcome. I expected Pop would have weapons at his disreputable old shop, whether pawned pistols or a private armory, but I didn’t expect a whole dang fireworks factory! Looking over his array of improvised explosives, cobbled together from pressure cookers and other junk, Pop says, “I always figured somebody would be coming for me someday. Either police… or something else.”

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It’s something else.

The tone shifts from hushed to hectic and back again as the few folks left—Pop, Nadia, and Abdi, joined by Annie, her colleagues Jamal (Isayas Theodros) and Evelyn (Kate Avallone), and Joy’s friend Chance—try to defend the Emporium Galorium from the Satanic settlers taking over Castle Rock. But even in this supernaturally charged moment of life-or-death, Annie Wilkes is Annie Wilkes: stubborn, set, loud, and intractable.

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Lizzy Caplan’s take on Annie’s voice is clear and unwavering, with a plangent, piercing whine, often grating, without ingratiation. Annie Wilkes’ voice, like Annie herself, does not soften for anyone but Joy. It’s flat where it might be round, jagged where it could be gentle, sharp all over, and often unintentionally hilarious. “I need to know where they’ve got my daughter in that house, what room, et cetera, and any other little details you can help me out with” might briefly supplant “I’ll be taking these Huggies and, uh, whatever cash you got” in my lexicon, if only in my head. That clanging touch of absurdity doesn’t distract from the tension of “Caveat Emptor,” but adds to it.

Everything in the cellar stalking scenes works for me: the dim expanse of rooms unseen beyond the beam from their flashlights, the steady, competent approach led by Pop, then Nadia, their obvious fear and determination mingling, the slim figure scampering through the dark, the reveal that their intruders are not enemies, but more escapees from the settlers’ encampment. For once, I was fully rapt by a Castle Rock action scene.

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But even in these otherwise taut scenes, there’s too much flabby talk, too little intensity and uncertainty. After Pop orchestrates their cinematic but protracted interrogations, everyone inside the Emporium is on the same page too quickly, is implausibly fast to stop asking, well, anything. 
“Why are they trying to kill us?” Abdi asks when they first hole up in the store, and Pop’s suggestion silences all questions: “Let’s live long enough to talk it out.”

Tim Robbins
Screenshot: Hulu
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The fear on Tim Robbins’ face as Pop Merrill runs, then drives, alone through the abandoned streets is infectious, the guileless dread a child might show, so far from Pop’s usual savvy summing up of any situation so he can come out on top. But the exposition at the Emporium Galorium grinds all this fast action and strong sensation to a standstill. “Dale was kind of our town historian,” Pop takes time to tell his fellow prisoners. “He always used to say he was in the rememberin’ business when everyone else’s stock in trade was forgettin’.”

Castle Rock is mighty selective about what it takes time to remember. Secondary characters’ names? Their motivations? Their inner lives? Those can be forgotten until the characters are needed as functionaries, and often even then. Connections to a previous season that have yet to be explained, or even adequately incorporated into this season? Secret letters from one dead man to another? Those, we get to hash over again and again, only to see the letters burned before their importance can be realized.

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Pop’s last acts shouldn’t surprise any of us. He’s told Nadia he’s so proud of her that “I could check out tomorrow knowing I done one good thing,” and he’s already discontinued treatment for his terminal lung cancer. Despite “Caveat Emptor”’s lip service to not redeeming Pop Merrill, it’s obvious that he’s going to sacrifice himself to save her. Maybe it isn’t as pure as redemption. Maybe it is, as Pop himself said of his adoption of Abdi and Nadia, “a debt.” Maybe it’s something more like a deal. Pop always was good at making deals.

There’s a strong core to this season’s story, but the writers keep getting distracted from it. (“Caveat Emptor” is credited to Scott Brown, but this is a problem with the season as a whole; this ninth episode out of ten has problems, but the central scenes are as driving and potent as anything since the season premiere.) In its second season, Castle Rock wavers between horror-comic (and downright slapstick comic) and a moony, vague meditation that never quite finds its focus, in any character or in any story. Like the Emporium Galorium, it’s jammed full of interesting finds and promising tidbits, but there’s no Pop Merrill behind the scenes wiring them together into something truly explosive.

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With only one episode left, Castle Rock has scant time to knit together its many loose threads, to create a coherent connection to its (also lagging, but beautifully meditative) first season, to fulfill the promise that this episode hints at, to give its mysteries the resonance that its images have. Even if it does, one episode won’t be enough to recover from the show’s confounding tonal swings from hilarious pulp horror to somber reflection, its strange, sloppy pacing, its casual disregard for smaller roles and side characters.

Caveat emptor, my friends. It’s been fun dickering, but next week, the negotiations stop. I gotta tell you, I don’t think Castle Rock is going to hold up its end of the bargain.

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Stray observations

  • “Be careful” doesn’t seem like specific enough advice to give civilians handling HOMEMADE BOMBS, and Chance’s annoyed “ah, shit, fuckin’ wire” when she accidentally pulls a wire loose is pretty glib, too.
  • “Remember our game?” Nadia asks Abdi, and I smiled wide in recognition, thinking back to their freewheeling play in the streets of Mogadishu, Nadia rolling free under the bright sky. For a moment, I was intoxicated, wondering (and I mean with wonder) how that airy, free, bright split second of joy would be reengineered in the darkness looming over Castle Rock. But it won’t. The game Nadia reminds Abdi of isn’t one the writers thought to include as backstory, but something we the audience have never seen before.
  • I’ve suspected Evelyn was possessed since she shrugged off Nadia’s questions about Heather’s strange bloodwork, but I was wrong! Evelyn isn’t a plant. She’s a cypher created to take up space and time, like too many of Castle Rock’s characters.
  • “To start with nothing and end up with less than nothing, that takes a real businessman.”
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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.