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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iCastle Rock/i rooks us one last time before succumbing to iMisery/i
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In which Castle Rock asks quibbling viewers, “Aw, Christmas, what’s your plan, then?”

The first fifteen minutes of Castle Rock’s finale tick away like the timer on a homemade bomb. Not everything in the first act of “Clean” works—in a completely silent town, it shouldn’t take dozens of Satanist revenants even an hour to trace the racket of Abdi breaking through his own construction site’s foundation, and Père Augustin’s tepid exhortation to his followers makes for a limp scene when the show needs either a rousing or a dreadful one is—but the tension is strong and the objectives are clear, even if their intended results aren’t. “We still don’t know what will happen if we hit the statue.” Nadia reminds Annie, who shoots back a characteristically minced oath: “Aw, Christmas, what’s your plan, then?”

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Even Annie’s knee-jerk hostility (to anyone outside her family, and specifically to Nadia, who knows her secrets) feels plausible, if gratuitously unpleasant. So does her willingness to jettison the plan, to rat out everyone who helped her, if there’s a chance of getting Joy out of the Marsten House. Annie Wilkes doesn’t care about saving Castle Rock, or its last human inhabitants, or the whole world. She only cares about Joy—about “saving” Joy. About getting Joy away clean.

With that goal in mind, this final episode of the second season could have a tragic inevitability to it, even a poetry. Sixteen years ago, after surviving her mother’s attempts to drown her, after accidentally killing her father and murdering his new wife, after starting to drown her half-sister, Annie Wilkes “saved” Joy, and was saved by her. And after sixteen years of confining Joy, of isolating and stunting her, Annie Wilkes finally returns to the water’s edge, and returns her baby sister there. It took Annie sixteen years to drown the baby she stole, but at last she’s done it.

The final fight between Annie and Joy—the attack Annie launches on her baby sister, first drugging her, then pouncing on her, and finally chasing her to the dock and forcing her under—has all the lickety-split speed of her attack on Ace, but (properly) none of its hellish comedy. It’s sickening, both because the camera wavers along with Annie’s grasp on reality and because it’s a cruel, reductive end for these characters who have been through so much, and taken us with them.

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There’s a brutal efficiency to their last confrontation, to the clarity of Joy’s sullen withdrawal transforming to sudden terror, to Annie’s panic and fury, her stilted stagger back to land and into slow remorse, the sputtering unreality of Joy’s return. Elsie Fisher plays Joy’s last, illusory scenes with empty, uncanny ease, her smiles wide and blank, her eyes soft and vacantly agreeable. “I call shotgun!” is the most challenging thing Annie’s specter of Joy ever says to her.

It’s a shame that an opening so well-balanced in its direction, so tense in its action scenes and uneasily swimmy in its quieter moments, gets swamped by later action. Scenes like Chance’s infiltration of the crowd, her Body Snatchers-inspired discovery, and her clever attempt to trick the hive mind deserve to shine on their own instead of being swept aside in service of fake-out after fake-out. Pop’s dead! Wait, he’s taken control of his vessel! Augustin is dead! Wait, he’s alive! Oops, he got blowed up! Joy is alive! Wait, she’s possessed! Wait, she’s not possessed! But she is dead! Wait, she’s alive? … nope.

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Abby Corrigan
Abby Corrigan
Screenshot: Hulu

It’s exhausting and ultimately insulting, a chain of absurd switcheroos that belongs in a “Treehouse Of Horror” episode, not the crowning episode of a season’s slog through the informal catacombs under Castle Rock. It’s near-comic how frantically the revelations pour out, predictable as they are rapid. If Castle Rock’s second season had stuck to the frenzied comic horror of the premiere, some of these frenetic twists might land better. Instead, they’re bouncing around inside an episode that’s reaching for grandeur and falling far short.

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“We will see this fight through to the end!” Augustin tells his followers in his uninspiring address, just before their fight ends in messy anticlimax. After all the murders, all the sacrifice, all the planted dynamite and hushed plans and urgent messages, after mesmerizing an entire town into a Satanic overthrow that schemes first to overtake first the town, then “this land” as a whole—after all that, we are left with this.

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Four hundred years is a long time to wait for a big nothing, almost as long as ten weekly episodes in a medium leaning more and more toward streaming. “We waited 400 years, and now we know why,” Père Augustin blandly tells his assembled flock, and I guess we know why, too: because The Angel (The Kid, the prisoner, Henry Deaver) wants them to.

A few weeks ago, I warned readers that we’d be discussing the finer points of season one in these season-two reviews, but I was wrong, because Castle Rock’s never bothered to do more than nod at the much-teased significance of the lake, of “the noise,” of The Kid, and of his ability to step from world to world, from year to year, with the help of the schisma.

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This isn’t even a bad season, but an indifferent and unfocused one. The writers could never settle on a tone, and the resulting swings from goofy pulp to faux-meditative cosmic horror cheapen both, and finally sully the private two-person horror of the very end. As Joy says in her letter, the problems between mother and daughter (between sisters) started long before Maine. The events leading up to Joy’s drowning—the events of the past nine episodes, and of the past sixteen years—become just so much backstory as the finale unwinds, showing Annie Wilkes on her way to becoming Annie Wilkes. Truly, this is a season finale that asks us, “Why did you bother watching the first nine episodes?”

Illustration for article titled iCastle Rock/i rooks us one last time before succumbing to iMisery/i
Screenshot: Hulu
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None of this season is quite what Annie Wilkes would call “a dirty cheat.” I have to admit, if begrudgingly, that every piece of the finale makes a certain forced sense, from Pop regaining control over Étienne (it’s thoughtful of Père Augustin to have laid in a supply of big-and-tall frock coats for Étienne’s vessel) to Annie’s last break with reality. None of it quite violates the rule of “Can You?” established in Stephen King’s Misery, and in this season’s first episode. But it doesn’t feel quite clean, either.

It’s woefully appropriate that so much of Castle Rock’s second season takes place in Pop Merrill’s junk shop. Castle Rock has always been something of a rag-and-bone shop of the heart, trading in things we value without necessarily giving them full value. This isn’t Needful Things, where each item is curated with enticing, merciless care. It’s the Emporium Galorium, shelves crammed with treasures and trinkets and refuse, and in the jumble, they all seem to have the same resonance and value. There’s an enviable inventory strewn around here—Lizzie Caplan’s flat, angry fear and entitlement, Tim Robbins’ game, graceful performance as Stephen King’s faux-folksy “cracker-barrel philosopher,” Yusra Warsama’s crisp, layered inhabiting of Nadia’s competence and vulnerability—and some impressive scares. But ultimately, if you aim to bargain in the Emporium Galorium, you’ll walk away with less than you expected. Caveat emptor.

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Stray observations

  • This episode is dedicated to Castle Rock’s construction coordinator Ted Suchecki, who (like Pop Merrill) will be the guest of honor this week at “a big wake” commemorating his life.
  • At the Backwater gas station where Annie sees her next job posting, there also hangs a missing person poster for Henry Deaver—this time, as an adult.
  • There are glimmers of Dolores Claiborne in Annie’s last job, taking care of a bedridden patient in the privacy of a big, bright, waterfront home… and glimmers both of Dolores Claiborne and of Jessie Mahout in Annie’s wait outside the Marsten House, hearing her mother’s croaking words as the sun dims in the sky.
  • That’s a wrap on coverage of Castle Rock’s second season! Thank you for joining me in this dusty old showroom. Now grab your Polaroid and let’s close up shop until next season.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.

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