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Castle Rock’s businesslike second episode broadens its reference bank

Tim Robbins
Photo: Dana Starbard (Hulu)
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At the end of the season premiere, Annie Wilkes had fallen into the sinkhole under Abdi’s construction site, the sinkhole precipitated by her hastily dug grave for Ace Merrill. Metalwork scarabs, rough caskets, a nameplate with the year 1619 inscribed: These are the graves of the settlers of Castle Rock, the witches or whatever they’re reputed to have been. Maybe they were what Annie Wilkes calls searchers.

Pop Merrill knows what to call them. Hearing a Castle Rock council member trying to drum up tourist business boasting about “our own witches,” he corrects her. “They were Satanists, not witches. Made a bad deal with the wrong hombre, those folks. And they burned for it.” Like the squatters up at the old Marsten House, though Pop couldn’t know that. (I’m giving the local landmark the capital H that Susan Norton assigns it in ’Salem’s Lot.)

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Though Castle Rock is always studded with Stephen King references, its writers and directors aren’t afraid to broaden their horror allusions and influences. Annie Wilkes running through that flooded corridor through the rock, deep underground, evokes shadows of both Session 9 and The Descent, but it’s the next scene that drew a gasp from me. As Annie looks up, her sharp glance jittering from step to step, the sound of her footsteps loops in early, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. For the split second before sight synced with sound, I thought her eye was following a big, heavy toy ball down the stairs. I thought Annie Wilkes had wandered into a classic 1980 horror scene.

I’m enjoying Lizzy Caplan’s take on Annie Wilkes’ traits and near-tics. She’s clinging to shreds of flinty-eyed self-control, and when it lapses, she lapses into spells of paranoia, frightening anger, and even more frightening love for her daughter. I’ve always found Annie’s lexicon the most laborious part of Misery, both the book and (despite Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning, Oscar-worthy performance) the film. Caplan gives Annie’s stiffer speeches a tight-jawed determination that emphasizes how ill-at-ease, and just plain ill, she is, while rolling words like oogy off her tongue with ease.

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That’s not a slight to Tim Robbins, despite being saddled with that speech about the wrong hombre and the wrong fella. He’s wisely tempered his attempt at a Maine accent. Take it from a Mainer who cannot quite counterfeit the rough music of a Downeast cadence: A nod to the attempt is better than going whole-hog and failing, as most actors do.

Pop Merrill’s Crisco can, his piggy bank described in The Sun Dog, shows up in the premiere. In “New Jerusalem,” the ledger appears, the one where he notes down every borrower, every dollar, every usurious point of interest. In Castle Rock, Pop doesn’t bother to keep his Crisco can full of cash or his ledger under lock and key, or even under the counter as he does in King’s story. Pop Merrill can afford to leave his valuables lying around. Who would be foolhardy enough to take them?

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What Pop keeps shut away is his memories, a stack of photos. Poring over them, he looks as if he’s thinking of better times, but a flashback to 1994 shows those times were not that different. Young Abdi was as savvy then as now. And young Ace was already resentful of the foster children he already saw as rivals.

The Merrill family lineage seems a little muddy: As in King’s books, Ace is Pop’s nephew, and to some extent his right-hand man. But Chris, his soft-eyed brother, calls Abdi “your stepbrother.” If anyone in the Merrill family has reason to pretend the familial gap is wider, not narrower, than it is, it’s Chris, who drunk-dialed Nadia just the other night.

They’re not the only family whose structure might get confusing. It’s clever of writer K’Naan Warsame to give us the space and time to let Annie’s worries become our worries. When Joy reopened the wound on her hand, I had time to think about ER forms and insurance cards and the pitfalls of fake identities and the duty of mandatory reporters toward minors, all while Lizzy Caplan stood there looking stricken.

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Yusra Warsama has fleshed out Nadia to a rounded, precise character, a person with distinctive voices she uses in different contexts. I especially love the way she sometimes pops her ps when addressing her father: “Pop,” she says with a sideways glance. But the character as written is defined by relationships to others: the father she looks after, the brother she ribs about his late rent, the “stepbrother” whose moony-eyed gaze she deflects, the temp nurse whose drug heist she interrupts, the nurse’s daughter she questions with gentle, soothing words. Here’s hoping Nadia gets to do something soon besides nodding in compassionate beauty.

Yusra Warsama
Photo: Dana Starbard (Hulu)
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Nadia’s far from the only underserved character in “New Jerusalem.” In the version provided to critics, we never hear the name of Abdi’s security chief, the character who walks into the Marsten House, sees the charred corpses of the (also nameless) people squatting there, and is struck down by an unseen figure, his blood splattering the antique woodworking. He’s a pawn, created and sacrificed to show us (but no one left alive in Castle Rock) what’s happening in the old house—the old House, because the Marsten House gets a name, even if its victims don’t.

But then there’s Abdi. Abdi is fascinating, and Barkhad Abdi’s mercurial performance makes him even more so. He’s got a budding business sense, or a disaster-honed skill for finding and exploiting opportunities. Whatever you and I call it, Pop calls it “a future in business.” And for Pop Merrill, everything is business. Even when he’s doting on his daughter, she reminds him, “We had a deal.”

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Barkhad Abdi
Screenshot: Hulu

But it’s Abdi who’s all business. “Your people, your milk cow,” Pop told him back in 2004, promising him the Somali Mall Pop established, and Abdi nodded and took a draw on his cheroot. Community, family, inheritances in exchange for secrets: For Pop, and for Abdi. it’s all “just business.” Even after being kidnapped by Pop’s crooked cops and strapped to a chair in an empty warehouse, Abdi is still the one in control of that room.

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I’m resentful of the mechanical, manufactured nature of the tension in this scene—the moment when Pop Merrill, whom Abdi trusts not to hurt him, slips out of consciousness, leaving Abdi bound to his chair as Ace’s barking dog lunges closer and closer—when there’s so much natural tension to mine in this episode. But there’s no denying that as long as Pop is awake and able, Abdi knows there is no danger for him in that warehouse. And that is captivating to watch.

Stray observations

  • Sometimes they come back: ACE! ACE MERRILL CAME BACK!
  • “New Jerusalem” follows the law of Chekhov’s gun, or in this case Chekhov’s necklace, by showing Annie’s necklace clasp loose in the first episode, then letting her lose it during her long night of grave-digging and subterranean exploration. I hope this season also follows the law of Chekhov’s observatory, which I just now made up, by pressing the abandoned observational station of Stargazer Lodge into use in a wildly ill-advised Tommyknockers tie-in.
  • Backed into a corner, Annie Wilkes utters the racist-white-lady warning cry: “I am not a racist…”
  • For me, the dog dragging Pop’s unconscious form churned up memories of Prince from Gerald’s Game pulling his meaty trophy across a freshly waxed floor in heaves and yanks. But anything can feel like a reference, simply because his prolific works cover so much ground.
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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.