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Eight episodes in, Castle Rock rushes toward its end like a river

A hooded statue is borne through Castle Rock.
Screenshot: Hulu
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“We figure if we can fix this, we can fix anything. Anyone.”

After the heartening success of “The Word,” “Dirty” begins with unnerving promise. Accompanied on-screen by the dirge-like notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” the unnamed masses of Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot begin a new parade. Unlike last week’s, there’s no homey cheer in this parade, no clowning stiltwalkers, no harmless spitting image of Christine heading the procession.

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Instead, it’s the entire unpossessed population of the two towns, everyone who can ambulate, everyone not “defiled” by psychoactive medications, all drawn irresistibly toward the sound. (Every week, we edge closer to discussing the first season’s revelations; time to consider a marathon if you haven’t seen it yet.) Despite the track playing over it, this solemn march feels less like an avalanche and more like a river, sweeping up everyone in its course as it flows through town.

It’s eerily effective, and if it falls a little short of the impact of early The Walking Dead episodes, it’s evocative of them. Recalling other apocalyptic scenarios, the shots of Nadia making her way through the ominously silent hospital corridors are reminiscent of 28 Days Later (and its predecessor and probable influence, John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids). At last, the speed with which townsfolk are compromised feels threatening instead of glib, as we see how complete the takeover has become. This isn’t a coterie of revenant settlers against an unsuspecting town. This is an invasion settling in over a town with unsettling ease, as it did in The Tommyknockers. (I cannot recommend The Tommyknockers.)

The disturbing detachment created by the anonymous, ever-swelling crowds is potent, but it doesn’t excuse Castle Rock’s casual discarding of characters, often characters who are introduced only to be dispatched. Like Aaron Staton and Alison Wright before him, Chris Mulkey has already been subsumed into the mass of unnaturally calm bodysnatchers. “He’s with us now,” Pere Augustin tells Annie, and that’s as much as we need to know, or get to know, about the man who took Annie Wilkes into custody.

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This indifference to lesser characters is a longstanding problem, one that nearly derailed the first season’s excellent second half. This season, the players reduced to playing pieces don’t even have the dignity of being treated like chess pieces, each played for their particular traits. Instead, they’re checkers, jumping interchangeably any which way. There’s no reason Chris Mulkey’s part in the conspiracy couldn’t have been fulfilled by Patrice, who was sent out last week to fetch Annie with all the ceremony of a guy sent on a beer run. There’s no reason to keep Aaron Staton in stasis for most of two seasons now. There’s no reason to have Alison Wright giving her all as the former Ace Merrill’s almost agentless second banana.

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Yusra Warsama
Screenshot: Hulu

And there’s no excuse for it, not when these writers (“Dirty” is credited to Michael Olson and K. Corrine Van Vliet) can drop in apocalyptic allusions so neatly, so naturally. Not when they can write the return of Annie’s dead, mad mother, making her ghastly specter one more voice tempting Annie to take sanctuary in death. Not when they know to use her sparingly, with Robin Wiegart’s voice (soft and cruel by turns) doing most of the dirty work. Not when they can cleverly set another tense scene in the pharma room, taking advantage of the way the premiere made clear not just its importance and impenetrable nature, but its layout, so Chris’ plan makes immediate intuitive sense to the audience. Not when they can conjure up a river out of nowhere, a steady stream of blank-eyed searchers pouring forth in an ironic echo of Annie’s favorite anthem.

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If there’s one thing Annie Wilkes knows, it’s the power of a river, its impassive force crashing over your puny efforts. The near-irresistible mass of it washing over you. The lure of it. The dim, desperate urge to join in the flow, to relinquish the pain of resisting. To let the river run, to let it run away with her in its pull.

Annie comes close. In one scene, her hands close on her daughter’s throat; in another, her mother’s voice urges her to find Joy, to kill her, to “get her out of this dirty world.” But Annie resists. As always, it’s the thought of Joy that wrests Annie from her worst temptations, that saves her from the river coursing through her mind.

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That’s how “Dirty” lands its suffocating sting as the episode ends, dropping us into the current for another week. It’s not Annie who’s swept up in the river of strangers, but Joy. Joy in danger. Joy in thrall. Joy as the intended vessel for Amity Lambert. Joy joining the stream of vacant faces proceeding inexorably across the Pangborn Bridge.

Stray observations

  • “Dirty” drives home parallels between Annie and Nadia, each of whom pressed their hands wrist-deep in their parent’s blood,trying to stop the life from flowing out of them, and both of whom have recently relived that moment—Annie with Rita, Nadia with Chris.
  • “Has she always been an artist?” Pere Augustin asks of Joy. Annie replies, “Steady hand, that girl,” pouring out water fromthe steaming kettle in her own hand, and were we all waiting for Annie to wallop him with the scorching hot bottom of that full kettle?
  • Chris attacking Nadia has none of the grotesque comic flair of Annie’s attack on Ace. It’s hard to watch, and may unintentionally be the scariest thing in this season so far: feeling the one person you trust, the one person you dare to turn your back to, slip in behind you, hands tightening skillfully at your throat.
  • Annie’s initial scene with Pere Augustin is less a dialogue than a digest of a their conversation, its salient points reduced for easy absorption. Given a little more distance from the previously on, this scene would be admirably efficient. So close to the recap, though, a second scene composed of quick flashbacks and scattered sentences feels like just another summary.
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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.