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Lizzy Caplan takes a pulpy Castle Rock premiere to The Laughing Place

Lizzy Caplan
Photo: Maura Longueil (Hulu)
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The first minutes of Castle Rock’s second season swayed me off-balance. I expect the season built around Misery’s Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) to sympathize with the Number One fan at the center of Stephen King’s nightmare of a book, to soften her brittle exterior. But the self-consciously epic swell of Annie’s traveling song—“Let The River Run,” a song Carly Simon describes as “a hymn” to New York City, a song from a movie chock-full of what Annie would call dirty birds and paper fakes—worried me. I worried that Annie Wilkes would be too softened by this reimagining, by the anchoring presence of her daughter, by whatever rewritten history put young Annie (Ruby Cruz) on that bluff, covered in blood and carrying a single precious banker’s box, in the opening flashback.

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Annie isn’t soft, and Dustin Thomason (co-creator and writer of “Let The River Run”) isn’t pretending she is, not for a single episode. Her kitchen confrontation with Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks) demonstrates how hard she can be, and how suddenly. But before we talk about the efficient (and intentionally comic) violence Annie is capable of, let’s talk about that softness.

The present-day montage of Annie and Joy (Elsie Fisher) on the road tells an economical tale, unfolding in the time it takes Carly Simon to sing her hymn: a woman on the run, a child growing up on the road, a two-person family bonding tighter and tighter in isolation, and finally a girl growing up and out of her mother’s grip. I didn’t expect to be won over so swiftly, but it’s intoxicating, and worrisome, to see Annie behind the wheel of Old Bessie, her stiff neck and tight expression melting just a bit when she lifts up her voice in turns with her (at first) effusive daughter. Joy is, after all, the opposite of Misery.

This is as confident and competent a reclaiming of character as I’ve ever seen, done virtually without dialogue, resting on the changing expressions of the actors as frames flick by and years pass. If the rest of the season lives up to this opening, we’re in for a great ride—and if it lives up to the ice cream scoop scene, it’ll be a wilder ride than Old Bessie gives Annie and Joy as they careen into Castle Rock.

That crash mirrors the crash in Misery, but “Let The River Run” upends Misery’s inciting incident by upending Annie herself. Living under an assumed name, without medical and therapeutic support, she’s run out of the antipsychotic cocktail she’s titrated for herself over the years. Annie’s been harvesting these meds from pharmaceutical storage in every hospital where she picks up shifts under the name Ingalls—and that’s pretty much anywhere, judging by her collection of US license plates, the promise of Montreal, and their never-ending search for The Laughing Place Annie has promised Joy. But for now, they’re in Castle Rock.

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“Little love,” Annie warns her daughter, “this town is not a good place.” She’s right. Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, the whole of Castle County is heaving with dread, ready to fall away under her feet. But Joy, watchful despite her lowered gaze, seems used to hearing this no matter where they go. And Annie arrived in Salem’s Lot with plenty of ghosts riding along. An unoccupied wheelchair in the corridor of Deauville Hospital gives her a start, but it’s nothing compared to the recurring vision of a bloody-eyed man pursuing her.

Annie is haunted by a history we aren’t privy to, including memories of her father’s wanderlust and her mother’s pursuit of perfection, so dogged that the memory of it halts Annie forced, falsely chipper speech. “Searchers and settlers,” Annie muses, repeating her father’s words, and like a lot of “Let The River Run,” this speech (even with Caplan’s carefully balanced delivery, Annie’s speech clipped and contained one moment, tender the next) is a little heavy-handed, a little simplistic.

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The folks of Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot look like the folks on any street in Portland or Lewiston. That’s because this season incorporates the real-life politics of Maine, where two cities are now home to thriving communities of Somali immigrants (with a resulting boom in Somali-American-owned businesses), though the politics of Castle Rock are reduced to something small enough to fit in the background. The existing Somali Mall of Jerusalem’s Lot is entirely plausible, with so many of Maine’s former mill towns full of spacious old buildings ready to be made over into marketplaces, community centers, and other cooperative or collective spaces.

There’s nothing collective about Ace Merrill’s mall. His goons snatch envelopes of cash from tenants while he sidles around, a silent threat present in his eyes and in the straining of his dog against the leash. The hostility and entitlement he radiates is unpleasantly familiar, though I’m happy to say I haven’t heard any local talk-radio hosts like the one playing on Ace’s truck radio, agitating the worst impulses of racists in the community.

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And I haven’t met a local equivalent to Pop Merrill.

Tim Robbins is an unlikely choice to play Reginald “Pop” Merrill, uncle to Ace, loan shark to many, the shrewd, grasping, not-so-secret player behind deals all over Castle County. But Robbins is a King-universe stalwart, and Pop is described as a man with a hard twinkle in his eye. “Let The River Run” seeds his scenes with allusions to Pop’s habits and history, like the Crisco can full of cash he keeps at his counter and the Polaroid camera he’s seen tinkering with in his first appearance.

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This Pop Merrill, hard though he may be, was soft enough to seek out two Somali teenagers who emigrated to the US after their mother’s death. The script’s hints toward Pop’s reasons are as unsubtle as Robbins’ attempt at a Downeast accent, but I’m more forgiving of the accent. his Harvard-educated daughter (Yusra Warsama), known to all as “Dr. H,” is in high standing at the local Deauville Hospital, and her brother Abdi (notoriously underpaid scene stealer Barkhad Abdi) is a real-estate mogul in the making, sparking Ace’s envy and resentment. (“Nadia Howlwada” is the name Annie types into the hospital directory, though IMDb lists Nadia and Abdi’s last name as Howlwadaag, and in early stages, their last name was listed as Omar. This won’t be the last time Castle Rock muddies the last names and familial standing of these two central characters)

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Even in the Merrill family, working out resentment by throwing firebombs is
over the line. And even in a freewheeling horror series, putting Annie and Abdi and Ace all in the same fiery spot is narrative overkill, too coincidental, too convenient. And I don’t care, because for all its faults and overreaches, “Let The River Run” does something few horror shows manage: It keeps surprising me.

Some of that is thanks to Lizzy Caplan’s performance. I’m reserving judgment on how good a performance it is, but it’s fascinating how she balances Annie’s stern self-control with fear, uncertainty, and occasional flashes of menace. (Her grip on the gas pump didn’t bode well for that license plate hunter, not until he cheerfully deleted his photos.) Annie’s odd walk—the duck-like waddle, hands stiff at her hips—seems at first just a symptom of self-consciousness on her pharma raids. But her terrified march in the montage is an exaggerated version of Annie’s everyday walk, so much a part of her that her daughter sometimes mimics it unconsciously. Caplan’s comic chops have always been strong and specific. As Annie Wilkes, she’s using that timing to create a character who’s a beat out of step with the world, but who can move with startling, even ghastly, speed when she must.

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Did I find myself unconsciously chanting “Kill Ace Merrill! Kill Ace Merrill!” under my breath as he and Annie assessed each other from across her shabby cabin? I did! And I imagine the creators hoped to provoke that ugly, satisfying wish, even urged it on with Annie’s quick glance to the chef’s knife gleaming out of reach. But the lickety-split speed with which she struck down Ace, the brutal determination of her continued blows, and the grotesque comedy of the aftermath surprised me all the same, breaking me up into astonished yelps and horrified laughter, all in a mixed-up oogy mess. I haven’t laughed that hard at a horror gag since an earlier Lizzy Caplan performance.

One episode in, this season of Castle Rock is pulpy in a way season one didn’t attempt. It’s quick and sharp and tense and breathless. It’s generous with its cuts, sparing with its few disorienting angles, and gleefully gruesome in a way that recalls some of King’s own writing. (Spoiler alert for Misery: Annie driving that neon green ice cream scoop into Ace’s gullet is a nod to Paul Sheldon dispatching his long-time antagonist.) It’s just a little bit nasty, like the dirty birdies Annie worries over. It’s a little clumsy, a little fumbling, a little off-kilter, like Annie Wilkes herself. But like Paul Sheldon, the protagonist of Misery, Castle Rock is playing a fun, messy game of Can You?, taking each story in this chapter to its very edge, then pushing that story even further.

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Stray observations

  • While confirming the actor playing young Annie, I sifted through too many articles talking about Castle Rock’s central character as “young Annie Wilkes” or “much younger Annie Wilkes.” In 1990, when Misery was released, Kathy Bates was only five years older than Lizzy Caplan in 2019, almost to the day.
  • In this episode, it’s “drawing paper,” not Paul Sheldon’s reams of Eaton’s Corrasable Bond, that opens the doors of Annie’s cloistered little world to disaster.
  • I can’t quite read what is written on the box young Annie carries up the hill and through the woods. It might be “The Ravening Angel”? It certainly isn’t “The Dragon Lady,” which is what Misery’s Annie Wilkes was dubbed by the press. But whatever it says as she’s struggling up the wooded hill, by the time she reaches the water, it simply says “WILKES,” the label on the other side now blank.
  • Welcome to season two coverage of Castle Rock, coming to you from Central Maine. I’ll publish three reviews this morning, with more coming next week when Hulu releases new episodes. Thanks for joining us in Castle Rock!
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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.