In “The Laughing Place,” Castle Rock’s fifth episode of the second season, a long flashback shows us Annie Wilkes’ origin story. Young Annie’s moral compass is unsophisticated, stifled by her mother’s black-and-white teachings, but she has a strong sense of story. Stronger than Castle Rock’s.
“This is your new story?” four-year-old Annie Wilkes (Madison Johnson) asks her father on her last day of of school. Her dismay and shame at her expulsion (or removal) turns to delight as he shows her the attic that will be her home-school—and the first typed page of the transcription job that will eat up her childhood, one key at a time.
A decade later, when teenage Annie’s new tutor picks up a page from Carl’s ever-evolving manuscript, his daughter snaps at her. (Snaps at her; Annie doesn’t just plain snap until later.) “You can’t just start in the middle. It’s a really big story.”
But a big story doesn’t have to be an unwieldy story, just as a flashback doesn’t have to be a laborious exercise and an origin story doesn’t have to be a big bag of rock salt. As Annie’s demanding mother, Robin Weigert is as incisive, decisive, and efficient as Mrs. Wilkes picking with professional precision over her daughter’s teeth. “Nothing on earth dirtier than the human mouth, Annie,” Mama tells her, scraping and flossing away with patient, pitiless rigor. But to Mama Wilkes, the whole world is dirty, a morass of dirty birds and bad men conspiring to keep Annie down. They want you “low and close to the ground,” she croaks calmly, “so they can snatch whatever they want whenever they want it, just like your father did to me when I was barely a woman.” With her minced oaths, her Christmas!es and cockadoody!s, and her unwavering belief in the sullying touch of the world, this Mrs. Wilkes is a more secular version of Margaret White.
According to Misery’s scrapbook, Annie’s mother is Nancy Wilkes, a name with the same rhythm as Annie’s, but no one in “The Laughing Place” calls her that. Maybe in Annie’s memory, like the goddess in King’s book within a book, her mother looms larger than a name, too large to be anyone but Mama. Through the episode, Weigert’s performance flits easily, broodily, from fastidious control to a rich interior dread. It’s an abbreviated version of Annie’s own peaks and fugues, briefer than Caplan’s performance, but just as biting.
Annie’s bloody-faced specter is revealed to be her aspiring-author father Carl, presumably to no one’s surprise. John Hoogenakker’s portrayal wavers tensely between a doting, somewhat dependent dad and something more sinister. The half-converted attic (never finished over the decade Carl devotes to it, and to his daughter’s education), with its wash of off-white, its diffused light, its soft futons and yielding piles of pillows, manages to feel both like a retreat from the airless downstairs and, potentially, a trap for a girl who gets too comfortable. After many scenes of Annie and her father alone in that attic, thrilling as they read his historical romance to each other, the cuts to them in the garden as he fidgets with his garden hose, and given the mystery around Joy’s parentage, I was frankly relieved to see Rita (Sarah Gadon) show up.
The relief Annie feels (shown in a fuzzy, feel-good montage of reading sessions and goof-around evenings, of steadily improving comprehensive and steadily climbing confidence) is short-lived. Doggedly sipping vodka, Mrs. Wilkes laments to her girl about the dirty old world, Weigert’s face sometimes hard as flint, sometimes soft as a crumpled petal as she contemplates her daughter’s presumed fragility. When the mother and daughter, returning from her community college tour, pull into a scenic stop on a secluded riverbank, we know Mrs. Wilkes’ impulse before she knows it herself.
Like “New Jerusalem,” “The Laughing Place” lets us see the moment as it’s born. The near-absence of dialogue lets Weigert’s intensity, and her sudden peace, carry the scene, as Mrs. Wilkes sees the answer that the camera presented us with in the establishing shot. “I see it now,” she says, brushing from her fingertips the feathers floating in this airy, open riverside, this innocent fluff that represents the filth of this greedy world. “How to make it right. How to get away clean.” Locking Annie into her seat, she plunges the car into the river, letting the water close above them both.
The action escalates from there, Annie sunk into despair and untreated illness as surely as her mother sank them in that river. Ruby Cruz is persuasive as Annie slides into her first major episode, her choppy speech nicely mirroring Caplan’s cadence without mimicking it, and her affect getting more and more distant.
Her old friend and tutor now a de facto stepmother, her father’s faithlessness revealed, Annie isn’t immersed in misery until the last blow: her father’s novel, the story she’s shepherded and shaped for most of her life, is entirely rewritten, its end changed, its dedication not to the daughter who helped craft it, but to to the new love who eclipsed her mother. And, as a final slap in the face, he takes their shared phrase, one they reclaimed from her childhood trauma, and claims it instead as a dedication for Rita.“Your laughing place is anywhere you say it is,” Carl once comforted his crying daughter. But now Rita is his Laughing Place.
Castle Rock has always been bold, even cheeky, about plucking references from all over the King universe. (Rita’s role in the Wilkes family is at first reminiscent of The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith’s sojourn in Kittery, tutoring Chuck Chatsworth past his reading blocks.) Even Carl’s death is a nod to the original Annie’s MO, as covered in her scrapbook. But those allusions and echoes aren’t always earned, or even appropriate. The Wilkes’ immaculate, stuffy 1970s living room in Bakersfield (with all that patterned velour, with the brown and the beige and the brown) is a more suburban version of Annie’s living room from Misery. But that style made a lot more sense for middle-aged Annie in 1980-something than it makes for Annie’s mother in 1994.
Like Carl Wilkes leaving his wife (and leaving his daughter alone with her), Castle Rock needs to take some time to figure out its place in this world. Carl’s gruesome death would be at home in either the pulpy slush of the first episode or as a tragic centerpiece of a character-driven chapter. But like too many of Castle Rock’s inhabitants, Annie’s father is a sketch, as flat as his own fictional characters, and as ineffectual. So his Christlike posture in death is neither heartbreaking nor darkly comic, but merely lurid. As Annie lifts his body from its place of impalement on the flimsy banister in a gory Pietà, Carl keeps murmuring “It’s going to be just fine,” and it should be either devastating or cruelly gutting to hear a dying man reassure the daughter whose shove killed him. Instead, it’s just grisly.
Given their doorstop size, it can feel laughable to talk about economy in King’s books. But whatever overwrought, extended metaphors they employ, whatever sometimes clunky dialogue his characters spout, King knows how to make us care about characters and about the horrors he visits on them. Castle Rock could use some of that magic.
But “The Laughing Place” has its strengths, especially in Weigert, and in the thoughtful, inventive direction from Anne Sewitsky. The ending is strong, too, bringing us right back where the season started: at river’s edge, ready for the next chapter. Annie Wilkes learned one unintended lesson from her mother. She learned how to get away clean, at least for the moment. You start at the river.
- Sarah Gadon gives Rita some of the evanescent, elastic quality she showed in True Detective: sometimes sympathetic, often incisive, and so quick to anticipate an obstacle or objection that she can seem a little slippery.
- While her father confronts, then warms up to, his daughter’s tutor, Annie is seen through the window, her shirt the same color as the back-yard tetherball, stuck in place but still getting knocked around at the end of a string.
- In the background of their dreary kitchen conversation, Mrs. Wilkes’ radio plays Carly Simon. Not the thrumming anthem of the premiere, but the resigned “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.”
- If someone described my decade-in-the-making manuscript as “All this, it has promise,” I would not take that as a flirtation, Carl.