“The Mother” is an improvement on Castle Rock’s recent slump. Even its previously on, recapping the events of “The Laughing Place,” improves on the original by stripping out flabby secondary character arcs, reducing that chapter to broad but tense plot points: an adult daughter learning of her father’s betrayal, and her brother’s secret; a teenage daughter bearing the burden of her sick mother’s care; a mother (sister) fighting for custody of her daughter (sister); a mother searching for the daughter stolen in infancy.
“I didn’t want to be part of that story anymore,” Rita tells her AA group, marking her four years sober. “Even people like us have to turn the page.” But if Rita has moved on (and the map on her apartment wall, tracking Annie’s possible movements over 16 years and 50 states, suggests otherwise), Joy’s phone call flips the page back, putting Rita squarely back in Annie’s story—and Evangeline’s.
Sarah Gadon, luminously lovely and radiantly young in her first Castle Rock episode, is shown in “The Mother” without elaborate aging makeup or wrinkled prosthetics. Instead, Rita is aged by lighting, by unkind angles, and especially by Gadon’s portrayal, by her pinched expressions and tired posture.
“Evangeline,” Rita calls Joy when they meet at the youth home, and “Evangeline!” she cries when Joy walks up behind her in the woods, jabbing her with a sedative. When “The Mother” focuses on the emotional rawness of these three women—one of whom is just learning her birth name at 16—it’s successful. In some moments, it soars. But the carelessness and faint cowardice that characterizes recent episodes still bleed through here.
Castle Rock keeps backing its characters away from their faults and their misdeeds. Pop was part of the military team that fatally shot Nadia’s mother—but Nadia’s mother was running toward them on a dark, dangerous street, holding a gun. Adbi knew and kept that secret from his sister—but only for five years, according to Pop’s voicemail. Even Rita blames the kidnapping of her daughter for eleven years lost to alcohol and drugs, with no hint that she claims any agency in those choices.
Used sparingly, a freak accident can be a fun plot twist, but Castle Rock has spent the whole season backing its characters away from responsibility, softening their guilt. Instead of challenging us to accept and sympathize with these people despite their actions—and challenging themselves to create portraits of characters worthy of sympathy despite their wrongs—“The Mother” writers Daria Polatin and Vince Calandra continue to chip away at their characters’ culpability. In the end, Rita is shot by her own gun as it falls from from her hand. The gunshot is no one’s choice and no one’s fault, but an unhappy result of circumstances they’ve all created together.
Annie ends the episode raising her blood hands toward the police spotlight, crying “I DID IT!” But a mother’s (sister’s) panicky attempt to take responsibility in-universe, to forestall a possibly trigger-happy cop and clear her daughter (sister) of any possible suspicion, isn’t the same as a story’s willingness to let its characters live in their remorse, and to let its audience live there with them.
I called Castle Rock’s season premiere “pulpy,” and there’s a fun, gruesome note of pulp-comic silliness to this season, harkening back to the EC Comics that inspired some of Stephen King’s broadest, goofiest work. But Castle Rock is reminiscent of the comics, and not of the stories themselves, because as broadly as King’s writing draws these most cartoonish of his characters, he lets them carry the full burden of their misdeeds, their greeds, their guilt. Castle Rock shies away from letting the characters earn their guilt, to its detriment.
“The Mother,” like previous episodes, is also like the comics in its carelessness about walk-on characters, its willingness to let them start as mere faces in the background and die as little more than those now-familiar faces. I had big hopes for Heather (Georgia Lyman), bartender at The Mellow Tiger, but her escape looks like one more dead end. Like those before her, Heather is summarily sacrificed to become part of Ace’s undead army, and her jaunt to the hospital is just a brief detour to alert Nadia to something stranger… and to demonstrate how psych meds interfere with “the weaving,” the supernatural process by which Ace’s victims become his disciples.
That bodes ill for Ace’s plan to transform Annie. Knowing her to be “a woman of highly particular spirit,” Pere Augustin (for this is who possesses Ace) intends her to be “the vessel” for Amity Lambert, whose corpse resides in a still-intact casket under Castle Rock. Whatever his plan is, it’s to happen 400 years “to the day” after the town’s founding. Amity is the third mother—in this case, mother of unknown but surely deadly destruction—to be found in “The Mother.” But if Heather’s Paxil and Zoloft stymied her “weaving,” Annie’s cocktail of meds could thwart it completely. (Mine, too, so there’s something to look forward to.) Annie Wilkes is a more highly particular spirit than even Pere Augustin expects.
So is Rita K. Green. She survived one potentially fatal gut wound, and it’s always possible she’ll survive another, even after the police shout for Annie to raise her hands from the wound she’s stanching. These two women share more than their intractable love for Joy (Evangeline!). Their resolution not to drink, the simultaneous crumbling of that resolve, the way each reaches for bullets and gun at the same time (though only one finds hers)—Rita and Annie aren’t just on the same page. They’re the flip side of each other’s pages, the counterpoint to each other’s stories.
- Chance’s full name is Georgia LaChance, as in Gordie LaChance; she even rocks the same haircut. Joy’s CPS worker is another in the law-enforcing Bannerman family.
- Prominently displayed on Nadia’s bookcase full of medical texts and family photos is Shooter’s Bible.
- Georgia Lyman appears briefly in Castle Rock’s series premiere, as a prison guard in Henry’s briefly seen Texas case, and not, as I hoped, pulling a shift at the then-functional Shawshank.