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When Castle Rock takes its eye off Lizzy Caplan, caveat emptor

Yusra Warsama
Screenshot: Hulu
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Whenever Castle Rock takes its focus off Annie and Joy, tension slackens, mostly because this season’s other inhabitants are almost uniformly one-dimensional. That’s bad news for “Restore Hope,” the season’s fourth episode, and its first chapter to stand on its own after the three-episode premiere. Even Nadia, the character whose actions and emotions should be carrying this episode, is only fleshed out by Yusra Warsama’s portrayal, not by anything in the writing.

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I understand the impulse to show Warsama’s graceful silhouette in scene after scene, but the camera’s insistence on seeing her through windows, or as a shadow, reduces her to a distant object. I complained last week that Nadia was defined by her relationships, but really, her role is narrower still. Nadia is defined by her duty to others: to her father, to her brother, to her work, to her community, and now to Joy and Annie.

Even in the flashback to 1993, where young Nadia (Idil Guled) rides through the streets of Mogadishu, her open, guileless smile gleaming, she’s a passive object, propelled through space by her brother. She leaps into action only after her mother is killed—and then, only to weep and vainly try to staunch her mother’s blood. To owe a duty to her late mother. Nadia’s identity is summed up in her repeated attempts to “fix” people, something she warns Joy about. But Joy’s reaction is only to agree: Yes, she can fix this!

Elsie Fisher’s screen time is dominated by a clumsy montage scribbled numbers and letters as she wrestles with the combination to her mother’s combination lock. Fisher makes this as engaging as it can be, especially her split second of gratified surprise, but it’s a tedious little scene, and a metaphor for the episode as a whole. You have to show how Joy gets into Annie’s lock box; no viewer would accept her getting in without explanation. But it’s no fun to watch.

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The actors do sturdy, thoughtful work with what they’re given. Paul Sparks has sanded off Ace Merrill’s cheap, rough menace to something honed and purposeful, a threat of violence almost urbane in its restraint. Rising from the mean slouch of Salem’s Lot’s junk-and-loansharking scion, he cuts a clear, confident silhouette. It’s not Sparks’ fault that this is perhaps the least interesting thing to do with Ace Merrill.

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There’s poetry in Castle Rock’s worst bully becoming (however briefly) the dead body some kids wanna see… but it diminishes the force of the character himself. Ace Merrill is terrifying because he’s so real, so cruel, so crude, such an accurate and petty portrayal of a bully. What’s scary about Ace Merrill, about Pop Merrill, about many of King’s most indelible characters, is their humanity, in all its shrunken, grasping greed. Ace’s mercurial temper and self-serving, ever-simmering resentment are the core of his character. No matter his mood, no matter the situation, there’s always a chance Ace might fly off the handle, or that he’s been harboring a secretly growing grudge, or that he just plain doesn’t like the way you looked at him.

That’s not true of this patient, patronizing creature walking around in Ace’s skin, orchestrating a quiet takeover of Salem’s Lot from the depths under the Marsten House. (The episode isn’t clear about the method of transmission, though this time it’s not vampires. Castle Rock isn’t even clear about what, exactly, is being done to the covertly killed victims, but it looks like revenant Satanist bodysnatching. You know, a classic revenant Satanist bodysnatching scenario.) But it was true of Ace, and how dumb would Chris have to be to precede his brother—always vicious, often violent, increasingly erratic—into a dark church while he speaks more and more strangely about his “conversion, of a sort.”

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Presumably, Chris’ defeat is meant to be a big blow: a good guy down! Nadia’s ally! But Chris’s character is hollower than any other member of the Merrill family. Listening to his cousin about her dying father and not wanting a local race war aren’t attributes that automatically add up to a sympathetic character, no matter how casually stylish his reclaimed loft is. So Chris’ close call with Ace, and his capture by the pastor, is just an ugly little scuffle with one more revenant at the end.

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What is a blow is the waste of Aaron Staton. Since his brief appearance in season one, I’ve been waiting to see what role was worth this long lead time. But Pastor Appleton has one small scene with Pop Merrill, giving not just good but profound advice, before he has his own “conversion, of a sort” off-screen, returning as another vacuous, murderous imposter.

“Restore Hope” squanders living characters with cheap glee, knowing there’s no value but shock value in their deaths, and that they’ll come back as something else. Timothy (Skylan Brooks, name-checked by Dan Caffrey as part of “the best young ensemble of the year” for The Get Down) gets a would-be welcome moment of focus at Pop Merrill’s phony wake at The Mellow Tiger. “Any of those kids under 14?” Pop asks him, stuffing more beer cans into his bag. Caveat emptor, Timothy.

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Skylan Brooks, Tim Robbin
Screenshot: Hulu

The timeline is as sloppy as Pop’s “big sloppy Irish wake,” and as full of “every happy asshole who might want to get drunk at four o’clock on a Sunday.” It’s kind of Pop to anchor us in time, because the editing doesn’t. When Nadia arrives at Chris’, it’s night—the same night we see Ace arrive back at the Marsten House, the same night he tried to talk Joy into his truck. When Chance delivers Joy’s bag to Nadia’s home, and when Joy hides the gun, it’s broad daylight. But when Nadia slips out of Chris’ bed, it’s night again.

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Letting herself into the Emporium Galorium with a hidden key, Nadia skulks around in the night, searching for Pop’s discharge papers by the light of her phone. But why? She’s got nothing to hide. Nadia searches in the dark because it’s an easy way to churn up a false sense of suspense, when the real danger is the hostility of her fellow citizens and the secret in her father’s file. I did shiver happily at Warsama’s calm command as she wields Pop’s gun against her attackers and claims Maine as her own: “This bitch grew up here.” But that’s no excuse for saddling her with a needlessly clumsy search through the dark.

There’s narrative economy in Nadia being the person delivering Pop’s test results, but it’s a lost opportunity. Nadia would benefit from a scene where she’s not in charge, where the burden of duty is lifted even for the seconds it takes to hear “The chemo hasn’t given us the outcome we had hoped for.”

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But that’s not Nadia’s function in this story. Nadia’s function in this story—and I mean that to be as reductive as it sounds—is “I couldn’t save her.” Nadia’s function is “I can do this, if he’ll just fucking let me.” Nadia’s function is “I came back to fix you.” It’s as tedious as Chris’ love-struck gawking, as tedious as watching Joy work away on a combination lock, as tedious as this growing army of undefined evil that inhabits barely defined people, as tedious as an episode that just moves figures around a board, getting them into place for next time.

Stray observations

  • The Ravening Angel is the title of Annie’s hidden disc, dated 09/07/2004. (A disc! Joy’s laptop is old enough to have a disc drive!)
  • Tim Robbins does his best, but lines like “It’s written in blood. Just soaked right through the page” weigh down his monologues improbably and irreparably.
  • “What’s it cost?” This episode is all about debts, repaid and otherwise.
  • In Pop’s desk drawer, Nadia rifles past a bundle of letters from Dale Lacy, late warden of Shawshank.
  • One episode this week! Look for next week’s review at the same time, and thanks for reading!
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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.