The first season of Hulu’s Castle Rock was a mostly satisfying celebration of the titular nexus of Stephen King’s interconnected literary universe. And while the story of forlorn lovers and dimensional rifts didn’t exactly stick the landing, the journey getting there was a wild ride filled with Easter eggs that felt custom-tailored for King fans. The road map laid out in Season 2 of Castle Rock is just as exciting this time around and is, thankfully far more focused than its predecessor. It’s also a whole heck of a lot scarier.
Castle Rock Season 2 does a wonderful job of borrowing reoccurring themes from King’s massive body of work and splicing them together to make something that appears, at least on its surface, wholly original. It’s a fantastic sleight of hand that will fool even some die-hard King fans. Much like Season 1, this is a Stephen King mixtape, but the tunes are much better this time around. The story follows Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan), the poster child of toxic fandom from the novel, Misery, as she grapples with some serious mental health issues and a dark past. Caplan is amazing in the role. She takes only what she needs from the novel and Kathy Bates' legendary Oscar-winning performance from the novel's 1990 film adaptation, making the character her own in the process.
When we meet Annie, she and her teenage daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher), have been on the lamb for years in order to avoid apprehension by authorities for an unspecified yet horrible crime, to which Joy appears to be oblivious. We watch as Joy grows up and begins to doubt her overbearing mother’s parenting methods, questioning the reason as to why their tiny family keeps relocating. Their odyssey across the nation ends in the small New England town of Castle Rock, Maine, a place with a long checkered history...of course, they don't know that. Not yet, anyhow.
Annie and Joy’s story quickly intertwines with the familial strife of the Merrill family, who, for fans of King know are not exactly the Brady Bunch. Pop Merrill (Tim Robbins) and his nephews/surrogate sons, Ace (Paul Sparks) and Chris (Matthew Alan), have their fingers in a lot of shady dealings in Castle Rock and the nearby town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Things get tense between Ace and his adoptive brother, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), over the development of a Somali community center in 'Salem's Lot. Throw in the complex work relationship between Annie and Abdi's sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), combined with an ancient evil festering beneath the town and you have have a recipe for delicious Stephen King-flavored goodness.
Watching Castle Rock Season 2 is like reading a King novel composed of a handful of abandoned novel ideas that wouldn't work on their own sewn together to make a complete narrative (kinda like reading Under the Dome, but better?). Everything here feels familiar, but the way it's presented is fresh. Castle Rock operates outside of Stephen King's canon despite being firmly rooted in it. The show is making up its own chronology and mythology but taking characters from King stories and putting them in new times and settings while cherry picking elements of their back stories to craft a new narrative. It's essentially well-executed fanfiction (no shade to fan fiction, by the way).
But what makes Castle Rock Season 2 truly special is just how creepy it is. While the show replicates certain scares from a plethora of stories in King's bibliography, seeing them come to life is quite unnerving, even for seasoned veterans of the Master of Horror's work. The more terrifying elements of the novels The Tommyknockers, 'Salem's Lot and Desperation are culled and poured onto the screen like a phantasmagoria of nightmare scenarios. Castle Rock plays like if American Horror Story had a sense of purpose and left more to the imagination. The things Castle Rock shies away from parading down Main Street are arguably more upsetting than the abject horror screaming in the audience's face.
Castle Rock Season 2 is not only a jump up in quality for the series, but it's one of the better horror television shows on the air right now. This season has built a level of dread that constant readers of King's output are all-too familiar with. Whether it's a face-to-face discussion between a parent and child or one of our "heroes" slinking around a darkened house they know they're not supposed to be in, Castle Rock constantly keeps viewers on edge. With a stellar cast and enough new material to keep King fans constantly guessing what's around the corner, Castle Rock has found its voice. And that voice is big, brassy and bellows from other worlds than these.
Season 2 of Castle Rock stars Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Elsie Fisher, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Yusra Warsama and Matthew Alan. It premieres on Hulu on Oct. 23.