Were other Stephen King fans as pleasantly surprised as I was by how damn good the first season of Castle Rock was? Castle Rock, the fictional small town in Maine that is the setting for many of King's stories, is such an evocative place, full of horrific history, that it hardly matters if one has only read a small selection of King's vast output. The works that figure most heavily in the first season are The Shawshank Redemption (originally a novella in Four Seasons) and Needful Things, but there are also references to Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Shining and It – some blatant, some deliciously sly.
In the capable hands of executive producer J.J. Abrams (and King himself), Castle Rock was bound to be good, and show-runners Sam Saw and Justin Thomason have crafted a literate, entertaining juggernaut. With a canonical author like King, there's potential for apoplexy-inducing overloads of Easter eggs. Indeed, the very casting of Sissy Spacek (whose film debut as Carrie White in the adaptation of King's first novel, Carrie, was stunning) is a loving homage. Spacek plays Ruth Deaver, a woman haunted by her abusive ex-husband's deeds, who is also beginning to suffer from dementia. "The Queen," an episode in which Ruth uses chess pieces as markers for memories, is probably the best episode of television I've seen in months, and Spacek (who heads a phenomenal cast) is so good: luminous, subtle and heartbreaking.
Season 2, of which I've seen the first five episodes, is gearing up to be every bit as fine as Season 1. Some are calling it a "prequel" to Misery, the tour de force novel and film featuring two characters, Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes (played by James Caan and Kathy Bates, who won the Best Actress Oscar for the role in 1991), a novelist who is severely injured in a crash and the mentally disturbed woman who nurses him back to health in her remote cabin, who also happens to be his No. 1 fan. The younger Annie (Masters of Sex's Lizzy Caplan) is a socially awkward drifter who moves from state to state with her teenage daughter, Joy (Eighth Grade's Elsie Fisher), working as a nurse so she can steal the anti-psychotic drugs she desperately needs. Joy is sheltered and bored; meeting some cool local kids starts to turn her life around, and she rebels against her mother's strict rules. It's clear Annie does all she can to stay stable and responsible for her daughter, but readers and viewers of Misery, who know what she is (eventually) capable of, will be riveted by Annie's unpredictable trajectory.
The two live in a crappy cabin on the outskirts of town, renting from "Ace" Merrill (Boardwalk Empire's Paul Sparks), a racist jerk (as he was in Stand by Me, played by Kiefer Sutherland) whose father, "Pop" (Tim Robbins, aka Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption), is an army vet and a prominent businessmen. Pop adopted two Somali refugees, a brother and sister, after the war in Mogadishu. Abdi Omar (Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi) is now managing the construction of a new Somali cultural center and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), is a doctor at the local hospital where Annie finds a job as a night nurse. Did I mention it's a small town and everyone's up in everybody else's business?
They're not far from another town: Jerusalem's Lot, known to locals as 'Salem's Lot. Like Castle Rock, 'Salem's Lot has strange folklore and gruesome legends: Things happen here that don't happen anywhere else. Young folks can't wait to leave, older folks drink, racial tensions crackle, and it seems to always be a grey day in late October: shades of Trump's rural America. And then there's that old abandoned mansion full of squatters, drug addicts and dead people who don't seem to stay dead; those familiar with King's second novel will recognize the imposing Marsten House.
Caplan's portrayal of Annie Wilkes is excellent, balancing the comic aspects of the character (her old-timey aphorisms, stiff walk and Puritanical mores) with her tragic past and deepening psychosis. Via flashback (a cornerstone of Castle Rock's storytelling), we learn of Annie's difficult childhood and her horrible crimes. Joy also begins to unravel her mother's mysterious past. As the fifth episode ends, the worlds of Misery and 'Salem's Lot converge closer, and oh, constant reader, I think it's going to be terrifying indeed.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 23, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.