First things first: Castle Rock isn't that scary. It wasn't in Season 1, and it's not in Season 2, either. Hulu's anthology series may be inspired by characters and locations created by horror maestro Stephen King, but its tone draws more from his character-driven suspense novels than his most frightening works. Season 2 has some spine-tingling moments and some stomach-turning violence, but it fits more squarely in the psychological thriller genre more than horror -- not unlike Misery, the King property it draws the most from.
Castle Rock Season 2 takes Misery's Annie Wilkes -- unforgettably (and Oscar-winningly) played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 movie -- and puts her in the cursed Maine region of the title town and Jerusalem's Lot. This is a different version of Annie Wilkes than Bates', though. Played by Masters of Sex's Lizzy Caplan, she's younger and has a teenaged daughter named Joy (Elsie Fisher). They drive around the country, on the run from something, with Annie taking nursing jobs at hospitals for just long enough to earn some money and steal the anti-psychotic medications that keep her leveled out before moving on. She crashes her car in Castle Rock, which keeps her there long enough for her and Joy to get hopelessly entangled with the scions of local crime boss Pop Merrill (Tim Robbins), nephews Ace (Paul Sparks) and Chris (Matthew Alan), and adopted Somali siblings Nadia (Yusra Warsama) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi). Abdi is poaching tenants from Ace's mall to come set up shop at his under-construction cultural and business center serving the town's Somali community, which bursts the dam on Ace's long-building personal and racial resentment, and Chris, Nadia, and Pop get caught in the conflict between the stepbrothers. Meanwhile, spooky supernatural stuff is happening, but the why is not revealed in the five episodes Hulu provided for review.
The show is thoughtfully written by showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who have a knack for character and an ear for Kingian dialogue, and the gifted cast gives it everything they have. Caplan is excellent as the psychologically deteriorating Annie Wilkes. She's obviously heavily influenced by Bates, but she gives a fiercely committed performance of her own. She does this flat-footed walk with her arms held motionless at her sides that tells you most of what you need to know about the character, and her hair-trigger temperament tells you the rest. Robbins -- back in the Stephen King universe for the first time since The Shawshank Redemption -- puts on a Maine accent and gives a sad, soulful performance as Pop Merrill, a complicated man whose terminal illness is forcing him to confront the life he's lived. Elsie Fisher is basically doing her Eighth Grade character under extreme duress, and she's terrific. And relative newcomer Warsama more than holds her own in her scenes with Robbins and Abdi, an Oscar winner and nominee, respectively.
Shaw and Thomason are much better at character than plot. The twists are pretty obvious, but the way the characters arrive at those twists are what make the show worth watching. You don't have to have watched Season 1 to watch Season 2, but you should have watched Misery. Castle Rock explores Annie's origins and backstory, which adds a lot of tragedy and pathos to how she ends up. The show uses a lot of flashbacks, and uses them well. A midseason episode that dives deep into how Annie grew up is one of the season's highlights, with great guest performances from Robin Weigert and Sarah Gadon (who is a veteran of Hulu's Stephen King universe, having previously appeared in 11.22.63).
There's also some 'Salem's Lot mythology you should brush up on, but Season 2 is relatively self-contained. It's not the parade of Easter eggs Season 1 was. So far, it's a little bit better than Season 1 on the whole, with no single episode as good as the Sissy Spacek showcase "The Queen." Hopefully it sticks the landing this time.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Castle Rock Season 2 premieres Wednesday, Oct. 23 on Hulu.