Caution: There are spoilers ahead for the first five episodes of season two of “Castle Rock.”
The first season of “Castle Rock” on Hulu told an effective, often devastating story about love, loss and interdimensional weirdness, set in the world of Stephen King — specifically in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, which, alongside Derry and Jerusalem’s Lot, are King’s most famous fictional towns.
Like season one, this season, which premieres Wednesday, features a new take on an iconic King character. In season one, it was Alan Pangborn, sheriff of Castle Rock. This season, it’s Annie Wilkes, antagonist of “Misery,” played by Lizzy Caplan (“Masters of Sex,” “Party Down”).
It also features another actor famous from a role in another King movie. In season one, it was Bill Skarsgard, who played Pennywise in both installments of “IT.” This season, it’s Tim Robbins, famed for his role as Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Robbins plays Pops, the patriarch of the complicated Merrill family, a local clan that owns a lot of property and extorts all its tenants, as well as the local police and anyone else who crosses their path.
The initial tension in the story arises from the fact that Pops, an veteran with PTSD who is also secretly battling cancer, is leasing to Castle Rock’s sizeable population of Somali immigrants, something Pops’ nephew and property manager, Ace (Paul Sparks), isn’t fond of. Ace (a teenage version of whom is the main antagonist in “The Body” and its movie adaptation “Stand By Me”) harbors deep-seated resentment against the Somalis — not least because Pops adopted two Somalis, enterprising businessman Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and beloved local doctor Nadia (Yusra Warsama). Ace is deeply jealous of them both.
One of the main plot points in season two — the tension between white residents of Castle Rock and newly arrived Somalis — is ripped directly from the headlines here in Maine. In the 2000s, thousands of Somali refugees relocated to Maine, initially settling in Lewiston. This set off a wave of tension in the city, with demonstrations by white supremacists in 2003 and hate crimes in mosques in 2006. Though real-life tensions have greatly eased in recent years, in fictional Castle Rock, they are still present.
The gritty side of Maine is again well represented in this season — showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason effectively capture the gray-toned, haunted vibe of King’s fading Maine town, to which the Somali immigrants have brought a needed burst of energy and diversity. As with season one, there are lots of Easter eggs and effective set pieces that make the show feel all the more authentically Maine and more authentically Stephen King, including the Marsten House (the central location in “Salem’s Lot”) and Tim Robbins’ passable Maine accent.
It’s into this situation that season two’s flashpoint arrives: Annie Wilkes. As played by Caplan, this version of Wilkes is much younger than the one we meet in “Misery.” She’s a mother to 16-year-old Joy (Elsie Fisher), and they have spent their lives as nomads. Wilkes is on the lam from murder charges, finding temporary nursing jobs in towns all over the country and home-schooling her daughter. They land in Castle Rock in episode one, and she finds work at the hospital in nearby Jerusalem’s Lot.
Wilkes suffers from severe mental illness, but this younger version of Annie is trying, desperately, to control her violent outbursts and delusions by staying medicated. She snaps, however, after an encounter with Ace Merrill, from whom she’s renting, and dispatches him quickly in one of the most memorable on-screen deaths to appear on TV in recent years. We won’t spoil it here. But it’s pretty great.
From that point, the season is set in motion. Is Annie just imagining all the horrific things she sees? How does Pops’ son, the much more even-keeled and kindly Chris, fit into all this? Will any of the more important plot points from season one crop up over the course of the season? There’s an awful lot of ingredients in this recipe, between the family dynamics, Annie’s saga, the sociopolitical elements of the town and the supernatural elements that — at least in the first five episodes — are lurking in the shadows. It will be interesting to see how Shaw and Thomason try to wrap it all up.