Castle Rock season two was, overall, a more satisfying viewing experience than season one—ramping up the pace and the supernatural horror while working in some nifty Stephen King Easter Eggs along the way. But there’s really only been one story on the series this season, and the finale made that crystal clear.
Tim Robbins was, as expected, great as established Stephen King character Pop Merrill—he becomes Castle Rock’s emotional centre as he grapples with a terminal illness and a tidal wave of regrets over aspects of his not-so-saintly past.
Paul Sparks was chilling as Pop’s nephew Ace, who morphs from a hot-tempered bully into a completely different flavour of malevolence once he’s body-snatched by a Satanic cultist who’s been dead for 400 years. Also notable (but not given nearly enough to do): Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama as Abdi and Nadja, the brother and sister Pop adopted years prior as teens from war-torn Somalia, and who’ve long since learned that Castle Rock is no peaceful paradise.
But all Castle Rock residents ultimately took a back seat to the complex emotional saga that played out between a pair of outsiders: Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) and her daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher), who car-crashed their way into town in episode one, “Let the River Run,” and beat a hasty retreat in the finale, “Clean.”
The first part of “Clean” felt a bit too abrupt—Annie, Abdi, Nadja, and Pop literally explode the cult’s sinister plan for mass mind-control, thereby preventing the arrival of the evil “Angel,” formerly known as “the Kid,” as played by season one returnee Bill Skarsgård. (The Angel actually does materialise at the edge of Castle Lake—known to be a “door between other heres, other nows, other dimensions,” according to Pop—for a hot minute, but fades out of sight when he realises his welcome home party’s been sabotaged.)
Then all of a sudden it’s “one week later” and perpetual nomads Annie and Joy are back on the road, heading to Canada as they’d been planning to do before their unexpected layover in Maine’s cosmic hellmouth.
By some miracle—and not before Castle Rock makes sure we notice a “missing” flyer for our old pal Henry Deaver, season one’s main character, who has apparently repeated the vanishing act that forever altered his childhood—Annie lands a gig as a live-in caretaker at a comfortable lakeside home. She’s eager to smooth things over with Joy; they’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks. But it won’t be easy. It may not even be possible. Even before they blundered into Castle Rock, there was growing tension between them, thanks to Annie’s overprotectiveness and generally wobbly relationship with reality, and Joy’s yearning to just enjoy being a normal teen for once.
Then came the big reveal that Joy is actually Annie’s half-sister, not her daughter, and that Annie kidnapped her as an infant after killing their father and trying to kill Joy’s mother, Rita (Sarah Gadon). The interim years were unkind to Rita, whose hesitation is her downfall when she shows up in Castle Rock and accidentally shoots herself while waving a gun at Annie—not noticing Joy creeping up behind her with a syringe of sedatives. (That kooky cult was actually good for one thing, as it turns out, because the entire Rita affair gets completely swept away in the chaos.)
That level of extreme drama would be quite enough to push any family unit to the edge, much less an already emotionally fragile one, and that’s even without the whole “Joy almost becoming a vessel for a cult leader” rescue mission that comes after Rita exits the story. Fortunately, Joy keeps ahold of her soul, but she’s still a changed person when she and Annie settle into their new Canadian home, and not just because of her newly goth hair colour. Thanks to the cult’s weird hypnosis juju, she actually can’t remember the horrors she witnessed; instead, she’s more fixated on the freedom she tasted in Castle Rock, and she longs for space away from Annie to figure out what she wants for her own future.
Knowing that Annie won’t agree or understand, Joy secretly contacts a lawyer to see about getting herself emancipated—a kinder legal path than, say, calling up the police to enlighten them about Annie’s crimes, which she could also easily have done. But Annie’s been hearing her own mother’s voice—a disturbed woman who drowned herself by driving into a lake with teenage Annie in the car—urging her to do terrible things. And as we know, Annie intended to drown Joy soon after the kidnapping all those years ago, but couldn’t go through with it when the baby smiled at her. So it makes an awful sort of sense that Annie—overcome by her own demons, and convinced that Joy’s spirit has somehow been corrupted by the Angel—ends up drowning Joy in the lake behind their newfound home.
Losing Joy was Annie’s biggest fear, and it came true in the worst way possible. Anyone who’s read or seen Misery knows what happens to Annie at the end of her life, and with Castle Rock filling in her backstory it’s now easy to see how she arrived at that point of smothering desperation and psychotic delusion.
Castle Rock does get in one last feint, though, at first making the viewer believe that a regretful Annie is able to revive her beloved Joy, and their time together after that is sunny days, ice cream, and prime seats at book readings by their new favourite author—Paul Sheldon, of Misery fame, whose prose certainly resembles the writing of Annie’s beloved father, who died after she shoved him down a staircase in a fit of rage. No wonder she’s his number-one fan. In fact, Annie never did save Joy and the seat next to her at the author’s book reading is very much empty.
What’s the state of affairs back in Castle Rock? Is there any part of Jerusalem’s Lot left standing now? What’s going on in Castle Rock’s “other heres, other nows, other dimensions?” Where is Henry Deaver? And will the Angel get another crack at putting his nefarious plan in motion? We’ll need another season of Castle Rock—something that, as of this writing, Hulu has yet to confirm—to find out because the finale never returns us to the town. This was Annie’s story, after all.