Castle Rock: “The Laughing Place” Review

As we approach the midpoint of Season 2, Castle Rock gave us another compelling episode, further explaining the backstory of one of its main characters.

Last week, we learned more about Nadia and Pop, while barely featuring Annie Wilkes, and now, in the season’s longest (and possibly best) episode, the entire focus is on her tragic past, which led her to become the person she is now.

(Spoilers Ahead: You’ve Been Warned!!!)

Trying to Do What’s Best
The episode opens in Bakersfield, CA back in 1994, as an elementary school aged Annie struggles with reading aloud in her class.  It appears to be a problem of dyslexia, and rather than medicate their daughter and get her the extra help in school, her parents make the rash decision to pull her and have her home-schooled by her father.

The saddest thing about the entire episode is how differently Annie’s life would have been had her parents just listened to the school’s advice.

Annie’s father, a writer himself, has Annie help him with writing his novel, all while her mother fears she’s not getting properly educated, and doubts her husband’s abilities.  We also begin to see where Annie developed her very black and white approach to the world, as her mother believes that people are either completely good or evil, and that evil people deserve punishment.

Eventually, when Annie is a teenager, her parents relent and hire Rita to tutor her.  After some initial awkwardness, Rita starts getting a long really well and Annie, as well as her father (a bit too much).  Before long, Rita is pregnant, Annie’s parents are separating, but she manages to pass her GED, much to the delight and pride of everyone.

It was no easy task for Rita to warm up to an apprehensive Annie. But when she did, they became quite close, which made the later betrayal sting that much more!

Tragedy Strikes
Annie’s joy is short lived however, as soon after, her mother reaches her emotional breaking point (between the pending divorce and her daughter going off to college), and she attempts to kill them both by driving her car into a lake.

Annie escapes, but it never really the same again.  Months later, Rita visits with her infant daughter Evangeline, and as she and Annie’s father reveal they’re starting a relationship, Annie puts the pieces together and becomes quite distraught.

As soon as we saw that Rita was pregnant, the baby’s father was pretty obvious!

She finally reaches her breaking point when she discovers that her father’s novel is dedicated to Rita, resulting in her pushing her father down the steps and (accidentally) impaling him.  When she stabs Rita with scissors, it feels much more intentional however.

Then, in what may be one of the more disturbing scenes of the season, Annie takes baby Evangeline out to the lake, with every intention of drowning the poor infant.  But the baby laughs, something stops Annie.  We can assume from here on out, Annie changed the baby’s name to Joy and they’ve been on the run ever since.

Back in the present, Joy’s research into her mom’s past makes a breakthrough and she is even able to locate Rita on Facebook.  Much to the audience’s surprise, Rita survived her stab wound and is very much alive.  The episode ends on a brilliant cliffhanger with Joy making a phone call to her biological mother, Rita!

For the first time in two episodes, Annie and Joy speak (albeit briefly) and these years of secrets, lies, and tension has finally reached its limit.

Where It All Went Wrong
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Annie’s story is that she truly was a bright and intelligent young girl, who simply struggled with reading.  She showed enormous potential, and was even on the right track to realize that potential, until her father’s affair with her tutor and her mother’s suicide derailed everything.

It gives us a much better understanding into her character as we realize that she’s not truly a psychopath as portrayed in 1990’s Misery.  Rather she unwillingly became exactly like her mother, and is barely holding anything together.

Clearly her mother wanted life to go differently as well, but her own mental health issues, along with the betrayal of her husband ruined it all.

She’s clearly impulsive and regrets killing her father and Rita (well she thinks she did), but there’s much more to her.  It explains why she honestly has no idea how to raise a teenager like Joy, because she herself struggled so much with the teenage years.

Also, we can’t give enough praise to actress Ruby Cruz, who not only humanizes a character we’ve always seen as a simple psychopath, but fully inhabits the mannerisms of both Lizzy Caplan’s as well as a little bit of Kathy Bates’ performances as the character.

With just this episode, and three short films on her IMDB resume, Ruby Cruz needs to be in more films/TV series!

She is very much the heart and soul of this episode, and in addition to looking like the perfect blend of Annie and Joy, she captures the tragedy that is Annie Wilkes.  It’s a shame that (aside from potential flashbacks), we won’t get to see her on screen again.

In a series whose first season very much derailed off point at the episode 5 mark, this one realized that what audiences (particularly King’s audiences) want is strong and compelling characters.

And between tense writing, brilliant performances (by a few actors who only really get one episode to shine), and a compelling advancement of the story, “The Laughing Place” is without a doubt the finest episode of Season 2 (so far)!

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