The second season of the hard-boiled Stephen King adaptation pushes a more vicious, supernaturally charged story, but struggles to get off the exit ramp.
“If you paint your masterpiece you’ll live forever.”
Note: This review is based on the first four episodes from ‘Mr. Mercedes’’ second season. Spoiler. Warning.
There used to be a time—in fact, it wasn’t even that long ago—where it was a near impossible task to turn out an acceptable Stephen King adaptation, let alone one that could also qualify as a “good” film or piece of television. We’ve very recently entered an age where not just good, but flat-out amazing Stephen King adaptations are suddenly becoming commonplace (many thanks, Mr. Flanagan). It’s now not just enough to pull off a strong Stephen King adaptation, but it also needs to be a compelling story in and of itself. Stephen King’s “Bill Hodges Trilogy” is full of life in a way that is absent in many of the author’s later works. The three books seamlessly transition from a taut cat-and-mouse thriller to a psychic serial killer mind cop showdown.
The last book in the series, End of Watch, goes too far for a lot of readers, but in many ways, it’s a good example of King at his most playful and creative. That being said, the first book in the trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, is undeniably the strongest material and now that this television series no longer has that to pull from, it faces a difficult battle to keep this program afloat. Now is the time for Mr. Mercedes, the series, to either shamelessly cling to King’s source material or take some big risks and try to elevate this story into something deeper than a clichéd cop versus killer story. The second season of Mr. Mercedes has many good intentions—much like Bill Hodges himself—but it, unfortunately, starts this new year on shaky ground.
The first few episodes of Mr. Mercedes’ second season bank on the idea that they’ve successfully created tension over whether Brady will wake up from his coma and how involved he’ll be with this season. That tension is almost immediately deflated when it quickly becomes clear that this season is very much about Brady. King was able to overcome this problem in his novels because at the time it wasn’t clear that Brady Hartsfield would even be returning. Sure, his life was still hanging in the balance at the end of Mr. Mercedes, but the next novel in the trilogy, Finders Keepers, pushes Brady to the background and while it’s still interested in Hodges’ growth as a detective, he too becomes a supporting player until the book’s final act.
While I can completely understand why this television adaptation might remove Peter Saubers’ and Morris Bellamy’s story from the Hodges narrative, it does hurt the larger story to some degree. It’s important to let Hodges’ and Brady’s stories breathe a little before returning to them. While I wouldn’t have expected Finders Keepers to take up a whole season of this show, cramming the larger points of the novel into the season premiere (or condensing it into the first two installments) would have provided this necessary grace period. As it stands, Brady is clearly the focus from the start of the season and it’s pretty obvious that he’ll be “awake” by the end of the premiere. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes everything feel more predictable than it needs to be and it places the season on a trajectory that’s much more obvious than last season.
This new season makes it very clear that it views Bill and Brady as polar opposites that are intrinsically linked to some degree. This season plays them as soul mates that are destined to stay in conflict with each other, like they’re the symbols for the ultimate forces of good and evil. That might be sillier than what King originally intended for these characters, but it does give all of this a little more weight. It wants you to feel like this isn’t just some cops and robbers story. The show still plays their similar morning routines in juxtaposition to one another even though Brady is an invalid and orderlies tend to his needs.
Brady and Bill are still the season’s focus, but with Brady confined to a hospital bed, another major player this year is the coma patient’s doctor, Felix Babineau. The series fleshes Dr. Babineau into a much more integral character than the role that he serves in the novels, but that’s not a bad thing when Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) gets to bring him to life. Babineau gets as much development as Hodges does in the premiere. The character’s wife is also oversexed to an absurd degree. Like come on here. She’s the one that pushes Felix to tamper with Brady’s meds for no real reason. She bullies him into every decision that he makes as if she has some ulterior motives in play. Their baby woes are also not nearly as captivating as the show seems to think they are.
Babineau and his wife are determined to become visionaries in their medical fields thanks to an experimental new brain drug that they’ve been testing on Brady. Babineau wants to become revered for his work, but he’s worried that these experiments might also damage Brady’s brain even further. The audience has no investment in Babineau’s career and someone like Brady doesn’t deserve to have a healthy life. It’s necessary to empathize with Babineau and his struggle, but it’s pretty obvious that this new experimental drug is going to kick Brady’s brain back into high gear. Therefore, while Babineau’s relationship with Brady remains interesting, the majority of these scenes fall flat. Right from the start, it’s obvious that these drugs are dangerous, but it’s repeatedly underlined. Once again, taking a little more time with this material and being patient with Brady’s growth might have made this all work a little better.
Outside of Brady’s critical condition, these first few episodes look at Hodges’ attempts to get back into a routine after his nasty heart attack from last season’s finale. He’s eager to find some normalcy in his new repossession agency with Holly, but they’re both struggling to find inspiration with their work. Holly is still the best part about this show and it’s exciting to see her character get to develop further and become more self-sufficient this season. It’s surprisingly satisfying to watch Holly come into her own with the repossession and detective work and figure out what her purpose is in life.
A healthy portion of these introductory episodes also attempt to remove Bill’s defenses and security blankets so he’s more vulnerable when Brady re-enters the picture. In spite of this, rounding out the rest of the supporting cast this season is Ida, who’s still around, but she’s actually better integrated into the story this season as Barbara’s teacher. On that note, Jerome returns to lend his expertise to Bill and Holly, but a huge injustice has been done here by turning the character into a disgruntled slacker vape-head who’s flunking school! Why!? I’m sure Jerome will get his act together as the season progresses, but it’s a major assassination of his character that serves no purpose.
Mr. Mercedes is still very much about life, death, and the things that we do in between. Even though distractions come up that keep Hodges from Brady, the same topics and fears are heavy in both of their lives. This is a show about surviving and having value. At some moments it looks like Hodges may get pushed to the dark side and stoop to Brady’s level, but he always has enough restraint to avoid temptation. As much as this show is obsessed with the relationship between Hodges and Brady, most of the best moments in the first two episodes are when Hodges is away from him and tries to work through his life.
There are some fantasy sequences where Brady taunts and plagues Hodges, but they feel somewhat forced and that they exist solely so these two can exchange dialogue again. It’s very hackneyed stuff, but it serves its purpose. It also allows Harry Treadaway to chew some scenery and go for broke here. It’s just a shame that his hammy performance has to undercut a genuinely touching scene where Hodges visits a friend’s grave and finds himself making several stops while he’s at the cemetery. It’s a poignant visualization of where Hodges’ life is at, but then it heads into hokey fantasyscape. These visualizations of Brady’s “coma-scape” work well and they’re a creative way to depict the in-between purgatory that he’s caught in. However, there’s also a lot of faux-poignancy through it all, too. The initial fear that Brady feels in response to his new powers rather than instantly being enamored with them also adds a nice layer to his performance. He doesn’t know what’s going on with his mind either or even if this is good or bad.
The season’s second episode is the more Brady-centric of the first two installments and it allows his madness to run wild, whereas the premiere is more about the re-introduction to Hodges’ world. The show does still stick with the somewhat silly “Zappy” angle from End of Watch for this season as well as Brady’s accompanying powers that come with them. This certainly works, but it might have been interesting to see the show perfect this material in some other way. As it stands they’re magical brain powers, which are definitely sillier on screen than in a novel. People will either be all over the crazy supernatural slant (and it really is out there) that the season adopts or think that it feels rushed and is just out of place. That being said, Mind Detective can be a pretty amazing idea when in the right context.
As the season progresses, Mr. Mercedes casts a wider net over the growing range of people that Brady has poisoned, both with his new “talents” as well as before his coma. Characters like Lou Linklatter also continue to painfully shuffle around their trauma, but while they played a role back in the larger story of season one, they now feel like they’re still included out of obligation to the show’s past. There’s a collapsed gazebo that becomes a recurring, flimsy symbol of determination throughout the season. Hodges and others tirelessly work to prop up the structure and bring it back to life, but sometimes it’s better to just let something go.
Mr. Mercedes debuts to a start that’s simultaneously slow and rushed. These episodes take their time with what they’re doing, but they also jump into the larger storylines of the year without hesitation. It’s unclear if this new risky season will be more or less compelling than the show’s rocky first season, especially since the source material is a little weaker this time around and the series progressively goes more off script. That being said, the season does find more of a comfortable balance the further into the year that it gets. The show’s strong performances and its internal sense of justice continue to ground Mr. Mercedes and make it work. The program can still tell a tense, boiled down crime story with supernatural touches, it’s just that this season requires a lot more patience.
‘Mr. Mercedes’’ second season debuts August 22nd on DirecTV’s Audience Network.
Updated headline to clarify it’s not a full season review.