Guest Blog : Mr. Mercedes’ Latest Season Premieres and It Brings the Feels by Rebecca Rowland

Mr. Mercedes Latest Season Premieres on Peacock on March 4, and It Brings the Feels

by Rebecca Rowland

In the first fifteen minutes of the third season of Mr. Mercedes, Bruce Dern is murdered. 

Dern plays a best-selling, reclusive writer, and this revelation is in no way a spoiler: not only is the crime the catalyst for the season’s story arc, but it is also the basis for Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, the second in the horror scribe’s Bill Hodges trilogy. According to King, Dern’s John Rothstein is not an alter ego but a mishmash of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, and Philip Roth, but let’s face it: Robert Frost insisted until the day he died that “The Road Not Taken” was not an allegory of selecting an extraordinary life path but only a plain ol’ poem about walking in the woods. Any high school English teacher would beg to differ. 

As a reader of King’s for more than thirty years, I admit to having felt a bit unnerved when Rothstein bit the dust specifically because I equated the fictional author with King himself. Shared grief when a celebrity dies is not a new phenomenon. When the grunge god’s suicide splashed across radio and television, someone spray-painted C-O-B-A-I-N across the interstate exit near my childhood home. When David Bowie, Prince, and Tom Petty were picked off by the Grim Reaper in what seemed like the trifecta of musical rapture just a few years back, I tore their glossy magazine photographs from their media memorials and taped them to my office wall. Watching the first third of season three’s lead episode, I considered what it will be like when King himself takes a final walk down the mile. 

I could track my life based on the release dates of King’s books. I was one of those kids who loved to read; my parents had to lock me outside in order to keep me from hunkering down in my room, my nose buried in a book. Because my father was a diehard Stephen King fan in the 1970s, I, of course, became instantly curious about his books, and at the age of ten, I was allowed to read Thinner because my parents had determined that it was the least nightmarish of King’s works up to that point (body image of a tween girl, be damned). I immediately moved on to The Shining and promptly had trouble sleeping, the obvious culprit being the clear view from my bed of a shower curtain in the night-light-lit bathroom. At the age of twelve, I went to the movies with a boy named Jimmy, and after we watched Silver Bullet, he gave me my first kiss. Throughout my teen years, I favored King’s short fiction, and it is because of Night Shift’s “The Boogeyman” that I insisted my college dorm room’s closet door always be shut completely, much to the vexation of my freshman-year roommate (who, incidentally, went on to executively produce not one but three of the CSI series as well as Murder in the First. I’d like to think my closet fixation takes partial credit for her career success with suspense, but it’s probably just a coincidence…).

After focusing my graduate degree in English on feminist theory, I based my thesis on the portrayal of female characters in popular horror fiction using Stephen King’s most recent releases at the time: Insomnia, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder. After entering the workforce for the first time as an adult, I read The Green Mile in its original serial form and sobbed uncontrollably on the subway after the initial demise of Mr. Jingles. Many years later, while working as a librarian in Western Massachusetts, I had to laugh when I read “Big Driver” in Full Dark, No Stars: maniacal main character Ramona Norville was a librarian, and the story was set in the town in which I was living at the time. 

When I tell people that I write dark fiction—psychological horror, in particular, I am more often than not met with a roll of the eyes or a patronizing tone. Genre fiction, it seems, lacks the street cred inherent with traditional literary fiction. Stephen King is popular, but he’s no Dostoevsky or Dickens, they say. I beg to differ. A professor once told me, a classic is a work of literature with themes and relatability that supersede time and place. There is humanity in horror, at least in well-written horror, that could go toe-to-toe with any stuffy college literature course tome. Although we read horror primarily for the screams, what keeps many of us coming back, no matter at what stage in our lives we are, is the sympathy its characters bring out in us.

And so, I return to the latest television installment of King’s Hodges trilogy. The now defunct Audience Network shuffled the novels of the series, choosing to base its second season on the third book, End of Watch, to mixed reviews. Although there is little to top the show’s first foray, season three captures much of the dread and believability that were often absent from the second ten episodes. Brett Gelman, always a scene stealer in comedy funfests such as The Other Guys and Fleabag, displays dramatic range as attorney Roland Finkelstein and potential love interest for Holly Gibney, but it is Breeda Wool’s portrayal of Lou that is most impactful. Wool inhabits the imprisoned assassin of Brady Hartsfield so strikingly that I’ve added most of her other work to my watch list. 

Season three is aglow with plenty of gruesomeness, from a spontaneous hatchet to one unsuspecting character’s head to a pick-axe being inserted and dragged through another’s, but perhaps the most chilling scene occurs in the final episode of the season, one that brings to a head the mysterious dream sequence Bill Hodges has been experiencing. For me, it is this scene in particular that solidified what the third installment of Mr. Mercedes seemed to be proselytizing all along, that the best writers are the ones whose work continues to impact our lives long after they have left this earth. Was it morbid for me to ponder Stephen King’s eventual demise? Perhaps. On the other hand, it’s possible that horror literature’s crown prince will outlive all of us, Mother Abigail-style. Regardless, for horror fans, he will never really disappear.

 



Rebecca Rowland is the dark fiction author of The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight and Pieces and curator of the horror anthologies Ghosts, Goblins, Murder, and Madness; Shadowy Natures: Stories of Psychological Horror, The Half That You See, and the upcoming (June 2021) Unburied: A Collection of Queer Dark Fiction. Her work has appeared in venues such as Bloody Disgusting’s Creepy podcast, The Sirens Call, Coffin Bell, Curiouser, and Waxing & Waning and has been anthologized in collections by an assortment of independent presses. For links to her latest publications, social media, or just to surreptitiously stalk her, visit RowlandBooks.com.

Guest Blog: KBatz- Hex

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HEX a Bizarre Mixed Bag of Lost Potential

By Kristin Battestella

I don’t recall how I came to the 2005 British series HEX, but it is a conundrum of a little series, I’ll tell you that. Over the course of two brief seasons, HEX establishes a fine premise, intriguing characters, and some budding paranormal fun. Unfortunately, too many changes and growing pains prematurely damaged the show into merely what could have been. Cassandra ‘Cassie’ (Christina Cole) and her roommate Thelma Bates (Jemima Rooper) don’t exactly fit in with handsome Troy (Joseph Morgan) and popular Roxanne (Amber Sainsbury) at the posh country school Medenham Hall. Cassie explores the abandoned buildings on the grounds, discovering more and more about Rachel McBain (Jessica Oyelowo, Mayo) and the estate’s torrid history of witches, persecutions, torture, and ghosts. Soon, she sees the frightening and mysterious Azazeal (Michael Fassbender) stalking her. The leader of the fallen Nephilim angels, Azazeal proves his might to Cassie by sacrificing Thelma, thus making her a ghost only Cassie and others supernaturally inclined can see. Azazeal uses his fully regained powers to possess and seduce Cassie. Now that Cassie is carrying Azazeal’s child, 500-year-old anointed witch Ella Dee (Laura Pyper) enrolls at Medenham so she can kill their fast growing, half- demon child Malachi (Joseph Beattie). Unfortunately, Malachi’s charm and fallen angel arsenal make the task difficult for Ella. After centuries of fighting the forces of evil, she finally has a chance at a normal life with fellow student Leon (Jamie Davis). However, as Malachi matures, the fabric between worlds breaks down, allowing more Nephilim, demons, and ghosts to cross over, jeopardizing everyone at Medenham and beyond.

Wow, this was a tough show to summarize! The witchy premise and demonic storylines are intriguing at the start, but we get too much too soon and yet not enough by the series’ premature end. As a result of significant cast departures and changes, HEX never adheres to its potential. We open as linear story, creating longer and longer previouslies introducing each episode- we think we have something good in place. Sadly, the revolving cast door leaves HEX without firm footing; plots meanders too much, and the storylines grows obvious and repetitive. When foreshadowing gives away more than it should, it just isn’t foreshadowing anymore, is it? Though I applaud the frank teen pregnancy issues and abortion debates, these heavy subjects are dealt with a little too casually- and the end of the world is at stake, to boot! There are the usual questions of statutory affairs and pedophilic immortals and witches getting it on with teenagers as well, but all that is lost while HEX tries to find its path by exploring the histories, comings, and goings of its players. Perhaps all these issues, characters, and more could have become something coherent in time? By the final episodes, however, all the floundering leaves the audience wondering why we should even care.

HEX also errs a little too much on the lesbian angles. While it’s lovely to have a nice, realistic, and frank portrayal, frequent director Brian Grant (As If, She Wolf of London) and oft writer Lucy Watkins (Sugar Rush, Demons) quickly fall into the safe stereotypes. The unabashed lesbian dies and becomes a ghost for goodness sake; unable to have a real relationship with the living heterosexual roommate she loves. It’s a little hypocritical to have the occasional dreamy girl on girl make outs for the flair but then say its not true romance compared to the demonic possession shenanigans. A lesbian ghost always gawking at the uninterested also perpetuates the myth that every gay person has the hots for the nearest straight person. The same sex motifs should have been handled much better or left alone. Having someone say she’s a ‘lesbian ghost’ doesn’t make one gay, does it? When the wonderful Thelma finally does get other magically convenient lesbian ghosts to play with, it’s just too contrived for the audience to care. I’ve gone on this subject for a while, simply because the production team put the topic at the forefront of the show. That in itself is not erroneous television, but hinging the show on their faulty lesbian visions is a mistake. Mature, lesbian relationships can be done wonderfully, look at Buffy. I don’t want to be stereotypical myself, but perhaps producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps just can’t write for chicks, as in my main complaint with the handling of their female characters in Merlin.

Despite some of these faults, the players in HEX keep things fun and juicy for the most part. Their styles and dialogue may be too Brit to some, but Christina Cole (What a Girl Wants) and Jemima Rooper (Lost in Austen) are sassy and worthwhile. Thelma’s ghostly ways can be irritating at times, but Rooper’s charm keeps Thelma’s unique situation real. It’s so nice to see the second lead in a television show not be the traditional blonde, super thin, totally hip hottie. Thelma’s quirky view and tough choices are a breath of fresh air, and when the character is sometimes reduced to a ‘freaky, fat dyke’ for the humor; it’s a little unfair to Rooper’s hard work. It’s also a little amusing that Cassie can talk to ghost Thelma is public and no one notices! The writing inconsistencies and teeny bopper girlie logic is annoying, and HEX becomes more frustrating as it loses its aim. Laura Pyper (Emma) comes into an awkward situation of replacing the departing Cole, and again the fickle writing decisions- dumbing down a 500 year old witch into said annoying lusty teen-doesn’t do Pyper justice. Wasn’t this show about Cassie, anyway? It’s as if the first 10 episodes and the back 9 shows of the series are from two different television programs. The cast are all adults, but some of the sexual scenes, vices, and abuses also seem a bit much for the ladies, too. It’s tough to discern how old they are, exactly what type of school Medenham is, and let’s not forget the touch of pedophilish relationships. Amber Sainsbury’s (30 Days of Night) resident hooch Roxanne has a fine arc with all this juiciness, but she’s pushed to the backburner while the changing over leads battle for the spotlight.

Alright, I confess it, so you must forgive me the pun. I’ve been on a bit of a bender recently over Michael Fassbender. His somehow sweet, sexy, and alluring but no less evil and ruthless turn here has Azazeal has converted my indifference to his Stelios in 300. I had to reread my commentaries on 300 to compare- but I didn’t even mention him! That’s an ouch and a whoops on my part. While I’m kicking myself for not fully realizing this talented actor sooner, this chameleon style also creates more applause. How deceptive the devil is, isn’t he? Azazeal is supposed to be the bad of the bads, yet there is an air of ambiguity, a sense of tragic love lost over the millennia. He’s slick, intelligent, predatory, ancient and evil- yet almost sympathetic in his own way. By far Azazeal is the best thing about HEX. Not because of the latent swoonability of Mr. Fassbender, but because his role is the best written and delivered part of the show. He took his time with the part and is somehow completely subtle while giving a nothing to lose kinetic energy and over the top style in Azazeal’s every move. The period piece ruthlessness blended with the modern edginess seals the deal on his ensnarement. I don’t know if it was a planned departure or Fassbender chose to leave the series, but it is tough watching HEX’s final episodes without him- particularly after the fine episode 10 “Ella’s Burning.”

Sadly, I am not as fond of the other gentleman on HEX. Joseph Morgan‘s (Ben-Hur, Doc Martin) Troy is nothing but a plot element, to be manipulated by Cassie or Azazeal as needed. Jamie Davis (Footballer’s Wives) matures and adds depth to Leon for Series 2, but he also ends up as romantic fodder for Ella. Joseph Beattie (Mansfield Park) also comes in secondary- simply because he comes across as a poor girl’s Fassbender. Didn’t we just see the storyline involving a demon trying to seduce a witch? Why are we wasting time on this again? More coming and going cast members also aren’t treated to full potential, like the very cool Headmaster Colin Salmon (Die Another Day, Dinotopia) and Anna Wilson-Jones (Afterlife) as the kind but eventually seriously misguided teacher Jo Watkins. So many fine supporting players come and go in HEX, its tough to discern who’s important, who isn’t, or who will even be around for more than two episodes. Again, it seems like someone was playing eenie meenie miney mo with the cast and characters without regard to the goldmine of talent to be had. Some of that was no one’s fault- actors come and go, storylines start and finish as needed, but as this rotating company increases, it makes HEX very frustrating to watch.

I’m not a British teenager, obviously, but my goodness the fashion sense here is horrible! These girls look like 30-year-old streetwalkers! If that was the Brit style then, or if that’s how teens really dress nowadays, oiy. What is with all the odd hair lengths and one off earrings? It’s not cool, just distracting- and everyone seems to wear the same few things all the time. Don’t these rich kids have enough money to buy a decent wardrobe? Maybe the Nuevo grunge but steampunk trash all at the same time is just some European thing, but hinging HEX on such an eclectic looks and music makes the show very dated only five years later. While the Colonial and Puritan-esque period piece looks are wonderful and the Englefield filming location is dynamite, these aren’t used to their full potential. The aforementioned casting changes and meandering on who the true lead of the series was also gives an uneven, incomplete, or rushed and poor production feeling. What little special effects there are aren’t that good, either. Usually I’m all for a relatively no-effects show winning on its cast and writing laurels, but there should be more spooky things in HEX than there are. We’re just kind of in between- a teen drama that has haunting elements or an all- gothic show that has serious drama. In a first season, shows are entitled to these growing pains, but as this is all the HEX we have, it doesn’t work in the brief series’ favor. Too many inconsistencies hamper our disbelief. Where are all the damn cell phones and laptops? Aren’t there any real school schedules, security, or rules? Some of the basics are treated too willy-nilly, putting another nail in HEX’s coffin.

Naturally, the DVD presentation of HEX is totally screwy. The first 6 episodes of Season 1 and the first 4 episodes of Season 2 comprise the ‘Season 1’ Region 1 release, and the final 9 episodes of Season 2 have not been released in North America. Well that’s a big “Huh?” isn’t it? The features for both seasons are mingled across the Season 1 discs, revealing spoilers for the entire series, too. And, to top it off, there are no effing subtitles! American audiences, it seems, have been screwed (or should I say hexed?) all around. Fans of the cast or paranormal television can try rental or online options or fully invest in the complete Region 2 releases, but the naughty language, British lingo, nudity, and other raunchy goodness are not for prudes or the super young set.

HEX simply is what it is. Would it have been better if the series continued for a third season, magically finding its path amid such complete cast turnaround? Perhaps. Was the damage of such a shaky start and constant upheavals already done? Probably. All these character movements and nice progression developments would have been fine had they happened naturally through the course of a longstanding show, but too many changes and inconsistencies happen over HEX’s measly 19 episodes. The show seems to have been flying blind- I mean, outside of its literal definition, what the heck does the title have to do with anything, anyway? Take the good of HEX, but be prepared to let the potential go. Don’t dwell, just drool, indulge, and yell at the TV.