Stephen King has spent decades making good work of the “man is the real monster” narrative stroke in his supernatural stories, but rarely has he put that sentiment front and center with such intense focus as his 2014 crime thriller, Mr. Mercedes. Entirely devoid of ghosts, ghouls, and monsters, the hard boiled novel is structured as a lean cat-and-mouse chase between a mass murderer and the retired detective who failed to catch him. The new series adaptation from AT&T AUDIENCE Network plays it close to the source material while building the world around the two rivals — Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), the retired detective railing against his own irrelevance and impotence, and Barry Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), the murderer taunting Hodges with a stream of digital mementos from his horrendous crime, and while that means there are a few detours on the ride, the series never loses focus.
Like the novel, Mr. Mercedes begins at the scene of that crime, just before the horrific carnage goes down. In 2009, with recession-era desperation at a peak, unemployed hopefuls line up hours early for an Ohio job fair in the dark and frigid night air. What follows next is gruesome and brutal, but it also lays the groundwork for a series that will treat its characters with respect at every turn, no matter how depraved. In a few minutes time, we’ll watch as a man in a clown mask mows down the innocent job-seekers, but first, we meet them. First, we care about them.
There’s the woman with a months-old baby – who knows exactly how unemployable she looks with an infant strapped to her chest but has no alternative options to keep the kid fed. There’s the man who helps her, kind when he doesn’t have to be, and the man who mocks her, callous and cruel without reward, and the dozens of people surrounding them who fall somewhere in between. When the so-called Mr. Mercedes revs his engine and plows through them, there’s no thrill to be found in the bloodshed. The crunching bones and gushing blood don’t conjure the midnight glee of a grindhouse thrill – it’s too real, too familiar. The characters are too relatable, the working class hunger is too relatable, and the image of a lonely, tormented young man expressing his rage through an act of mass violence is far too tragically familiar.
It’s gruesome without being exploitative, and it sets the stage for what to expect from the series — not just because it prioritizes character, and certainly not in terms of bloodshed, but because it pulls the first tug on the sinking sensation in your gut that starts the moment Mr. Mercedes revs his engine and never lets up. Contrary to what you might expect from a horror-billed King adaptation, the four episodes provided to the press are not particularly gruesome, sparing some explosive moments of violence, but they are elegantly structured to exact tension and instill dread at every turn.
David E. Kelley leads the writing team, which also includes best-selling author Dennis Lehane, and the result is a series that is equal parts character drama and unyielding suspense. Earlier this year, Kelley found fantastic success with his rousing adaptation of Big Little Lies, another fantastic character drama by way of crime thriller, but where that murder mystery is built around the whodunnit, Mr. Mercedes is about the why and what next. We know who. And we know him well.
Treadaway, who earned his horror stripes with his fantastic run as Dr. Frankenstein on Penny Dreadful, creates a new kind of creepy genius in Barry Hartsfield. A disgruntled and deranged man stuck in a thankless IT job (when he’s not moonlighting as the creepiest ice cream truck driver on the block), Barry uses his tech wizardry to dole out violence. Years after his infamous massacre, Barry turns his attention to Bill Hodges. Treadaway elevates Barry beyond the standard serial killer and he’s matched by Gleeson, who delivers one of the most King-ian heroes we’ve seen on screen. Fuelled by rock ‘n roll, whiskey, working class malaise and an abundant seed of guilt, Hodges is brash and irresponsible but more or less a good guy with a bullish conviction to see justice (or maybe vengeance) served. The duo makes a fine leading pair, though they share little to no scenes together, acting as two opposite charged poles that keep Mr. Mercedes in constant magnetic tumult.
The world around them is fleshed out with compelling side characters, each of whom are given enough room to breathe and escape the tropey caricatures they might have become in lesser hands. In Hodges’ circle, there’s Holland Taylor as his intrusive but well-meaning neighbor — a new addition not featured in the books — a wonderful foil who lights up the scenes like a lightning rod of common sense every time he veers to gusto and bullishness. There’s Moonlight‘s Jharell Jerome as a local high school smartypants who helps Hodges crack the high-tech mysteries in the case, the always welcome Mary Louise Parker as a woman tied up in Mr. Mercedes misdeeds who hires Hodges as a P.I., and Hodges’ anxious former partner (Scott Lawrence’s Dixon). Each of them reveals elements of Hodges’ pugnacious, belligerent nature.
As you might expect for a sociopath, the figures in Brady’s world are a bit more limited. We meet his alcoholic, chain-smoking mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch), a lost and broken woman so inappropriate with her son she would make Norma Bates blush. But the script leaves room to make her more than a monster in her own right, and Lynch works wonders with it. We also meet his coworkers – Robert Stanton as a petulant middle management type who fancies himself the savior of the world’s outcasts and a scene-stealing Breeda Wool as Brady’s lesbian colleague, a straightforward young woman dealing with the indignities of customer service and offering Brady a kindness and camaraderie ha rarely sees. Each of the characters is robust and complicated. Even Brady, who is clearly a monster, is afforded moments to also be little more than a pathetic man.
Book readers will note a key character I have yet to mention — Justine Lupe‘s Holly Gibney. Indeed, if there’s a downside to the series, it’s the pacing, which verges on glacial. We haven’t met Holly yet, four episodes in. But there’s payoff in patience and the slow-simmering nausea of unease, even if you may find yourself toe-tapping through some slower scenes as you wait for the hammer to drop. It does, but it takes time and a lot of it.