The first season of Mr. Mercedes was one of the finest Stephen King adaptations to hit the screen this side of Frank Darabont. A contained, tightly-wound game of cat-and-mouse between Brendan Gleeson‘s grumbling good guy cop Bill Hodges and Harry Treadaway‘s sneering serial killer Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr. Mercedes — a nickname he earns by plowing a car through a crowded job fair in the premiere episode — the show’s first season triumphed by prioritizing character drama and psychological thrills over easy scares, and always keeping the scares it did use grounded.
By contrast, Season 2 makes bold strides into new genres, embracing its Stephen King roots to the fullest, with a story that introduces medical horror and a whiff of the supernatural in the continued saga of Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield. Last season’s finale ended with a somewhat anticlimactic showdown between the two men after a narrowly-thwarted attack on a local arts fair. In the end, Bill was recovering from a heart attack and Brady was all but dead after his skull ended up on the wrong side of Holly’s (Justine Lupe) lucky dog statuette. Hooked up to life support at the hospital and lost to the world in a vegetative state, Brady is so far gone that even Bill stops stalking the murderer’s room when he realizes Brady isn’t ever going to wake up.
In the novels, King takes the opportunity to lean into Bill and Holly’s burgeoning friendship and private investigator business, Finders Keepers (also the title of the book), which sends them down the rabbit hole of a new, Brady-free mystery. For the purposes of the series however, executive producers David E. Kelley and Jack Bender understandably decided the Bill-Brady dynamic was the beating heart of the show and shouldn’t be thwarted for an entire season. Instead, they leapfrogged ahead to the third book in King’s trilogy, End of Watch, which reintroduces Brady by giving him the power to control other people’s minds from within the confines of his coma.
In fairness, it’s faithful to the source material, but it’s a big leap and the landing is a bit shaky because it feels so caddy-corner to the gritty crime drama of the first season. The crux of the terror conjured by Mr. Mercedes was the sickening feeling of vulnerability that comes with acknowledging that human monsters are real and present, and that your friendly local ice cream man might just be sleeping with his mom between murders. A telepathic psychopath just isn’t as terrifying.
But it is still creepy, and the creative team makes good sport translating Brady’s new state of mind, using his teched-out basement from Season 1 as a sort of fortress/prison from where he devises his devious schemes. Mostly, those schemes are murder. He misses killing people, and he wants to kill Bill Hodges most of all. It’s an interesting inversion of their Season 1 dynamic. Long gone are the days where Brady could freely drop in on Bill’s home, leaving violent little reminders of his power while he cajoled the ex-cop to kill himself. Now, it’s Brady who’s trapped, taking desperate (and literal) stabs at his would-be victim with little effect.
New characters include the sleepy Dr. Felix Babineau (Jack Huston), the neurosurgeon who is goaded and manipulated by his hyper-sexed up Lady Macbeth of a wife, Cora (Tessa Ferrer) into using experimental treatments on Brady. Stuck to his pride and his desire to start a family, Dr. Babineau makes Brady a test subject for an untested serum that is said to increase brain function. And that it does, just not how the doctor planned. Oops, you made a mind-control murderer. Dr. Babineau and his wife are mostly a means to inject the story with its science fiction flair, and in the first four episodes provided for review, neither is as compelling or complex as the characters we were treated to in the first season.
Fortunately, those characters — or the ones that survived, anyway — are still fascinating and fabulously performed by the knockout ensemble. Lupe remains one of the most under-appreciated performers on TV, endowing Holly with three-dimensional intrigue, a curious sense of insecurity, and self-reliance. And of course, Ida (Holland Taylor) remains a breath of fresh air in the midst of dire circumstances. The weak link is Jerome, not because of Jharrel Jerome‘s performance, but because of the corner he’s scripted into. Jermone returns from Harvard embittered, failing out, and ever-sucking down a vape pen, and while the writers may well do right by the character in the end, right now it feels like sidelining one of their star players.
Gleeson is, of course, excellent as Hodges, a man who seems to be perpetually traveling through grief and regret with a determined and earned bad attitude. Likewise, Treadaway is reliably terrific as Brady (there’s even a menace to his stillness during Brady’s unconscious scenes), and he gets to lean hard into the manic frenzy behind Brady’s dull eyes this time around. Together, the leading duo continue to do extraordinary work in building a tangible, terrible relationship while almost never sharing the screen.
Mr. Mercedes may fumble a bit in the transition from hardboiled detective drama to supernatural sc-ifi, but the caliber of the performances and the commitment to character drama ensure that there’s still plenty of reason to tune in and see where this unexpected turn takes us.
Mr. Mercedes returns to AT&T Audience Network on DirecTV on August 22nd. For a quick recap of Season 1, click here.