(WARNING: Some oblique spoilers here.)
Mr. Mercedes is based on the Bill Hodges novels of Stephen King. Only the first in the series, Mr. Mercedes, has been read by me. Season one follows the titular book closely, with a handful of alterations. I cannot say how closely Season Two follows the source material, except that season two draws heavily on the plot of the third book, End of Watch, and the currently-airing as of this writing Season Three (unseen by me) draws upon elements of the second volume, Finders Keepers.
Mr. Mercedes opens with a chilling scene– a collection of people are waiting in line at an Ohio job fair. This opportunity is a symbol of hope for numerous out-of-work people looking for gainful employment in the wake of the Great Recession, and they’ve camped out hours before the event opens in order to improve their odds of finding a position. This initiative and optimism is shattered when a figure wearing a creepy clown mask takes a stolen Mercedes and runs over numerous people.
Flashing forward, Bill Hodges, the detective in charge of the case, has come up empty and has been compelled to leave the force, having reached the age of mandatory retirement. Unbeknownst to him, the perpetrator, a seemingly mild-mannered computer technician named Brady Hartsfield, has discovered a taste for taunting people into suicide, and is determined to lead the already despondent Hodges down that path. Fortunately for Hodges and society at large, the ex-cop proves tougher and more resilient than anybody ever anticipated, even himself.
Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield (notably, they share the same initials) answer a question too many people face: what do you do when you feel nothing? As the first season opens, Bill Hodges is numbed by depression, filled with guilt and failure after coming up empty in his investigation of the job fair massacre, and stuck in the dull routine of a retirement he doesn’t want, nor does retirement suit him. As Hodges learns, if he’s to come to life again, he has to fill his life with purpose– useful work that suits his talents, and he also has to start rebuilding connections with other people. While Hodges has chosen the path of virtue and helping others, Hartsfield has decided to fill the emptiness of his soul with violence and nihilism, seeking immortality through committing atrocities, and making his mark on the world by hurting or traumatizing as many people as possible.
By the second season, a critical core difference between Hodges and Hartsfield is that while Hodges has filled his life with people who would die for him, Hartsfield is surrounded by people who want him dead.
The first and second seasons are demonstrably different in atmosphere and tone. In the first season, it was a cat and mouse game, heading towards a potentially yet palpably violent climax. The second season focuses on the aftermath of Brady’s attempts to create even more havoc, and how a seemingly checkmated villain attempts to regain his mastery over the situation. Additionally, while the first season is squarely in the realms of what is humanly possible, aside from some feasible technology, the second season, featuring experimental procedures and mind control, dips its toe into the waters of sci-fi and fantasy. I can buy the season two miracle medical treatments and the inexplicable taking over other people’s bodies through infiltrating cheap digital tablets. The one plot twist in the second season that strains my credulity is the fact that a minority undergraduate at Harvard would be teetering on the edge of flunking out, what with the grade inflation in the Ivy League these days.
The sole way that the different but otherwise equally enjoyable second season is a steep step down from its predecessor is the opening credits. Performed to the strains of “It’s Not Too Late,” the opening credits in the first season change from episode to episode, illustrating Brady’s growing madness, Hodges’ waxing and waning depression, and the shifting balance of power between the pair. It’s effective and unsettling. In contrast, the opening credits of the second season are static and dull, though they do reflect the current relationship between Brady and Hodges well.
The show wouldn’t work if not for the impressive performances by the stellar cast. First and foremost is the magnificent Brendan Gleeson as Bill Hodges, who perfectly blends crustiness and cantankerous temper with warmth and charm. Gleeson handles Hodges’ personal journey perfectly in the first season, as an emotionally dead man comes to life again. Gleeson’s performance in the second season is even more skillful and subtle, as he realizes that he has to keep battling Brady while somehow managing not to lose the happiness he’s worked so hard to regain.
Harry Treadaway is downright chilling as Brady Hartsfield, who’s been given an arguably stereotypical and clichéd backstory as a quasi-explanation for his mad destruction, and creates a brilliantly unnerving study in snide, sociopathic, self-superiority that reminds us that even the people we condemn as the most inhuman monsters are in fact deeply, unsettlingly human, even if they themselves don’t realize it.
Throughout the first two seasons, Breeda Wool is always competent and effective as Lou Linklatter, Brady’s co-worker and only friend. Wool’s performance is always solid, but it’s not until the second season finale that her work becomes a revelation. In a series of scenes where she finally confronts the person she thought was her pal, Wool displays a deeply moving portrait of a woman scarred by betrayal, dealing with a pain too sharp for words. It’s amazing work, and I hope that she gets other scenes worthy of her skills in season three.
Additionally, Justine Lupe and Jharrel Jerome are terrific as Hodges’ young associates, Holly Gibney, a brilliant young woman struggling with living on the autism spectrum and an unsympathetic mother, and Jerome Robinson, a Harvard-accepted teen with a skill for computers and a family recovering from the shadow of tragedy. Holland Taylor is really strong as Ida Silver, Hodges’ neighbor and confidante, and Mary-Louise Parker has an affecting arc as the woman who helps teach Hodge how to learn how to live again.
The closing scene of the second season subtly explains why the women in Hodges’ life are wrong about what’s best for him. In the final minutes of the second season’s finale, Hodges is quietly enjoying some creative time, painting a picture of his beloved pet tortoise. Meaning no disrespect, it’s not a skillful work of art, and that’s when it’s clear– Hodges was not put on this earth to paint pictures of tortoises. His real talents lie in investigation and helping people in challenging situations. While his ex-wife and neighbor tell him to live life, they don’t realize that for a man like Hodges, having fun may be a pleasant distraction, but it’s righting wrongs that gives his existence meaning.
Mr. Mercedes is a terrific series, anchored by Gleeson’s bravura performance.
Mr. Mercedes, Season 1
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Mr. Mercedes, Season 2
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment