“A Series of Dreams”
Today is publication day for Stephen King’s new novel, The Institute, which I reviewed last week. Book release day is always a big one for fans. However, that’s not the only thing happening today. Season 3 of Mr. Mercedes launches on AT&T Audience Network, and it’s a good one! [Note: Everything I’m going to discuss in this review is covered in the trailer, more or less.]
As you may recall, Season 2 covered story elements from End of Watch, the third book in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. At the end of that season, Lou Linklater (Breda Wool—the character is named Freddi in the novels) smuggled a 3D-printed gun into Brady Hartsfield’s competency hearing and put an end to Bridgton, Ohio’s worst monster. (No, that didn’t happen in the books—it’s only the first of many changes that have taken place in the series.)
That sets up one major strand in the third season: the trial of Lou Linklater for first degree murder. Given that she planned and executed the shooting so well, there’s little doubt it was premeditated. However, Lou knows she won’t survive in prison, so she refuses any and all plea bargains, leaving her lawyer, Roland Finkelstein (Brett Gelman, aka Murray from Stranger Things) with the difficult task of coming up with a suitable defense strategy.
Two things complicate his job. First, the judge is a loose canon, “just crazy enough,” by his own admission. Played by Glynn Turman with great gusto, Judge “Big Bernie” Raines is one of the series’ terrific additions this season. His mantra is, “I’m not satisfied,” uttered every time the lawyers fail to come up with a plea deal that will save him from being the judge who either sets a killer free or convicts a folk hero. Lou has become a celebrity to the people of Bridgton. She killed the man who had been terrorizing the city, first with the Mercedes killing and then later with the attempted bombing of an arts festival. She could run for office and be elected. Finkelstein thinks he can appeal to this populist movement to convince the jury to exonerate Lou.
The other problem, though, is that Lou is regressing emotionally. Trapped in a tiny cell, she thinks Brady Hartsfield visits her and talks to her. The unanswered question after four episodes is whether this is indeed the case (the series has allowed for supernatural elements before), or whether she’s experiencing a mental breakdown. Somehow she is coming up with some terrific ideas for her defense and she seems to know things that only Brady might know.
The season’s second major thread involves the murder of John Rothstein, a J.D. Salinger-esque writer, whose Jimmy Gold trilogy influenced a generation. He has since become a recluse, living in a small cabin on the outskirts of town, writing more Jimmy Gold stories in ledgers and hoarding cash in his safe.
Played by Bruce Dern, he’s a crusty old bastard with a long history of misogyny and bad behavior. He’s feisty even in the face of death, believing that his murder will be the proper ending to his storied life. Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) met him once when he arrested him in a bar for disorderly conduct. Bill is a longtime fan of the author—he read him as a teenager and his move from Ireland to Ohio was in large part influenced by the fact that Rothstein lived there. It was the America he knew from the Jimmy Gold books.
When Rothstein is killed in a robbery gone bad, Bill is determined to find the shooter, even though he doesn’t have a client. Everyone else is looking for a “lottery ticket” case—the Brady Hartsfield prosecution was supposed to be D.A. Antonio Montez’s (Maximiliano Hernández) big ticket, but Lou put an end to that. Both Lou’s trial and finding Rothstein’s killer will make someone’s career.
The series compresses the events surrounding Rothstein’s murder and the theft of his manuscripts and money. In Finders Keepers, many years pass after the robbery before Pete Saubers finds the cache of valuables. TV time is less forgiving of long passages of time, so things move much more quickly.
The Rothstein story features Morris Bellamy (Gabriel Ebert) and the Saubers family, father Tom (Josh Daugherty), mother Marjorie (Claire Bronson) and teenager Pete (Rarmian Newton), plus their dog, Boogers. It also introduces two characters who aren’t in Finders Keepers, Morris’s girlfriend Danielle (Meg Steedle) and Alma Lane (Kate Mulgrew), a woman who has been a presence in Morris’s life since he was thirteen. She knew Rothstein, and especially the fact that he had continued to write long after he stopped publishing. When she finds out that Morris has lost possession of the ledgers, she leads the mission to recover them. Mulgrew is terrific as the sarcastic and profane Alma, a woman with strong urges and deep passions.
The new series explores the impact of populism in modern society. Can the will of the people overthrow the rule of law? It also explores literary and philosophical questions, thanks to the ongoing presence of John Rothstein. Ongoing? How’s that? Well, Mr. Mercedes is a series that relies heavily on dreams, as telegraphed by the use of Bob Dylan’s “Series of Dreams” as the new theme song during the opening credits (which also feature King’s cameo from Season 2). Morris and Bill are both obsessed with Rothstein and they either watch old interviews with the curmudgeonly writer or they dream up new ones. Bill hears Rothstein opine that society needs to reclaim Satan, who his generation killed off. Satan is a far better option than the alternative: people like Mr. Mercedes.
Bill Hodges is a man with a passion for rectitude. He’s not comfortable with the populist defense, but he also believes he’s largely responsible for Lou’s situation, so he’s determined to help her. Equally determined, though, to find his idol’s killer. No one on TV has ever sworn with such eloquence as Bill Hodges, but a surprising side of him emerges in a scene set in a pub at the end of episode three. The show also illustrates Bill through the use of music. At times, it’s what he chooses to listen to, but often it’s via the soundtrack of songs selected to accompany him as he goes about his work.
Other series regulars return this season. Ida Silver (Holland Taylor), Bill’s neighbor, who regularly gave recalcitrant students the Jimmy Gold novels when she was a teacher, has an unexpected connection to Rothstein. Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe), who keeps the Finder’s Keepers detective agency on the straight and narrow thanks to her obsessive attention to detail, might find a love interest this season. She is also forced to confront her own troubled past and could end up becoming a major component of Lou’s defense strategy. Jerome Robinson (Jharrel Jerome), still on hiatus from Harvard, never read the Jimmy Gold books, but when he does he identifies something in them that may have either been the source of Bill’s fascination with them or the cause of an element of Bill’s character.
The series has a couple of recurring themes. There is a proliferation of bad mothers: Brady, Lou, Morris and even Holly had less than healthy relationships with theirs. Also, characters are haunted by people from the past. Brady is living rent-free in Bill’s head—not to mention Lou’s—even though he’s long gone, and Rothstein continues to haunt various characters after his death.
There’s no question that the showrunner and producers have taken liberties with King’s novels, but I can’t think of anything objectionable. They have a much broader playing field, so they can expand the story to bring in new elements. On the other hand, there is always a tendency in visual adaptations to link things together more strongly, so characters who don’t know each other in the novel might have some overlap in the series.
Season 3 has a lot going for it, not the least of which is the addition of Dern, Mulgrew, Gelman and Turman to the cast, all delivering fine performances. There are enough violent murders to keep horror fans entertained, and Brendan Gleeson is a powerful presence as he inhabits the character with profane panache. Mr. Mercedes continues to be one of the strongest TV adaptations of King’s work. It’s a shame more people aren’t getting to watch it.