Season 1 of Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes was a surprisingly grounded thriller, a cat-and-mouse game being played by retired detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) and a genius madman Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway). It was unexpected, given that the series is based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King, a guy who knows a thing or two about bringing a little (or a lot) of the supernatural into many of his stories. But the idea of building a tense thriller around a grumpy Irish detective and his young, disturbed adversary is far more fitting for the people writing the show; namely, David E. Kelley and Dennis Lehane. Kelley has delivered Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Picket Fences, to name a few, whereas Lehane’s novels, Shutter Island, Mystic River, Live By Night, Gone Baby Gone, and The Drop have all been turned into major motion pictures (he’s also written for Boardwalk Empire and The Wire). Needless to say, if a series is going to take a gritty approach to one of King’s novels, this team, along with director Jack Bender, is who you want working on the project.
The result was a solid thriller in its first season, one that benefitted as much from the slow-burn tension around Brady’s torment of Bill as it did the fine performances by Gleeson and Treadaway. The episodes’ scripts, too, left their mark, as amidst Brady’s unnerving assaults, the series always made time for witty dialogue and clever exchanges, often between Bill and his neighbor/love interest Ida Silver (Holland Taylor). The season ended with Brady’s attempt to bomb a festival thwarted after his head was caved in, while Bill suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
With its lead characters’ lives on the line, Mr. Mercedes was left with a decision to make regarding its second season. Either Kelley, Lehane, and the rest of the writers’ room would have to find a new adversary for Bill to square off against, or they’d have to create a scenario in which Brady might still pose a threat, to Bill and to others. The result, then, finds the series making the smart choice of doubling down on Gleeson v. Treadaway, and in doing so steers Mr. Mercedes into supernatural territory, paving the way for Brady to become a threat by using other people’s bodies as vessels for his madness.
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It’s a wild swerve that would be difficult to swallow were it not for the clout of Stephen King. But credit is also due Kelley, Lehane, and other writers for their ability to segue into new genre territory without becoming completely unmoored from reality (such as it is in this case). It’s not an easy transition, however. The season 2 premiere, ‘Missed You’ works diligently to set the table as it were for Brady’s abilities, introducing a pair of new characters, Dr. Felix Babineau (Jack Huston) and his wife Cora (Tessa Ferrer). Felix is overseeing research on Brady’s condition with the help of a wonder drug his wife is pushing him to use as a way to further both their careers.
Though ostensibly necessary, the emphasis placed on Felix and Cora in the early going stalls out before it gets going. Neither character is alluring enough on their own at this point to hold the viewers’ attention like, Gleeson or Treadaway, yet whole swaths of the premiere is handed over to them for the purpose of preemptively explaining the changes that are about to befall Brady. There are some hints at an ethical rift developing between the two, which might yield interesting results. First, however, the series needs to get Gleeson in on either Felix or Cora’s scenes, as a way of generating interest in the characters beyond their service to the season’s plot.
Thankfully, Mr. Mercedes doesn’t have the same problem with other supporting characters, mainly because they have direct contact with Gleeson throughout the hour. Justine Lupe’s Holly Gibney has become a surrogate daughter of sorts to Bill, and his partner in a private detective business. Lupe delivers a quiet and subtle performance, one that makes note of Holly’s proclivities without defining her by them. Though she’s not a new addition, Bills ex-wife Donna (Nancy Travis) looks to have a significant role this season, after showing up at the funeral Pete Dixon (Scott Lawrence). The choice to eliminate one of Bill’s confidants is a tough one, though it does afford Gleeson the chance to deliver a terrific eulogy written by Lehane.
That moment is followed up with another quiet moment between Taylor and Gleeson as they contemplate the inscrutable suddenness of death and why it takes people like Peter while leaving Bill, who pours liquor into ice cream before eating it standing up in the kitchen. It’s moments like this that make Mr. Mercedes more than a rote thriller — supernatural or otherwise. That the series would make time for plaintive conversation over tea one minute and a surreal discussion between adversaries the next is worth watching for. Though it’s not always successful in what it’s attempting to do (a fact that’s a little more apparent in season 2), Mr. Mercedes is nevertheless entertaining and driven by compelling performances that it’s worth seeking out. And if you like your cop thrillers to have a hint of the supernatural, well, this new season will likely be right up your alley.
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Mr. Mercedes continues next Wednesday with ‘Let’s Go Roaming’ @10pm on Audience Network.