It may not have been as hyped as some of its peers, but Mr. Mercedes is one of the most memorable adaptations of Stephen King’s work this decade, on both the big and small screen. In part, that’s because it doesn’t reach back to his earlier novels, but instead draws upon a relatively recent bent in his writing – the turn towards hard-boiled detective fiction, in the form of his Bill Hodges trilogy. The first part of that trilogy is adapted here, by a writing and directing team that includes Dennis Lehane, David E. Kelley and Jack Bender – none of them auteurs, to be sure, but all of them uniquely gifted with the ability to tell a good, engaging and multilayered story, especially on television. In their hands, Mr. Mercedes updates King’s distinctive motifs, images and atmosphere more effortlessly than virtually any other release this century, by way of the eponymous Mr. Mercedes, a psychopathic mass murderer who drives a stolen Mercedes Benz into an queue for an Ohio jobs fair in 2009. The detective assigned to the case is Bill Hodges, played by Brendan Gleeson, but the action quickly flash forwards to a couple of years, where we now encounter Hodges in a state of semi-alcoholic depression, having retired, somewhat ignobly, after the failure to identify and apprehend Mr. Mercedes sent him into a downward spiral.
That all changes, however, when Mr. Mercedes starts to contact and taunt Hodges, prompting him into a one-man investigation that balloons out to expand a vast range of characters, including his neighbour, Ida Silver (Holland Taylor), his gardener, and future Harvard IT student, Jerome Robinson (Jharrel Jermone), the sister of the original owner of the Mercedes, Janey Patterson (Mary-Louise Parker) and, finally, Janey’s niece Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe). Also thrown in, for good measure, are a variety of past and present detective contacts of Hodge’s, but they’re all somewhat behind the audience, who find out from the opening episode that Mr. Mercedes is none other than Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) an employee at the local Supreme Electronics, whose unhealthy relationship with his mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch) plays a key role in his macabre motivations. For the most part, however, this echo of Bates Motel is less interesting than Brady’s workplace life, where his solidarity with queer colleague Lou Linklatter (Breed Wool) and his passive-aggressive beta-male floor manager Anthony Frobisher (Robert Stanton) moderates and mediates the more serious elements of the series with something approaching a strip mall workplace comedy. As in so many of King’s works, however, the line between comedy and drama is quite queasily defined, especially since Brady’s modus operandi for engaging with Hodges is so mocking, playful and provocative, especially in contrast to his deadpan manner in person.
The result is a series that nails the combination of horror and homeliness that is such a critical part of King’s universe, both in terms of his knack for defamiliarising even the most comforting tableaux, but also his more unique ability to discern something of those comforting tableaux in even the most horrific spectacles as well. While many recent King adaptations have doubled down on his horror, they’ve found it more difficult to capture this homeliness that makes it ramify so eerily, meaning that the success of Mr. Mercedes almost inevitably gives it a retro feel at times, both in terms of the broader history of horror (Hodges lives on Elm Street) and King’s own body of work, from the clown mask that Brady wears while helming the Mercedes, to the way in which the car itself is shot and framed, exuding the autonomy of a distant descendant of Christine. Time and again, the writers opt for domestic, character-driven scenes that seem utterly at odds with the broader and more amorphous reach of Mr. Mercedes, although, as so often occurs in King, that rich vein of character also means that the disposability of the characters is all the more traumatic too.
Yet Mr. Mercedes is no mere exercise in nostalgia only permitting King the luxury of his old vocabulary only for the purpose of considering what it might have to say about the present. The shift in genre from full-blown horror to hard-boiled crime narrative is critical here, since in many ways the series isn’t all that different from the recent adaptation of IT in the way in which it falls back upon an older iteration of King’s lifeworld. The difference in genre, however, means that these tropes are freed up and imbued in new flexibility, not least because this is also an exercise in latter-day, exhausted, disempowered noir, despite the fact that it is also King’s first extended piece of writing within this particular mode. Among other things, that makes for quite a compelling account of hard-boiled subjectivity, with Hodges initially starting off as a figure of protective paternalism, in a process that peaks with his somewhat implausible relationship with Janey Patterson, but then deteriorates until the very demographics he is supposed to be protecting – white women, black men – end up stepping into the spotlight and apprehending Mr. Mercedes after he suffers a heart attack at the eleventh hour. Conversely, Brady himself often teeters quite close to Hodges in his sense of protective and paternalistic mission, and for a while the two are pursuing much the same ends, albeit in radically different ways, only for it to become clear, in the final scenes, that Brady has taken that protective and paternalistic mission to its logical conclusion in a way that undoes Hodges’ identity and even his sense of his own body, producing the cardiac arrest that allows the female and black bodies around him to step up.
What Mr. Mercedes offers, in part, is thus a vision of the ongoing devolution of hard-boiled noir subjectivity, resulting in a teleplay in which Brady, rather than Hodges, increasingly comes to feel like the protagonist and the source of perceptual authority. That’s not to say that the series indulges in any trite relativism about criminal versus detective, but that Brady naturally becomes the centrepoint for the series’ concomitant anxiety about the precarity of public space in contemporary America. While Mr. Mercedes may be the first major American text to aestheticise the rise of “car terrorism” – a form of terrorism so amorphous and contingent we barely have a name for it – it’s noticeable that King displaces this terrorism from the present moment, from the European nations where it has tended to occur, and from the Middle Eastern radicals with whom it is typically associated. Instead, car terrorism is here backdated to 2009, identified with the crisis point of the GFC, and placed in the hands of the disenfranchised whiteness of the American heartland and the sanctity of the Midwest. Moreover, it is explicitly aligned with a conservative agenda, and presented as a systematic assault on public space, with the result that the threat of Brady’s car and the threat of omniscient gunfire rapidly come to feel like the same thing. By retrojecting a current terrorist topos into this older moment, then, the series converges it with another, supposedly different, form of terror, suggesting that the rise of car attacks abroad and of shooters within the United States are ultimately part of the same social and historical drive.
That’s beautifully encapsulated in the eerie mood that the series grafts onto strip malls, job fairs, suburban streets and other areas that are meant to be reassuringly “public,” but that are never quite aligned with a properly public sense of ownership and safety. Yet unlike an earlier kind of film, or a more horror-centric film, there are no conscious “disruptions” of these spaces at the hands of macabre imagery, or conspicuously Gothic tableaux. Instead, the presence of the camera is enough to capture the ways in which a public sphere has been gradually dissociated and leached away from these public spaces, which are never quite able to support the characters who move through them in the way that was originally intended. That culminates with the elegant finale in which the entirety of the town are in attendance at two public events – another jobs fair, and the inauguration of a new communal arts centre – and in which the entire ambit of the film is contracted to two public spaces that are equally vulnerable to Mr. Mercedes’ plans. Not surprisingly, it’s at this point that Hodges’ masculine omniscience really starts to dissolve into a series of ambient hand-held tracking shots that confront him with his inexorable limits even before his heart attack hits, as the Pixies’ ironic anthem “Here Comes Your Man” moves from the fringe of the soundtrack to become the closing credits of the series as a whole. While it’s intriguing to think of where the second season will go, there couldn’t be a more eloquent encapsulation of the paranoia of American public space in the late 2010s, and the late noir disenfranchisement of masculine surveillance that it entails, in one of the great late adaptations of King’s voluminous body of work.