Four episodes in to the ten-episode run of “Mr. Mercedes” and the table is still, in many ways, being set. It’s a slow burn, a hard-boiled detective yarn in every sense of the word. All the hallmarks are there – it’s an elaborate howcatchem with a world-weary, whiskey-soaked, foul-mouthed retired detective pulled back into the one case he just couldn’t let go. A fedora even makes an appearance, as it must. In short, “Mr. Mercedes” is everything it should be and that, friends and neighbors, is a very good thing, particularly if you happen to be a fan of the Stephen King’s 2014 Edgar Award-winning novel of the same name.
Like the novel, “Mr. Mercedes” centers on the cat-and-mouse game between retired detective Bill Hodges (a pitch-perfect Brendan Gleeson) and Brady Hartsfield, a homicidal tech genius who drives an ice cream truck on the side (Harry Treadaway). Also like the novel, the premiere opens on a particularly brutal scene that makes it viscerally clear where the series got its name. Fair warning, no punches are pulled and these opening moments – which start quietly – will likely be an uncomfortable watch for many as a large Mercedes sedan careens into, over, and through a crowd of unsuspecting people waiting in line at a job fair. It is, perhaps, more graphic than is necessary to make its point, but manages to stay just this side of exploitative. “Mr. Mercedes” quickly settles into its pace, however, and positions itself as that rarest of beasts – a faithful Stephen King adaptation that more than does justice to its source material.
“Mr. Mercedes” is primed for success for a few reasons, not the least of which are showrunner David E. Kelley (“Big Little Lies”) and director Jack Bender (“Game of Thrones,” “Lost”). With Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King illustrated his near-perfect control of pacing and tone – qualities that Kelley and Bender have translated well from page to screen. Kelley and Bender wisely give the characters and narrative room to breathe after the breathless opening moments and it’s a necessary respite that should pay dividends as the series progresses.
Of course, what would a hard-boiled detective yarn be without a good hard-boiled detective? Thankfully for “Mr. Mercedes,” always-dependable veteran Brendan Gleeson is more than up to the task. Mr. Mercedes, the first in King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, is one of my favorites of King’s recent works and Bill Hodges is one of my favorite Stephen King characters. While reading the novel, I pictured Gleeson in the lead role and said as much when news of the adaptation first broke. Thankfully the powers that be in Hollywood finally listened to me (note: The powers that be in Hollywood most certainly pay no attention to me, but a guy can dream, right?). When he reappears after the series opening, he’s a disheveled, booze-soaked mess languishing in the purposelessness hell of retirement. Soon, however, hints of the cleverness and doggedness that made him a great detective begin to peek through. And even in his unkempt state, Gleeson teases a sort of gruff, hardscrabble charm.
Gleeson is matched, nearly scene for scene, by Harry Treadaway (“Penny Dreadful”). Treadaway manages the balance of a character who can innocuously fade into the background in his public life, but nonetheless has some deeply disturbing fascinations bubbling just below the surface. Factor in a truly unsettling and far-too-intimate relationship with his alcoholic mother (a surprisingly sympathetic Kelly Lynch), and you have a dynamic and a character played out in various shades of creepy.
Even more so than in King’s book, Kelley and company clearly made the decision to accentuate the themes of dispossession and the decaying American dream that underline the novel. There’s a pervasive sense of working-class hopelessness throughout the series. From the opening job fair to Brady Hartsfield’s apparent underemployment at a flailing big-box tech store to the empty storefronts and abandoned lots that hover in the background of many scenes, there’s a sense of obsolescence and creeping destitution. Over the course of four episodes, the series never quite puts a fine point on these details – save for one well-delivered monologue from Lynch on expecting the same things her parent’s generation were afforded – but the sense of forced purposelessness and a lost way of life lingers over the series in ways that it perhaps would not have were it not for recent events. Nonetheless, there is an air of authenticity – or at least there may be for many – even if it is carried to a genre thriller conclusion.
The fledgling Audience Network very likely has a hard-boiled hit on its hands with “Mr. Mercedes.” King has never been one for subtlety or the pulling of the punches, and “Mr. Mercedes” is primed to step into some pretty dark places, although there’s a marked willingness to take its time and set the stage before things really heat up. Thankfully, watching Gleeson and Treadaway play their game of cat-and-mouse – and being increasingly unsure who is the cat and who is the mouse – is more than enough to carry us through.