Stephen King’s cat-and-mouse serial killer drama.
What’s the story?
Mr Mercedes is based on the Stephen King book of the same name, the first in his hard-boiled crime thriller trilogy starring the recurring character of retired detective Bill Hodges. The adaptation has been long in gestation and finally debuted last year on AT&T Originals in the States and RTE in Ireland. It’s now found its UK home tucked away on the STARZPlay Channel, a bolt-on subscription if you happen to own Amazon Prime.
Like most King stories, it has a humdinger of an opening act. It’s 3am and freezing cold as hundreds of optimistic unemployed people queue for a job’s fair to open. We get to know some of them across the first five minutes, as they exchange playful banter and help each other keep the cold out. Out of nowhere, a large Mercedes coupe draws up and parks at the rear of the queue, engine idling and lights full-beam on the crowd. Eventually, after what seems like an age, the driver puts on a clown mask and lurches the car forward, ploughing full-speed into the milieu – killing sixteen people outright and injuring scores more. It’s a well directed and shocking scene, eerily reminiscent of recent real-life terror attacks (which won’t be the last time in the series). Detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) attends the scene and ascertains the situation wasn’t an accident – it was murder.
We then see the dreaded “Two Years Later” sign and Hodges is now retired, haunted by his failure to close the case. He’s drinking himself slowly to death locked away in his own home, unable to pull himself out of his torpor despite the best efforts of his spiky neighbour Ida Silver (Holland Taylor) and his old partner Peter Dixon (Scott Lawrence). That is until he receives an email from the ‘Mercedes Killer’ with a video taunting him for his lethargy. Spooked out by the contents, he becomes increasingly beholden to panic attacks and anxiety about the case. When the killer continues to harrass Hodges with further videos, he sets out to catch the murderer once and for all.
Here’s a trailer to give you a feel for the show:
What’s good about it?
The show essentially becomes a two-handed cat and mouse thriller very early on, where we get to know the ‘Mercedes Killer’ from episode one to be Brady Hartsfield (played by Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway). What follows then is really a deep character piece, as Hodges tries to make sense of the case before him whilst being stalked by Brady, who is plotting further atrocities (that again bear a strong resemblance to some recent real-life cases). The real powerhouse performance here comes from Gleeson, who was born to play the role – hard-drinking, dour and a mess of a man both physically and mentally. His journey to redemption through bringing the killer to justice is as well played as I’ve seen in any crime show, and he brings a certain degree of gravitas to proceedings that sells over some of the more grasping elements of the storyline.
The supporting cast is equally strong – Holland Taylor is an absolute blast as Hodges’s pragmatically horny neighbour Ida, whilst Kelly Lynch delivers a truly creepy performance as Brady’s mother. It’s a much-needed requirement to ensure there’s enough dramatic resource at hand to cover the 10 episode running time – especially when the interplay between the two main protagonists starts to sag.
What’s bad about it?
I can count on one hand the number of good Stephen King screen adaptations, and I can’t think of another author who has suffered more at the hands of Hollywood. While Mr Mercedes comes to the screen with a decent pedigree (executive production by the man himself and Dennis Lehane), it doesn’t stop it falling somewhat short of it’s target. Some of the blame can be placed on the lack of originality in the core storyline, which in an ever-expanding world of inventive crime drama just doesn’t feel fresh or surprising.
Crucially, Treadaway is hamstrung from the start by the strictly by-the-numbers serial killer persona that Brady inhabits – meek and mild, bullied by his peers, sexually obsessed with his mother, with a basement lair needlessly filled with multiple computers – it all smacks of a time in crime drama that is long gone, where box-checking tropes usually replaced a good script. Brady is supposed to be scary – a boogeyman come to life – but compared to the real terror available in something like Mindhunter, he is a cartoon character at best. It’s this dated feel that lingers on in most of the show’s environments – the woefully inept misuse of technology just being one example – that feels almost like it’s a rerun from the early 1990s. Crime drama has exponentially evolved over the last twenty years and these tales of heroes and villains just aren’t as binary as they used to be.
That’s not to say that by stripping away its faults there’s a poor core conceit left – this is King after all – but this could have easily been a much shorter series to explore the story that’s on offer. There’s much to admire here – but the sum of its parts is not enough to carry it through to its conclusion. You won’t find a better performance this year in Gleeson’s take on Hodges – it’s just a shame it’s attached to an average show.
Why it’s worth a binge…
If you enjoy an old-fashioned serial killer hunt in the vein of Harris or Patterson there’s plenty to get your teeth into here. With a projected trilogy on the horizon to complete the remaining books in the series, there’s longevity available too.
Mr.Mercedes is available now on STARZplay, via Amazon Prime
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF BOSCH (SERIES 4) CLICK HERE
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF THE ALIENIST CLICK HERE
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF BABYLON BERLIN (SERIES 2) CLICK HERE
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF LA FORET CLICK HERE
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF SACRED GAMES CLICK HERE