Like many Stephen King fans, I was excited to learn that the second season of Castle Rock would be focusing on Annie Wilkes pre-Misery. With a stacked cast including Lizzy Caplan, Elsie Fisher, and Tim Robbins, my expectations were high after I was disappointed in the show’s first season. While I saw the show receive some well-deserved praise, and I generally did enjoy the overall story, I was surprised to see so few people talking about the show’s queerness and its treatment of its lesbian characters.
Season two premiered in October of 2019, about two months after I broke up with my boyfriend and right when I was starting to question whether or not I was gay. Since this was during a time when I was really struggling with my sexuality I immediately related to the trepidation that Joy (Fisher) experienced when first encountering Chance (Abby Corrigan), a resident of Castle Rock. Chance is extremely queer-coded, styled like a pretty stereotypical lesbian and acting as Joy’s love interest. During my initial watch of the season, I remember feeling such a strong attachment to Joy and Chance’s young love. As someone who came into their sexuality in their 20’s, I always have such a bittersweet enjoyment of watching young queer love in media because I was unable to have that “typical” coming-of-age experience. Not only are there not many examples of young WLW relationships, but it is even rarer to see it in horror, so I quickly latched onto these characters in hopes that they would get the story they deserved.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
Joy is an extremely sheltered person who has only really had contact with her mom, Annie (Caplan), throughout her life. She craves affection and social interaction with someone other than her mother and she decides to defy Annie by introducing herself to Chance. The teens’ immediate connection is shown as Joy sits down to draw something for Chance after being overwhelmed by her mother, who insinuates that befriending Chance and her friends will make Joy “filthy” (being clean/dirty is a consistent motif throughout the season). After Joy gives Chance the drawing, Chance’s gift back is a phone for Joy to use. Chance seems to be doing this as a simple way to talk with Joy more, but this act gives Joy the sense of connection that she’s been craving.
It is in the third episode of the season that the queer subtext becomes a little more overt as the B-plot of the episode focuses on the teenage characters searching for a dead body, a la Stand By Me (an even more on the nose reference when it is revealed later in the season that Chance is related to Gordie La Chance). The flirting between the two becomes more blatant, with the young actors playing off each other extremely well creating very sweet chemistry. Near the end of the episode after returning back from their exploring, Chance approaches Joy as if to kiss her. Instead of the writers following through with the clear queer subtext Chance instead whispers to Joy to keep her phone on and then walks away. With this still being early on in the season, I remained hopeful that their relationship would continue to grow as Chance becomes a rock for Joy as the secrets of her family begin to unravel.
Though the pair’s burgeoning relationship is very much a background aspect as the main plots begin to ramp up, the scenes we do see of them show a clear connection. The turning point for both their relationship, as well as how I view the relationship, comes in the sixth episode. After learning the truth about her real mom, Joy wishes she could be free like Chance, who is emancipated, to which Chance responds by saying they can leave together to North Carolina where her sister has a cabin. Chance grabs Joy’s hand and from then on my only hope of this show was for the girls to go to North Carolina and be okay together.
Episodes eight and ten are titled “Dirty” and “Clean” respectively, and it is with these last three episodes that I become endlessly frustrated with this season of television. The treatment of Joy and Chance in these last few episodes has really stuck with me since the finale premiered. Before I rewatched the show while working on this piece I mostly remembered the queerness being subtextual in a way that it could maybe be ignored if you aren’t attuned to queer culture. However, the metaphor of being gay/being possessed is much more blatant than I recalled.
I see Joy’s arc in episodes eight and ten as a metaphor for conversion therapy and the treatment from parents that many LGBTQ+ people experience. In “Dirty,” Joy becomes taken over like the other residents of the town, becoming just a blank member of society that doesn’t stand out. While under this magical influence she is set to marry a man before the spell is broken and Joy is able to leave. In “Clean,” Annie takes Joy back and tries to act like nothing has changed, ignoring the parts of Joy that she finds dirty. The tension between the two rises until Annie eventually drowns her daughter in the lake.
The murder of Joy and the lead-up to this moment is when the subtext becomes no longer subtle and instead becomes very on the nose in a painful way. Earlier in this episode, Annie finds Joy watching Blue is the Warmest Color, probably the most generic and well-known lesbian film for a mainstream audience. There no longer can be a debate about Joy’s sexuality and Annie’s feelings about it. After looking through Joy’s sketchbook Annie has decided that what possessed her in Castle Rock is still within her and that she needs to rid Joy of that “dirtiness” by drugging her ice cream. This leads to the final fight between the two, and the line that makes this a painful and blatant allegory for homophobic and unaccepting parents; “You think I wouldn’t find out you were one of them?”
By the end of the season, Joy and Chance’s relationship feels like a blatant example of queerbaiting as the relationship is never depicted more than the two briefly holding hands. With that said, the question of intent comes in. Was it just a sloppy try at “representation” that fell into the same tired tropes? Or a mishandled attempt at depicting the struggles queer youth experience when living in unaccpeting and abusive households? Either way I found myself disappointed and hurt by the end result. The show gave us a young lesbian relationship to root for, one with hope of living a better life together, and then proceeded to treat them like trash in the end. Chance was given no closure as a character after escaping halfway through the finale,
And Joy falls into the Bury the Gays trope, which feels even more upsetting in this instance as she was killed because she was gay. I latched onto these characters because it was the first time I felt seen on screen, the first time I connected to how scary it was to stand up for yourself against the people who want to oppress you, and the first time I watched a character that I identified with be killed because of the exact reason I related to her. At the end of the day, it is just another example of queerness in television/film that gets my hopes up for North Carolina, only to be given just another dead body.