'Mr. Mercedes' Might Be the Best Genre TV Show You Didn’t See in 2017
Like Netflix’s recent hit Mindhunter, Mr. Mercedes is based on real events, notably the woman who plowed into a crowd of people at a 2011 McDonald’s hiring event in Cleveland, OH. It’s also adapted from the first installment of Stephen King’s fictional crime thriller series known as the “Bill Hodges Trilogy,” which means the TV show has an even bigger sandbox in which to play.
The basic plot is this: Retired detective Bill Hodges is still troubled by the unsolved case of the “Mercedes Killer,” an unidentified suspect who plowed into residents of Bridgton, OH as they lined up for a job fair. The killer is a young man named Brady Hartsfield, who like Hodges, remains obsessed with the case and hopes to drive Hodges to suicide. Brady begins taunting Hodges through email subterfuge; an angry Hodges decides to solve the case outside of police jurisdiction.
What’s most remarkable about the show is the way it fleshes out the novel’s characters and subplots. Fans of novels adapted to the screen often lament the loss of details, but watching the series before reading the book proves the reverse. The show’s creative team (producer David E. Kelley and writer Jack Bender) has managed to achieve the unthinkable: make the TV version of Mr. Mercedes feel far more real, emotionally engaging, and suspenseful than the source novel.
A big part of the show’s success is its cast. Brendan Gleeson’s history of playing grumpy characters with hearts of gold makes him utterly believable in the role of Bill Hodges, while Harry Treadaway’s successful turn as Victor Frankenstein on Penny Dreadful makes his portrayal of Brady Hartsfield convincingly creepy. It’s not just the leads who add gravitas to the series, however. Characters who are practically ciphers in the book---Brady’s Supreme Electronix co-worker Freddi and their overbearing boss Robi; Hodges’ neighbor Ida ---become integral to the TV series.
For example, instead of being a possibly senile woman who believes in extraterrestrials, Ida (Holland Taylor) transforms into one of Bill’s only friends, someone who challenges his surly attitude with equal amounts of her own sass. Freddi becomes Lou (Breeda Wool), who is the closest thing to a friend that Brady has and a fully-fledged character in her own right, a lesbian who is continually bullied by customers and gaslighted by Robi. It’s the lengths Brady goes to in order to avenge Lou that render his character that much more complex. Instead of showing Brady’s homophobic and racist mindset as laid out in the novel, the series has Brady empathize with Lou. As part of this, Brady cyberstalks a homophobic white supremacist who has been harassing her; later on he accidentally-on-purpose kills him.
It’s the dynamic between Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield that drives the series, however, and music supervisor Tricia Halloran’s soundtrack does an exceptional job of both defining and comparing the two characters from the very first episode. The Kinks’ ironic “A Well-Respected Man” is played as non-diegetic music when Hodges is getting ready to meet up with his former partner Pete Dixon (Scott Lawrence) for lunch. The show later introduces us to Brady driving around air drumming to The Ramones’ “Pet Sematery,” a sly wink in Stephen King’s direction.
At different points in episode 1, Hodges sings along to The Impressions’ “Fool For You” and “I'm a Changed Man (Finally Got Myself Together)” in his house. These songs, along with his prominently displayed stereo speakers and meticulously organized and voluminous vinyl collection, reveal him to be an old soul, suggesting that there is much repressed emotion beneath his gruff exterior. On the other hand, Brady is soundtracked by two songs that establish him as an outsider among outsiders. Both The Rubber City Rebels (“I Don’t Wanna Be a Punk No More”) and Hammer Damage (“Laugh”) were 1970s Akron, Ohio punk bands; their sound is raw, jarring, and undeniably anti-mainstream.
Later episodes include both old-school punks (Reagan Youth, Slapshot) and newer bands like Unwound, but the most inspired marriage of music with Brady’s character occurs in the last two episodes. Anti-Nowhere League’s “I Hate People” is the perfect soundtrack for Brady’s preparations for going out in a self-immolating blaze of glory. Sonic Youth’s “Kill Your Idols” has never sounded more chilling than it does playing while Brady takes the final steps to ensure he will remain infamous, even in death.
A killer soundtrack is not the only aspect that reveals the similarities between Hodges and Hartsfield. The series compares Brady’s alcoholic mother to Hodges’ own history with alcoholism, both in his penchant for binge drinking and his troubled relationship with his daughter, an addict who blames her father for not preventing her from being arrested and jailed for driving under the influence. There is no indication in King’s prose that Allie Hodges has followed her father into the bottom of the bottle. This new narrative thread presents the idea that “there but for the grace of God go I,” subtly suggesting that the forces that nurtured Brady Hartsfield‘s homicidal, sociopathic impulses are not only not uncommon, but often triggered by family trauma.
Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield share some of the blame for why things go so terribly wrong in Mr. Mercedes, but the series adds even more complexity to this idea. Brady’s mother dies unexpectedly and violently after eating poisoned hamburger meat intended for Hodges’ neighbor’s dog. In the novel, Brady seems almost relieved, while in the series he is clearly devastated. In the novel Hodges blames his former partner Pete for possibly driving Olivia Trelawney to suicide (it was her Mercedes that Brady stole), but in the series, it is Hodges himself who turns the media against her.
Hodges may be prickly and he may make bad decisions, but he’s not the bad guy in Mr. Mercedes. That role belongs to Brady Hartsfield. There’s something so undeniably wrong about him. He literally makes one’s skin crawl. It’s not just his disturbing relationship with his mother or the fact that he is a sociopathic mass murderer, it’s the way that he is characterized by others as either timid or sweet while the audience can see he is anything but. There’s something evil lurking behind his soulless eyes and it’s far more terrifying than his fits of rage. He may be as single-minded as Bill Hodges in his pursuit of something meaningful, but it soon becomes clear that he will never find redemption. That’s a big part of what makes Mr. Mercedes so genuinely frightening.
So why doesn’t the show appear on any “Best of 2017” lists? With the onslaught of cable channels and streaming services, the timelines of traditional television seasons---September to May---have become essentially meaningless. Mr. Mercedes aired through August and September of 2017, thus removing it from that time frame. To complicate matters further, it appeared on A&E’s Audience channel, available only to subscribers of DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse. It would be a shame, then, if the rise of niche programming prevented viewers from seeing one of the most compelling genre TV shows of the last few years.