Adapting Stephen King's End Of Watch: Mr. Mercedes Season 2 Gets Far More Inventive Than Season 1

Brendan Gleeson and Jack Huston in Mr. Mercedes
(Image credit: Audience)

When filmmakers making adaptations deviate from the source material, sometimes it is about personal choices and creatives trying to make improvements, but oftentimes the changes are made out of necessity. Different mediums have different capabilities, and there are some things that can be accomplished in books that can’t properly translate to film/television.

This was a reality that the creatives behind the Audience series Mr. Mercedes – based on the Bill Hodges trilogy of novels written by Stephen King – had to face when developing their second season.

Season 1 had come together as an exceptionally faithful translation of the 2014 book that gave the series its name, but big decisions had to be made when the show got a renewal in October 2017. While logic dictated that Season 2 would be based on the second novel in the aforementioned trilogy, Finders Keepers, the sequel notably moves focus away from the conflict between retired Detective Bill Hodges and serial killer Brady Hartsfield, a.k.a. Mr. Mercedes, and it was not believed that plot shift was going to work for the show. During a Television Critics Association panel in 2019 (via CheatSheet), director Jack Bender explained,

Because the focus of the show was this love/hate affair between Brady Hartsfield and Bill Hodges, and because of the condition we left our villain, almost comatose after his head was bashed in, we had to figure out a way to have him in the show in an active way. The writers, myself, all of us came up with a version that wasn’t going to be Finders Keepers.

The good news was that the challenge in the circumstance was alleviated by the work of Stephen King. While 2015’s Finders Keepers moves away from the Hodges/Hartsfield conflict, the follow-up/third book in the trilogy, 2016’s End Of Watch, brings that relationship back into the spotlight. Mr. Mercedes series creator David E. Kelley and his writing staff took the text and manipulated it to match up with where things ended in Season 1.

Because of this methodology, Mr. Mercedes Season 2 is an odd treatment of End of Watch. There are certainly plenty of parts from the book that make their way into the show, but there is also a great deal more invention than what’s featured in the first run of episodes. It’s a complicated subject for this week’s Adapting Stephen King.

Brendan Gleeson and Justine Lupe in Mr. Mercedes

(Image credit: Audience)

What End Of Watch Is About

As a novel, Mr. Mercedes marked a departure for Stephen King. After decades of building his career on horror, fantasy, and science-fiction novels, the author took a swing at penning straight detective fiction. The plot centers on a cat-and-mouse game played between a (retired) cop and a criminal, and the action is wholly grounded in the world we recognize from our everyday lives.

Finders Keepers, which I’ll discuss more in-depth when it comes time to analyze Mr. Mercedes Season 3, follows suit – but End of Watch completes the trilogy with a big genre twist. After steering clear of the supernatural in its predecessors, Stephen King completes Bill Hodges story with a tale of telekinesis and mind control.

Having been bashed over the head repeatedly with a sock filled with ball bearings, the evil Brady Hartsfield has taken up permanent residence in Room 217 of the Brain Injury Clinic of Ralph M. Kiner Memorial Hospital… but it’s really only his body that remains in a vegetative state. Thanks to an experimental treatment administered to him illegally by his primary physician, Dr. Felix Babineau, Brady’s mind is more powerful than ever. He can move things with his thoughts, and if a person is in a hypnotic state, he can actually take over their body.

Brady begins to orchestrate a new strategy for more mass murder with the help of these powers. Upset that his attempt to suicide bomb a boy band concert was foiled, he alters a demo game in an off-brand tablet called a Zappit with subliminal programming, and he plots to freely distribute them to people who attended the concert he attempted to attack (including Jerome’s sister, Barbara). When the hypnotic technology allows Brady access to their minds, he slithers in like a slug and convinces them to take their own lives.

Thankfully, Bill Hodges is a man who not only recognizes the remarkable evil of Brady Hartsfield, but has an open mind in regards to the extent of its reach. His private detective business co-owned with Holly Gibney is running smoothly, but his own time is running out after he receives a fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Before he is ready to say his goodbyes, however, he is driven at all costs to close the book on the Mercedes Killer case.

End of Watch completes the Bill Hodges trilogy, but it also retroactively set the pace for stories following it featuring Holly Gibney. Stephen King brought back the character in 2018 for The Outsider, and she is the central protagonist in the novella “If It Bleeds” (featured in the eponymous 2020 collection).

Brady Hartsfield and Lou Linklatter in Mr. Mercedes

(Image credit: Audience)

How Mr. Mercedes Season 2 Differs From End Of Watch

The TV series Mr. Mercedes is a fascinating case of an adaptation’s changes from the source material leading to exponentially growing impact. Season 1 deviated from the Stephen King book it’s based on with character and plot alterations, and those choices have significant impact on how things work in the follow-up arc.

In the character department, the standout is Breeda Wool's Lou Linklatter (who is named Freddi Linklater in the novels). Lou is a much more prominent presence in Mr. Mercedes Season 1 than Freddi is in Stephen King’s book, and that prominence led to her being non-fatally stabbed by Brady Hartsfield in the finale. In Season 2, she suffers from extreme PTSD as a result of the incident and struggles to recover… which makes it impossible for the show to mirror her part in End Of Watch, which sees her unknowingly become a part of Brady’s plot by reprogramming the Zappits.

As for the plot, Mr. Mercedes Season 1 features Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) targeting the opening of a new local arts center instead of a boy band concert, so obviously that has an impact – but the show also vastly reduces the scale of the killer’s master plan. Mind control via the Zappits is still a thing, but he only ultimately uses it to make a person commit suicide once. Instead of manipulating a massive number of people, Brady’s focus for violence is more on Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), Felix Babineau (Jack Huston), and the assistant district attorney, Antonio Montez, played by Maximiliano Hernández (who is a character invented for the show).

Additionally, Brady’s possession of Library Al (Mike Starr) is much more prolonged in the source material (where he creates his new identity named “Z Boy”), and, unlike the show, he also takes control of Babineau (creating the identity “Dr. Z”).

The scale reduction of Brady’s terror allows room for a great deal more invention than what’s featured in Mr. Mercedes Season 1. In addition to creating the plotlines with Lou’s recovery and the prosecutor who wants the Mercedes Killer to stand trial, Season 2 also kills off Bill’s former partner, Pete Dixon (Scott Lawrence), with a heart attack, and does far more with Cora Babineau (Tessa Ferrer) than the book does. In End of Watch, Cora – Felix’s wife – is introduced in the middle of the book and almost instantly killed. The show transforms her into a powerful pharmaceutical executive who pushes Felix to advance his experimentation on Brady with her company’s drug so that she can show results to her Chinese investors.

It should probably also go without saying that Mr. Mercedes skips over Bill Hodges’ pancreatic cancer diagnosis – which presumably didn’t mesh with the show’s hopes to get another season.

All of these changes snowball to the point where the end of Mr. Mercedes Season 2 bares almost no resemblance to the end of End Of Watch. In the series, Brady Hartsfield completely wakes up and is active in his own body, and he ends up being shot and killed by Lou during a competency hearing to judge whether or not brain surgery and the experimental drug turned him into a wholly different person.

In the book, Brady inhabits the body of Felix Babineau, kills his old body with an overdose of pain pills, and ends up having a snowy showdown at a hunter’s cabin with the heroes. After nearly getting the upper hand on Bill and Holly, Jerome Robinson shows up unexpectedly and saves the day by running the killer over with a Snowcat. Months later, Bill dies as a result of his cancer, and Holly and Jerome visit his grave.

Painting in Mr. Mercedes

(Image credit: Audience)

Is It Worthy Of The King?

Mr. Mercedes Season 2 is a totally different beast as an adaptation compared to Season 1. With some padding thrown in, the first 10 episodes of the show are brilliantly faithful to Stephen King’s original work… and the same simply cannot be said of the follow-up run. That being said, “worthiness” as defined by this column isn’t all about perfectly bringing every scene from the text into live-action. In its sophomore year, the series is still successful when it comes to working with the amazing ensemble of characters, and it does equally great work as End of Watch blending grounded mystery with the supernatural.

Breeda Wool gets the MVP credit for Mr. Mercedes Season 2, as her pain in the wake of being nearly killed is potent, palpable, and powerful, but also once again it’s the three pillars of the show that make it such great television: Brendan Gleeson’s Bill Hodges, Justine Lupe’s Holly Gibney, and Harry Treadaway’s Brady Hartsfield. They are a perfect triumvirate of ego, superego and id in their dynamic, and all of the best thrills and emotion of the show comes through them.

The arc is very different than what’s in the book, but what’s scripted works just as well. The presence of Cora pushing Felix to further his experiments with Brady’s brain add appreciated credence to the development of his psychic abilities, and the addition of Antonio Montez and the courtroom drama is fascinating right up until it’s abruptly and excitingly concluded by Lou shooting Brady through the eye with a 3D-printed gun.

There is messiness. For example, there is a whole subplot with Holland Taylor’s Ida Silver giving Zappits to her summer school students that ends up going nowhere, and the show never seems willing to fully commit to the relationship between Bill and Donna (Nancy Travis), his ex-wife. These in mind, one would say that Mr. Mercedes Season 2 isn’t as strong as Season 1 – but that’s more about it striving for a high bar than it being disappointing.

Brady Hartsfield in Mr. Mercedes

(Image credit: Audience)

How To Watch Mr. Mercedes Season 2

Those of you who are aiming to build the Ultimate Stephen King collection can easily find Mr. Mercedes available on home video, as all three seasons are available to purchase on DVD (opens in new tab), and there is also a region-free international complete series Blu-ray set (opens in new tab). If you’re looking for a more instant watch option, however, you can find episodes and seasons available to digitally rent and purchase via Amazon (opens in new tab), Vudu (opens in new tab), Google Play, and Apple (opens in new tab). You can also find everything available streaming if you have a Peacock subscription.

Coming up, I’ll next be beginning my dive into the massive year of Stephen King adaptations that was 2019, and doing so means starting off with Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake of the beloved novel Pet Sematary. Look for the feature in the CinemaBlend Movies section on Wednesday, and check out all of my previous columns by clicking through the banners below.

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Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.