Hulu’s new Stephen King uber mash-up sets a strong foundation for at atmospheric, haunting anthology series that shows a lot of potential.
“We have a saying here in Maine, If you don’t like the weather then just wait a minute…”
Connected universes are as popular now as procedural cop shows were in the ’90s. It’s the new million-dollar idea (or billion, in the case of the MCU), but out of the many questionable ideas for connected universes, basing one in the thicket of the works of Stephen King is one of the better ideas to come along. While Castle Rock doesn’t connect to other series or films that are currently out there, it does suppose that many of the characters from Stephen King’s best stories and novellas are all neighbors. While Castle Rock is far from perfect, it’s definitely worthy of the lofty goal that it tries to pull off. The beginning of Castle Rock lays a strong foundation for this universe and has the potential to turn into something quite special.
The second episode of Castle Rock begins with a narration by Terry O’Quinn’s Dale Lacy, which acts as such a perfect setup for the series that it deserves to be repeated in full:
“People just think that we’re one of those dead towns they heard about. A run of bad luck, worse judgment, broken promises. We know differently, don’t we? It’s not luck. It’s a plan. And not God’s either. Remember the dog? The strangler? Sure, you do. What about all the others that didn’t make the headlines…”
That tells you everything that you need to know, both about Castle Rock the community and Castle Rock the show. It’s a great introduction for a Stephen King-based anthology type vehicle and it’s a little shocking that this voice-over narration doesn’t play over every episode and begin the series due to how efficient it is and how well it effectively sets the tone in very little words. This town is full of horrors and chaos and so you better get ready for what it has in store for you. Every house in this community—every inch—is “stained with someone’s sin” and brewing with horrors. It’s a beyond ideal location for a series of this nature.
The show may take place in the fictional Castle Rock, but at many times it feels more like the series’ focal point—its Dark Tower—is Shawshank Prison. The first time that Shawshank gets shown in the series it’s given a proper amount of reverence and respect. Castle Rock treats it with the weight that it deserves due to its hefty reputation, both in our world and the show’s universe. All of Stephen King’s material gets treated with deep reverence and the love for his work by series creators, Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan), is very clear.
One of the simple, yet major events that sets off an avalanche of action is that a new warden takes over at Shawshank and when she learns that a certain wing of the prison has been left entirely absent for over 30 years she sets out to change that. The investigation in the locked off ward leads to a person who the prison has no record of and it’s unclear if he’s a former prisoner or what, but this new body in the premises makes for an interesting problem to kick start the series and puts Shawshank in a unique predicament. That’s honestly a solid premise for this series, considering that here are many ways that you could bring Shawshank back with this show.
This man that they find locked up in a cage (who they decide to name “Nick,” because of course) just creepily lanks around with his empty eyes and doesn’t do anything. Bill Skarsgard sells a performance that’s easy to mess up here. He might even be some manifestation of Pennywise on some level. “If he wasn’t a psychopath before, he sure as shit is now,” is said in response to “Nick.” People don’t know the level of threat that this guy poses, if any. He claims he’s Henry Deaver, but the show has established that can’t be true and it becomes clear that he’s not telling people his name, but requesting to meet Deaver for help. He appears to have some sort of supernatural, murderous intent and a layered history with Shawshank’s former wardens, but he’s only the tip of the iceberg in Castle Rock, but he does act as the catalyst to bring Henry into town, which is the major event that goes down.
Some fascinating questions crop up around “Nick” and why Lacy, the former warden, had him locked in the first place. This boils down to the deep, difficult question of whether “Nick” is the devil and some force of evil that was supposed to stay locked up or if Lacy was just delusional. This predicament becomes even more complex when Deaver is brought into the equation because he’s just a good person who thinks that he’s doing the right thing here. He has no clue that this runs any deeper than a normal defense case, which makes the possibility that he’s actually giving a monster their freedom all the more brutal.
Castle Rock’s first episode is primarily focused on Shawshank prison, both in terms of its administration and staff as well as the prisoners that are locked up there. The series does have a larger scope beyond this (hint the title location in the show’s name), but the opening episodes take their time to introduce the audience to the various areas of this world and gives them all their due. The premiere helps establish that basically everyone in the community has some relative that works at Shawshank. It’s essential to the town’s way of life.
Curiously, it’s the show’s second episode that feels like much more of a pilot than the actual pilot. It’s almost like the first episode acts as a prologue to the novel and then things really kick in. It definitely plays to the strength that three episodes are dropping at once on Hulu and it can allow viewers to acclimate to this town.
Andre Holland’s defense attorney, Henry Deaver, returns to Castle Rock and Shawshank because he gets an anonymous phone call that appears to be a ghost and doesn’t exist. It’s another simple enough, yet complicated premise that there’s a lot of room to expand and very quickly it becomes clear that there’s more to Shawshank than it appears and that the new warden, among others, cannot be trusted. The series quickly makes Deaver into an interesting and likable protagonist that you want to see survive through this dangerous world. Castle Rock makes sure to show that he cares about his clients and wants to avoid as much death as possible. He sees the good in people.
Outside of Henry Deaver is Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), a struggling real estate agent who also has a very put upon her sister who’s played by Alison Tolman. Molly has some sort of past with Deaver during their childhood in Castle Rock and she might also hold a rather massive secret about his past. Molly’s excited that Henry’s back in town. Molly rants about social anxiety, nerves in her brain, and that she’s a beacon for psychic activity that she takes med to tune out other people’s thoughts. It all deliciously tows the line as to whether it’s Shining-related or not, and the joy is in how it keeps the answer ambiguous.
Lynskey puts forward a very fragile, deliberate performance that creates a lot of anxiety. It’s tense just to watch her, but it all works well. The third episode, “Local Colo,” is a real showcase of what her and her character bring to the table. It’s a quiet, devastating performance.
Then there are supporting characters like Scott Glen’s Alan Pangborn (from Needful Things and The Dark Half!) who was former sheriff of the town and seems to share tension with Deaver. Henry’s mom is played by Sissy Spacek and she seems to be suffering from dementia or is well on in her years and could use Henry’s help more than he realizes. Frances Conroy and Jane Levy also help round out the supporting cast with mysterious, yet deep characters. In this show, some of the cast come fully-formed and others, like Tolman’s or Levy’s characters, come more in piecemeal and their full purposes aren’t yet clear.
Castle Rock does manage to be genuinely frightening, which is a huge asset here. If anything, it’s horror feels most reminiscent of Exorcist III’s style, of all things, which is fantastic as a base. Not only are the stories compelling here, but it’s satisfying to see this work as a new compelling piece of horror, too. Ultimately it feels like a show that is more interested in its mysteries mystery than the horror. People that want constant frights are going to be disappointed. Castle Rock is a moody, atmospheric experience that the series wants viewers to get lost in. Scares pop up to surprise and attack, but this is far from relentless horror. Castle Rock is interested in doing more than just frighten its audience.
However, most importantly Castle Rock feels like a small town from a Stephen King novel, whether it’s dealing with the prison, the church, or anything in between. The material might not always connect and it takes it some time to really get rolling, but it always feels authentic to Stephen King’s universe. The one scene that’s set during “The Children’s Trial” with Molly Strand and the Death House even feels deeply like the weirdness within a hypothetical King short story where adults just don’t exist.
It should be entertaining to see where all of the dots in Castle Rock connect. Will it culminate in some ultimate showdown with the devil or does it have a different end game in store? For now, though it’s a hell of a lot of fun just watching what happens along the way, especially when adaptations of Stephen King have never been more popular and ambitious.
And hey, at the least, this is a whole lot better than Kingdom Hospital…
This review is based on the first four episodes of “Castle Rock’s” ten-episode season
The first three episodes of “Castle Rock” premiere on Hulu on July 25th