This past week streaming platform Hulu debuted its original series, Castle Rock. Of course, Stephen King fans should recognize that title as its a fictional town that has appeared in several of the author’s work. Castle Rock has promised a television series that will work various parts of King’s past work into something of its own multiverse. That premise alone is enough to suck in fans of Stephen King’s work. The fact that the show is a collaboration between King and J.J. Abrams is a bonus.
Three episodes of Castle Rock were made available on July 25. For this first review of the new series, I’ll take a look at all three episodes and, as a warning, there will be some spoilers. Future posts will examine individual episodes on their own and in a little more detail.
Episode 1- Severance
Severance shoulders the burden of being a pilot episode quite well. Like any debut to a television series, Severance needs to ‘set the table’ so to speak, introducing most of the characters and moving parts of the show, while also enticing viewers to keep watching. Personally, I was curious to see how the series would build its Stephen King ‘shared universe’. Would Castle Rock be a strong standalone addition to King’s work? Or would it struggle to balance its lip-service to past King creative properties with its own narrative?
Things open with two bizarre events, past and present. First, we’re introduced to a younger Sheriff Alan Pangborn in a bleak winter landscape as he discovers the missing Henry Deaver standing in the middle of a frozen lake. Next we flash forward to the present day with Terry O’Quinn’s Dale Lacy, the Shawshank prison warden, kissing his wife goodbye before driving off a bluff with a noose around his neck and the other end tied to a tree.
Following Lacy’s inexplicable suicide, Severance focuses most of its attention on the now adult Henry Deaver, played by Andre Holland. Deaver now works as a criminal defence attorney in Texas, primarily representing death row inmates. Upon his return to Castle Rock, we learn that his father died searching for him. His mother Ruth Deaver, played by Sissy Spacek, suffers from dementia. She’s also been shacking up with the now retired Alan Pangborn, played by the weathered Scott Glenn. There’s some obvious tension between Henry and Pangborn; it’s clear that Henry avoids coming back to Castle Rock.
The remainder of the inaugural episode revolves around the mysterious discovery of Bill Skarsgard’s inmate. Found locked in a cage below a sealed off area of Shawshank, ‘The Kid’ barely speaks and has no identity. Shawshank has no record of his existence. His only words when asked his name – Henry Matthew Deaver. In the final moments of Severance, a flashback shows Warden Dale Lacy in the basement with ‘The Kid’, instructing him to ask for Henry Matthew Deaver.
We get a few other introductions in Severance. Henry Deaver’s former childhood neighbour, Molly Strands, shows up to buy Percocet off a high school drug dealer and look generally freaked out when she sees Henry back in Castle Rock. Ann Cusack turns up as Shawshank’s new warden, Porter, And Noel Fisher is introduced as seemingly good-natured guard, Dennis Zalewski.
Severance is a strong introduction to the world of Castle Rock soothing any doubts that the show would simply be a highlight reel of Stephen King bits. Instead J.J. Abrams looks to have infused Castle Rock with his penchant for mystery and King’s gift for suspenseful narratives and idiosyncratic characters. Andre Holland’s Henry Deaver looks to be a complex character, and Skarsgard’s ‘The Kid’ provides the show with an intriguing mystery. It also looks like Abrams has learned from Lost, and understands that you can’t leave too much dangling for too long. The episode’s final reveal certainly ensures you’ll want to tune in for the next episode.
Episode 2 – Habeas Corpus
The term habeas corpus refers to the legal right to be brought before a judge and not detained against your will. Consistent with this principle, Habeas Corpus focuses on ‘The Kid’ and Deaver’s efforts to find this mystery client while the new Warden Porter, played by Ann Cusack, tries to conceal his existence.
Skarsgard delivers a suitably creepy performance even with almost no dialogue. We’re given only a little more insight into his character. When ‘The Kid’ is placed into general population and put in a cell with a large, neo-Nazi inmate, he quietly warns his cellmate that he ‘shouldn’t touch him’. By the next morning, the cellmate is found dead with autopsy showing he rapidly developed cancer. Later Pangborn shares a story with new Warden Porter about pulling over the former Warden Lacy years ago. It seems the former warden had found a new purpose – he talks about catching the source of Castle Rock’s evils, the devil himself, and imprisoning him.
Another major thread developed in Habeas Corpus revolves around the town of Castle Rock itself. The actual setting for the show looks like a small, weathered town – a mix of out-of-date homes and boarded up businesses. It’s a suitable backdrop as Habeas Corpus goes to considerable lengths to stress that something is wrong with Castle Rock. In one scene, Deaver pokes through the deceased Warden Lacy’s personal office, finding a folder of articles detailing the town’s history. Stephen King fans will immediately see references to Cujo and Needful Things.
Deaver’s tense history in Castle Rock is expanded a little. After meeting local Jackie Torrance, played by the amazing Jane Levy, we learn that Deaver has become a part of local urban legends. The townspeople believe that Deaver lured his adoptive father out to Castle Lake and pushed him down a bluff. When Jackie asks if he killed his father, Deaver only says that his father died at home. Jackie doesn’t have much else to do in the episode, but it would be strange to give her the last name, ‘Torrance’, and not have some further connection.
The entire episode is narrated by Terry O’Quinn’s deceased Dale Lacy in a letter that is addressed to Alan Pangborn. Lacy’s letters talks about Castle Rock has ‘defenders’. We’re left to assume that Pangborn not only knows that ‘The Kid’ was imprisoned in the bowels of Shawshank, but that he may be one of the town’s protectors. Lacy’s letter conclude with a similar warning that Pangborn passed on to Warden Porter – do not let ‘him’ out.
As part of a smaller developing subplot, we get a little more acquainted with Molly Strand. Her sister talks about her having social anxiety, but Molly insists that she suffers from a ‘psychic affliction.’ It also seems that she had quite the childhood crush on her neighbour, Henry Deaver. Molly has a plaid red hoodie packed away; we’re left to assume it once belonged to Henry.
Habeas Corpus ends on a bit of a cliffhanger with the kind-hearted Guard Zalewski watching the prison security cameras. Lights flicker, cameras cut in and out, and ‘The Kid’ seems to magically walk out of his cell. The last thing we see are dead bodies and blood across the security footage. Why did Lacy imprison ‘The Kid’? Is ‘The Kid’ a man or a supernatural entity that has now been unwittingly released? How much does Alan Pangborn know? Did Henry Deaver kill his own father? Where was he for the 11 days he went missing as a child?
Episode 3 – Local Color
Local Color is a Molly Strand-centric episode, giving the underrated Melanie Lynskey a chance to shine. It’s the most engrossing episode so far in the series, with also some of the most disturbing imagery. The episode also opens with a shocking revelation which again suggest that Abrams seriously intends to push the narrative forward.
As it turns out, Henry Deaver wasn’t lying when he told Jackie Torrance that his adoptive father died at home. In a 1991 flashback, young Molly walks over to the Deaver house in the cold of night, in barefeet and pyjamas. We witness Molly putting on Henry’s plaid hoodie (the same one she has packed away as an adult) before sneaking into the injured Deaver’s bedroom and unplugging his breathing tube.
In present day, Molly carries some emotional baggage over her role in Deaver Senior’s death. Her nightmares deliver some of the scariest moments in Castle Rock with an early one reminiscent of the church nightmare in Silver Bullet. We also learn that Molly’s ‘psychic affliction’ is a deep emphatic connection – she’s an empath. She explains to Henry that some people are ‘louder’ than others and that Henry was that ‘Bee Gees song stuck in her head’ when they were children. Molly’s predilection for Percocet also is intended to dampen the effects of her abilities. Her trip to a trailer park to pick up more drugs sees Molly dragged into a bizarre children’s mock trial complete with kids wear creepy paper mache-masks. For King fans, the scene may draw some comparisons to Children of the Corn.
The 1991 flashbacks don’t tell us why Molly would kill Henry’s father, but a few hints are dropped. One 1991 flashback suggests that Henry’s adoptive father may not have been the stand-up guy everyone believed. Henry seems angry with his father, and ‘Dad’ seems a little authoritative. Did Molly sense that Henry’s father was doing something to her crush? Was pulling the plug on Reverend Deaver an act intended to protect Henry?
Thanks to Molly’s strange outburst on Local Colour, a local cable network show, Deaver finally gets his face-to face meeting in Shawshank with ‘The Kid.’ While Deaver tries to discuss legal strategy, ‘The Kid’ ends their conversation with a cryptic question – ‘Do you hear it now?’
The episode ends with its best executed scare to date. As Molly returns home, she hears noises upstairs and briefly sees a man with a bandaged face lurking in the shadows. It’s among some of the best horror imagery in the show. Overall, Local Color continues to excel in its mix of horror and mystery. With the focus on Molly Strand, Castle Rock is nicely fleshing out its strong ensemble cast. Most importantly, the story feels like it has some momentum.