CASTLE ROCK Truly Shines

The only way Castle Rock could be more Stephen King-y would be if the lead character were a novelist. In fact, there are no novelists yet introduced on the show, a huge oversight if you ask me. Maine, as I understand from King’s work, is thick with novelists. You can’t run into an ancient curse or a terrifying entity without finding a novelist somehow tied up in the whole thing.

I don’t love writing about TV shows while they’re still airing – they could shit the bed at any moment! – but it feels important for me to tell you that Castle Rock is, three episodes in, quite good. And it’s quite good in a way that feels unique to the King ouvre; this is a show that gets what the experience of reading King is, and unlike almost ALL the adaptations ever attempted of the Master, it captures that experience. Again, Castle Rock could absolutely fall apart this week, but the first three episodes lay such a solid foundation that I could believe the show might be able to recover from a serious episode four stumble.

Initially this show looked like a bad idea, like the latest in studio suits glomming on to the concept of the shared universe. King fans know that he’s had a shared universe for a long time now, even before The Dark Tower series turned into his own Crisis on Infinite Earths. King tied his novels together in small, fun ways – towns showed up again and again, the events of one book might be something someone reads about in the paper in another book – and eventually it all became centered on the town of Castle Rock. It was sort of his Yoknapatawpha County, and like in Faulkner you didn’t need to know the other stories, but they were always nice surprises when you saw them referenced.

But King leaned very heavily into Castle Rock, and it became pretty well known that Castle Rock was his main fictional town, and eventually King decided to blow it up. Needful Things was advertised as ‘the last Castle Rock story,’ and in it the town actually did blow up, sort of like Walnut Grove at the end of Little House on the Prairie (the TV show)… but that wasn’t the end of Castle Rock, it turns out.

(There’s a whole essay to write about how Needful Things was King’s first novel in sobriety (to my knowledge), and how he needed to destroy all the old things that he created while under the influence, but that is not this essay)

Caste Rock showed up in a couple of other stories, and it got referenced in other novels. Post-Needful Things Castle Rock shows up as a ghost town, a rundown place that is a shadow of its former self. But it seemed as if King was content leaving Castle Rock as a shambles, a place that now exists only in the margins.

Enter Bad Robot and Castle Rock. The initial announcement didn’t really excite me – a TV show set in the Stephen King universe, with the most famous town as its central point? That’s a setting, not a premise. And without a premise, or an understanding of what this might be, I couldn’t get interested. But the call of King is strong – every time I quit reading King novels I find myself going back and playing catch up with the ones I skipped – and so I found myself plopped down in front of Hulu and giving it a shot.

I am so glad I did. Castle Rock is playing out like the novel Stephen King never wrote, and its status as a part of his shared universe is handled so tastefully that it returns references to their rightful place – exciting winks to the indoctrinated, not neon signs flashing at something obvious. The show does some very big references – a headline refers to the events of Cujo, for instance, and Shawshank Prison is a main location – but many of the references slide by in the background. If you weren’t paying close attention you wouldn’t know that the old lady sentenced to death in the first episode had murdered a character from The Body, for instance (known to most as the basis for Stand By Me). Now we know what became of “Eyeball” Chambers, one of the bullies from that story (and the older brother of protagonist Chris Chambers) – he abused his elderly wife until she finally took him out. A fitting end for a Stephen King villain.

So what is the story of Castle Rock? It’s only just coming together, but here’s what it seems to be: as Shawshank Prison is privatized the warden kills himself. Nobody knows why, but it soon becomes clear: he has a young man locked in a cage deep in the bowels of the prison. Nobody knows who the young man is, what his name is, why he’s there, and he only says one thing: the name of Henry Deaver, a death row attorney originally from Castle Rock, who, when he was a child, mysteriously disappeared for 11 days without an explanation. Deaver comes home to Castle Rock to figure out what’s happening, where he discovers that his dementia-addled mother is now keeping house with Alan Pangborn, Castle Rock’s former sheriff (and star of Needful Things). Meanwhile, Deaver’s old next door neighbor, Molly Strand, is now a real estate agent who has developed an oxy habit to deal with her psychic powers (she seems to have what King fans would recognize as the Shining). She feels drawn to Deaver, and may hold some keys to the secret of his disappearance back in 1991.

These characters, and others, swirl together in the eddies of Castle Rock’s long history of strange and unusual events. In fact, it seems as if Castle Rock has been fairly free of the unusual since the events of Needful Things, and maybe since this young man was locked away in the depths of Shawshank. But now he is out, and it’s not clear what that could mean for the town… or the world.

Like I said, this is a King story at its core. Small town secrets and lies, protagonists with haunted pasts, addiction issues, and a slowly unfurling supernatural mystery that feels both cosmic and incredibly personal. If Henry were a novelist, and if one of the leads were a present day child as opposed to flashbacks to Henry and Molly as kids, this would the platonic ideal of the Stephen King story.

It’s good on paper, but it’s even better in action. Castle Rock is paced at a deliberate (again, novelistic) speed, and so the first two hours were spent largely getting to know the cast of characters and setting up pieces of the mystery without having to resort to big cliffhangers or crazy reveals. All of the reveals feel like layers being lifted, not like Lost-style ‘holy shit!’ moments that are unsupported by story (this isn’t a left field attack on Lost – JJ Abrams produces this show, and Terry O’Quinn plays the suicided warden). This is serialized mystery storytelling done well, and done with the correct mixture of character and plot.

Also making Castle Rock great is the casting. As I said, Terry O’Quinn plays the suicided warden, and he continues showing up through flashbacks (also he kills himself in one of the better ways I have ever seen. Huge marks for originality), and he’s got this perfect blend of sinister and sad that supports all your interpretations of his strange, unsettling choice to lock the young man away.

That young man is played by Bill Skarsgard, who also plays Pennywise in the It movies. This character is the polar opposite of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, as his prisoner is quiet, internal, impossible to read. He’s mysterious even to himself, it seems. The show gives us small hints of some supernatural element to him, and he kind of comes across like the yin to the yang of The Green Mile’s Jon Coffey.

The show is anchored by Andre Holland (adult Kevin in Moonlight), who plays Henry Deaver with a kind of weariness that you feel through the television, and yet he imbues the character with a steely reserve that makes you realize this guy can’t hit bottom now because he hit it many, many years before. Henry is the perfect protag for this show because he has roots in Castle Rock yet is an outsider. He was adopted by a white family, making him part of the town yet apart from it, and he has spent his adult life away from Castle Rock. Now he returns, with his past making him infamous to the townsfolk (they think he killed his adoptive father when he was little), allowing him to rediscover Castle Rock through new eyes and attitudes.

But the show’s biggest gun is Melanie Lynskey as Molly. This is a character whose depths have only begun to be plumbed, but she is dealing with a lifetime of guilt compounded by the fact that her Shining allows her to be haunted by literal ghosts, not just figurative ones. Castle Rock has been a shit hole since 1991, but Molly has a vision for it… if she could only stop seeing the visions of dead people who disrupt her sanity, or stop feeling the emotions of every damaged person who crosses her path. Lynskey presents a character who is deeply wounded and yet powering through it; it seems obvious that Henry and Molly will become romantically involved, and it makes perfect sense, as they are both broken people trying to be stronger at the places where they broke.

Befitting a Stephen King story there are a slew of side characters, some of whom are not yet important (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton shows up as a goofy pastor) and some of whom I suspect won’t make it long (Scott Glenn is Alan Pangborn, who knows some shit he ain’t telling us). Sissy Spacek – tying nicely to the first King adaptation, Carrie – appears as Henry’s adoptive mother. I’m not sure what her story is/will be, but I do hope the show is smart enough to give her plenty to do moving forward. Also on the side, but with the potential to be important is Jane Levy (the Evil Dead remake) as Jackie Torrance, a last name that can not be an accident.

Three episodes in these characters have begun to take their places as the story has begun to truly coalesce. Each episode is gripping and drenched in a sense of place, and the steady escalation of reveals and story keeps you glued to the proceedings. But most of all the tone of the thing is right on, the emphasis on character over action (but with the promise of action ever looming) and spookiness encroaching on a very ordinary world are all King-ian in the extreme.

What I like best is that I am wrapped up in the mystery (it is a Bad Robot show, after all), but I’m wrapped up in the characters dealing with the mystery. I don’t want to investigate on my own or follow some alternate reality game to get clues – I am invested in Henry figuring things out. I am invested in Molly revealing secrets to him. I am invested in Alan Pangborn coming clean. I want the answers, but I want them WITH the characters, not separate from them. I think that too many mystery box stories forward the mystery; Castle Rock wisely forwards the characters.

Could Castle Rock go bad? Hell yeah. In fact, if it ends terribly that would be the most balls out Stephen King thing it could do (the man cannot end a story). But for now it has the goods, and it has it in ways that I didn’t think were possible. It feels like a new Stephen King story, not like some jerks in Hollywood trying to cash in on the name. And what’s more, it’s got me itching to go back and reread King books I haven’t read in years, not to get clues but because the setting and the tone have put me into a serious King frame of mind. That, I think, may be the highest compliment you can pay a show like this.