I need to learn the most valuable lesson about writing TV criticism: don’t do it until the season is over. Maybe wait until the whole darn show is over. Again and again I’ve gotten really excited about a show and recommended it, only to see the show sink into a morass as soon as I’ve pledged allegiance. My timing is bad.
The latest show to fit into this pattern? Hulu’s Castle Rock, which had an extraordinary first act. I was really smitten with the show, and at the beginning it seemed to be setting up an exciting world and great characters, tying lightly into the Stephen King megaverse but mostly getting the King flavor absolutely right. So what the hell happened?
The back half of the season didn’t so much fly off the rails as come to a sputtering halt; if the show had gone nuts or become overwrought or turn into some action junk I think I could have handled it. Rather, the show simply petered out, and by the end of the penultimate episode I was left with a question I have never had about a TV show I was this engrossed in: “OK, so what’s the point of all this?”
The first half of the season (which is supposedly a standalone; the show is being pitched as a seasonal anthology whose focus shifts from year to year) establishes Castle Rock as a dilapidated wreck in the aftermath of Needful Things. It introduces a cast of characters, including Henry Deaver, who has left town to become a death row lawyer, and Molly Strand, oxycodone-addicted real estate agent with the Shining. These two were poised to investigate the mystery of The Kid, a mysterious man who was found locked in the basement of Shawshank Prison, held extralegally by the warden, who killed himself in the pilot. The Kid spoke little, and wherever he went bad things happened. If he touched a character you could count on them dying or going mad. But what did he want? In the pilot he says the name “Henry Deaver,” and so Henry comes to represent this nameless man. But The Kid never makes it clear what he’s up to, and once he’s sprung from prison the show’s second act began – a meandering hangout session in Castle Rock that teased a bunch of mysteries.
Those mysteries included The Kid’s true identity and the truth about what happened to Henry’s adoptive dad, a preacher who, we learned, was obsessed with hearing the voice of God in the woods. Small stories slipped in at the sides – Molly found a mock court of violent children at an old motel, murderers moved into the warden’s old house and tried to make it a death-themed B&B – but none of them actually connected to the main story. They weren’t so much ‘monster of the week’ episodes as they were ‘wasted scenes,’ as the stories guest starred the main characters but felt weirdly separate, even when Henry got very very involved in the murder B&B.
The meandering second act was tolerable because the focus shifted to those mysteries and to the characters. The side stories didn’t really do much, but they did add a little flavor when the show needed it, and provided Castle Rock with some of its best imagery (the children’s court, utterly divorced from anything happening in the show, was really great). Still, the running in place in the middle episodes seemed like it was building up momentum for the finale, so it was acceptable.
Then we got to the end, and it was just nothing. Less than nothing. Characters were introduced as secret-holding weirdos just to be unceremoniously killed off an episode later (Odin Branch, we hardly knew thee). Henry Deaver ran around doing… nothing, really. Getting stabbed, getting into a car accident, getting upset about his mom, but never really accomplishing anything. I’m not even sure what he was trying to accomplish in general. Then there’s The Kid. We found out his origin in the second to last episode, and when the story was finished I had no idea where the show could possibly go in the finale. Turns out neither did the showrunners.
The Kid’s origin is tied into what I think is some of Stephen King’s least interesting mythology, all of the stuff about the Dark Tower and the beams and the multiverse and thinnies, those spots where you can travel between worlds. The Kid, it turns out, is Henry Deaver from an alternate universe. Not the same guy as our Henry Deaver – our guy is black, The Kid is white – but rather the son the Deaver family lost in our universe, which prompted them to adopt a child. So The Kid comes from a world where the Deavers never lost their child.
Through the confusing nature of King’s parallel realities, The Kid comes from 2018 in that world, but he showed up in the 1990s in our world. He switched spots with young Henry Deaver, and while Henry was in his world, all sorts of bad things started happening. The preacher and the warden got together to lock up The Kid in our reality, believing he was the devil (why? Not sure. This is a running problem with the finale), and he sat in that cage for 27 years. Not aging, and apparently developing super psychic evil powers? It’s not clear.
The Kid knows that Henry Deaver can hear the thinnies in the woods – what the preacher thought was the voice of God – so he needs Henry to bring him back to the portal so he can go home. When Henry balks at this for reasons I don’t quite understand, The Kid gets violent – he causes the prisoners at the local police station to riot and kill all the town’s cops – and forces Henry into the woods where… Henry beats him up.
Why doesn’t Henry want to take The Kid to the thinny? No clue. Is The Kid telling the truth about his alternate reality, where Castle Rock is bustling and it seems as if Needful Things never happened? No clue. Is The Kid the devil? No clue. How did he get his powers? No clue. What was the point of Molly having the Shining and seeing Henry’s dead dad menacing her all the time? No clue. What was the point of Molly being the person who actually killed Henry’s dad, although Henry also tried to kill his dad? No clue. What was the narrative point of a whole episode featuring Henry’s mom being unstuck in time? No clue (actually it was to get Sissy Spacek an Emmy nomination). What was the point of Henry’s dad’s coffin being moved and then dripping goo? No clue.
The finale was such a letdown because it revealed the show never had any narrative engine. It had some good characters, a reasonable set of mysteries and a great setting, but there was nothing under the hood. The show had been coasting downhill and as soon as the terrain slowed upwards, it just stopped going. It was remarkable to see so much effort put into a TV show – the production design, the acting, the cinematography, everything was top notch – but so little put into the larger aspects of it.
Maybe the showrunners and the writers know what all of this was about, but they didn’t bother telling us. I could have accepted the wet fart of the finale – a tussle in the woods over a gun? Really? – but not all the unanswered mysteries.
Here’s the thing: Stephen King is bad at endings, but that’s just because he doesn’t know how to wrap things up. He is not bad at endings because he withholds. The least King thing about Castle Rock is that I don’t know what really happened in the show, I don’t know what roles the two main characters played, and I don’t know what the meaning of any of it is. King likes to play with Lovecraftian “beyond our understanding!” stuff, but he can’t help but explain it – the ending of Under the Dome reveals it was alien teenagers that put up the dome, for instance. He has the literal Hand of God show up in The Stand. We get the entire history of Pennywise in It. Subtlety is not the man’s strong suit.
No, the unanswered questions at the end of the show are classic Bad Robot. JJ Abrams is a producer on the show, and while I hate to ascribe too much to the producer, it’s hard to watch the end of this season and not feel like you’ve been terminally mystery boxed. If Castle Rock had been a King novel we would have known the truth about The Kid, we would have understood why Henry and The Kid were having impacts on the universes around them, we would have gotten an explanation for The Kid’s powers, and Molly would have had a function in the finale, one that would have involved the ghost of Henry’s dad.
Instead we got left with a lot of “no clue” moments. The show jumps ahead a year, and it seems clear to me that this is part of what the showrunners had when they first conceived the story. Henry is now keeping The Kid locked up in the basement of Shawshank; the ‘previously on Castle Rock‘ helpfully reminding us that in the first episode Henry gave a courtroom speech about reasonable doubt. He seems to have reasonable doubt that The Kid is who he says he is, but also that The Kid is not who he says he is, so rather than free him or kill him he is keeping him locked away. This is a great image for the ending, but the writing staff couldn’t get from the first episode to this final scene in a way that worked.
It’s such a bummer. Castle Rock was great for like five episodes. I was willing to give some of the sluggish middle stuff a pass, but when it just didn’t come together I found myself more than a little betrayed. Ten hours is not a small amount of time, and I feel like my ten hours were fundamentally wasted. They wouldn’t have been wasted if the ending had simply been bad – they were wasted because the ending revealed that the beginning had been bad, that there was no propulsion to this thing in the first place.