I’ve been letting my feelings about the first season of Castle Rock marinate for a while. I finished watching the series around Christmastime. Since then, at odd hours of the day (and night), I’ve thought about the show. I’ve thought about what I would say about it when I finally got around to typing these words.
I liked it.
It’s more complicated than that, and I’ll get into specifics in just a moment. There were things I loved, and there are things that have left me confused, bothered and maybe just a little disappointed. Nothing that made me angry, however, even though the finale may have been flirting with that.
The bottom line, which I keep returning to in my mind, and now on the page, is that I thought it was a pretty good season and I look forward to watching Season 2 when it comes out. Know up front that this isn’t a hate piece, and I have no intentions of bashing Stephen King (who inspired the series) or the creative minds behind Castle Rock.
The series is a Hulu original created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, based on characters and settings in the stories of Stephen King. It’s not based on any particular story, although the series does an admirable job of capturing the pace and mood of King’s work. King is, in fact, an executive producer on the series, along with J.J. Abrams and the show’s creators. Castle Rock is, of course, a fictional Maine town that is featured in several of Stephen King’s novels and short stories.
Season 1 is only ten episodes long. My attention was captured from the very beginning, with the story questions—the central mysteries—presented by the first episode, “Severance.”
Back in the early ’90s, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, a character familiar to King’s loyal readers, finds missing child Henry Deaver out on Castle Rock’s frozen lake. Cut to: some future time, and Dale Lacy, the retiring warden of Shawshank Prison (yes, that Shawshank), played by the always great Terry O’Quinn, commits suicide by tying a rope around his neck and then driving his car off a cliff into the same lake where Henry was found. We find out later that this decapitated Lacy and his head was never recovered. Soon after Lacy’s death, we discover that the late warden had been keeping an unauthorized prisoner in an unused section of the old prison, a young man that the guards dub “Nick” because he was discovered in a cage (Nick Cage, get it?), but who later becomes known as The Kid. The young man says nothing but the name “Henry Deaver,” the name of the missing child found by Pangborn all those years ago.
Warden Lacy’s secret prisoner is played by the actor Bill Skarsgård, of the famous Swedish Skarsgård acting family that includes Stellan, Alexander, Gustaf, and Valter. His father Stellan is recognizable from many film appearances, notably Good Will Hunting and several MCU movies. Alexander was a vampire on True Blood. And, I only recently discovered Gustaf as Floki on the History Channel series Vikings. Bill (and Valter, now that I mention it) was new to me, even though I understand he appeared as Pennywise the Clown in the motion picture version of It (which I still haven’t seen). He has an emaciated and haunted look in this series that simultaneously makes him appear as someone to pity and, somehow, be afraid of. He generates a truly creepy vibe that I’m sure served him well as Pennywise.
The new corporate owners of Shawshank make the decision to keep The Kid’s presence a secret, to avoid the negative publicity his unlawful incarceration would be sure to generate. A prison guard decides to contact Henry Deaver himself. Deaver is now a death-row lawyer. The role of the adult Henry Deaver is played by André Holland, who has been in many acclaimed productions that I’ve never seen. He is a magnetic actor and holds his own against many other veteran actors, including Scott Glenn (who plays the older Alan Pangborn) and Sissy Spacek (who plays his adoptive mother). The call from the prison guard is his character’s Call To Action, motivating his reluctant return to his hometown of Castle Rock.
The creative minds behind this series understand that what makes Stephen King such a popular writer isn’t primarily the fantastical elements found in a lot of his fiction, but his ability to create characters that come alive on the page. Imitators of King often miss this important ingredient. The television series Stranger Things understands this, and so does Castle Rock. The characters in this series come across as real, fully dimensional people, for the most part, and I discovered that I could relate to nearly all of them, even if I didn’t necessarily like them all. Alan Pangborn is living with Henry’s mother, who didn’t know this prior to his return to Castle Rock. Henry’s mother is suffering from advance dementia, as well, so that she isn’t always tethered to present-day reality. A childhood neighbor, Molly Strand, is addicted to pills and has psychic abilities. She’s played by Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey, who also has a large body of acting work, even though I’m ashamed to admit I was only familiar with her role as Rose, Charlie Sheen’s crazed stalker neighbor on Two and a Half Men.
The mystery of the mysterious prisoner turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg. We also find out that Henry’s adoptive father suffered a tragic accident the same time he went missing as a child, a fall from the same cliff Warden Lacy drove off from, later dying from his injuries. Henry has long been suspected of causing his father’s injuries. Through flashbacks, we also find out that it was Warden Lacy who told The Kid to ask for Henry Deaver when he was finally discovered.
From this launching-off point, I was hooked into the story that would follow. None of the nine episodes that followed would change this, either. The story was always engaging, and the little mysteries kept spinning off into even bigger mysteries, all of which were interconnected. The way the story grows is organic, and seldom predictable. Every new character introduced becomes involved in some fashion.
I’m not going to spoil the entire season for you. But, I have to say that my one issue with this first season (the series has already been renewed for Season 2) is the finale episode, which ends much more ambiguously than I would have preferred. In fact, the finale seems almost anticlimactic after the slow, measured build-up of the season. And the ultimate resolution of the mysteries presented doesn’t seem resolved at all. I realize we have to leave some dangling plot threads to pick up with the second season, so I won’t continue to beat that dead horse. Plus, Stephen King himself has been known to deliver disappointing endings in some of his stories, so the show is being faithful to the source material in an entirely different way.
Others have pointed out that some of the King allusions and Easter Eggs throughout the season could be distracting as well, but I didn’t find them so. In fact, I believe someone who has never read King before could watch this series and still be entertained.
The confusion and ambiguity of the final episode dropped my grade for this one a bit. Here’s hoping the show can redeem itself next season.
Season 1 Report Card: B+