The first two episodes welcome viewers into Stephen King’s home… enter at your own risk.
Fans of Stephen King’s novels and stories know two things. One, he’s a phenomenal writer (more often than not) capable of weaving engaging tales with real world environments. And two, his tales often have a habit of bleeding over into each other. Characters pop up in multiple stories, events are referenced across different works, and places are visited more than once. The greatest and most well-known instance of cross-pollination is the fictional town of Castle Rock.
Some of King’s novels are set in the small Maine town — The Dead Zone, Cujo, Needful Things — while others merely mention its existence — Pet Sematary, Doctor Sleep, Revival — but no matter the context, its appearance across dozens of stories have made it synonymous with King himself. More than just a geographical location, though, the town is home to people in a constant war with darkness. It seems only natural that as King’s on-screen renaissance continues with adaptations of Gerald’s Game, IT, and more on the way that his most infamous town would come back into focus.
And it does so in a big, beautiful, haunting way with the new Hulu series Castle Rock.
While it’s not based directly on a specific King work, the show captures King’s world as an amalgamation of character, atmosphere, and references and tells its own stories in the process. Creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason build something special here that’s more than mere homage, and like the best of King’s bigger works it’s an ensemble through and through.
The winter of 1991 is a cold one, and a young Sheriff Alan Pangborn is searching the icy Maine woods for a missing boy named Henry Deaver. He finds him standing mysteriously on a frozen lake. His eleven-day disappearance was never explained, but in his absence his own father died while searching, and the town blamed the boy for the good reverend’s death. Deaver moved away as soon as he was able, but now in 2018 a mysterious phone call has led him to return.
Shawshank Prison has seen better days, but the nightmare’s only getting worse after the current warden (Terry O’Quinn, Silver Bullet) kills himself in gruesome fashion. A new warden arrives with plans to “boost enrollment”, but her attempt to reopen an old wing leads to the discovery of a young man in a cage who was apparently put there by her predecessor. The “Kid” (Bill Skarsgård, IT) says only one thing when questioned: “Henry Deaver.”
The now-grown Henry (André Holland, American Horror Story) returns to find his mother (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) suffering a touch of dementia and shacking up with the now grizzled Pangborn (Scott Glenn, The Keep). He isn’t met with the warmest of receptions, and one woman in particular actively avoids him. Realtor Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey, The Frighteners) has a recreational drug addiction and a box in her garage containing remnants from Deaver’s disappearance as a boy.
The first episode (“Severance”) eases viewers into a world that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh. Characters new and old are introduced with just enough depth and mystery, and it’s only natural to start getting vibes reminding viewers of shows like Lost and Westworld. The connection, of course, is executive producer J.J. Abrams, and his penchant for “mystery box” tales is on full display here as the past dips its claw-tipped fingers into the present.
Episode two (“Habeas Corpus”) continues with more of the same while adding one new character wrinkle into the mix. Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy, Evil Dead) is volunteering at the church — although the look on Levy’s face and tone of her voice suggests she’s not doing it out of mere good will — and she clearly takes note of Henry’s arrival just as Molly did. The latter has something far odder going on, though, at least for now, as it’s revealed that she grew up across the street from Henry and had a clearly defined obsession with the boy. Her sister actually refers to her as “Miss Pre-Teen Voyeur 1991” while also making fun of her supposed psychic abilities.
The biggest revelation here is in something Pangborn says to the new warden regarding the Kid. He recalls Warden Lacy (O’Quinn) telling him that God had spoken to him and instructed him to capture the devil, secure him in a cage, and thereby protect the town. Is the Kid the devil? He’s definitely odd, and the death of his cell mate suggests he has some dark powers, but he also doesn’t seem all that aggressive. Of course, that would be just like the devil wouldn’t it? Fans of Needful Things know that King’s take on the devil is typically more genteel and deceptive than it is outright monstrous, so this can go either way.
The first two episodes do a fantastic job slowly reeling viewers in and hooking them with character beats and mystery in equal measure, and to that end the cast is in top form across the board. Most of them here are veterans whose talents are long established, but the younger performers are equally as compelling with characters teasing both humanity and a perhaps unwilling desire for trouble. Castle Rock is no creep-fest, at least not yet, and instead is working to lay the groundwork for an unsettling tour of King’s appealingly twisted world.
References! Quotes! Questions!
- Shawshank State Prison is, of course, from the Different Seasons novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” which was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
- Sheriff Alan Pangborn is from the novels The Dark Half and Needful Things, and was previously played in those adaptations by Michael Rooker (1993) and Ed Harris (1993), respectively.
- Mice in prison aren’t exactly exclusive to King, but the one glimpsed running along the floor here calls to mind The Green Mile (adapted in 1999). That mouse had a particularly long life thanks in part to magical powers used for good, so this rodent’s quick demise suggests no such good fortune is present here.
- “Remember the dog? The strangler?” Episode two’s opening monologue references Cujo, The Dead Zone, and “The Body” (adapted as Stand By Me, 1986) when Warden Lacy mentions “the boy’s body out by the train tracks.”
- “Every inch is stained with someone’s sin.”
- Hmm, Jackie Torrance? Jack Torrance went nuts in The Shining, and while his son Danny’s story continues in Doctor Sleep I’m not sure who Jackie is meant to be. Is she an actual relative? I have to assume so as the show seems above mere throwaway name usage — there are already so many connections to King’s work, so why make up one as a coincidence? Hmm.
- “All god’s children.”
- The Nazi inmate who the Kid is paired with is reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies which is where the name Castle Rock originated.