The name Stephen King can invoke a multitude of responses, both positive and negative; even neutral. He’s an author that many will recognize, but may struggle to put the finger on his most recent works like that of “The Outsider,” a chilling novel worth reading on a mid-Sunday afternoon with a cup of coffee. He, like his books, has generated a polarizing perspective, with some acclaiming him to be one of the best writers of the 20th century, and others deeming him a hack. Whichever side of the conversation you land on, “Castle Rock” is a show that can change your outlook on the iconic author.
The show centers around Henry Deever (Andre Holland), who begins the show in the midst of defending a man facing criminal punishment (the death penalty). Questioning how you can sentence a man to death with even the slightest amount of doubt? It sets the tone for him as a character, someone who doesn’t precisely cheer on for the demise of humanity, rather analyzing the world as the complex hoshbog of moral values that it tends to be. From there we cut to Shawshank, we meet Officer Dennis Zalewski who is a jailer. The former warden recently committed suicide by driving off a cliff into Castle Lake with a rope anchored to the stump of a tree knotted around his throat.
The new warden asked for him and a colleague to clear out a cell block for usage. While investigating, they discover a shriveled but young man trapped within a cage. He’s silent, seemingly traumatized for his forced stay inside a cell, treated like that of an animal. When they ask for his name he replies “Henry Deaver,” an interesting response considering we’ve already met someone with that name as the story is set afoot as to solving the question of who this man is? How does the real Henry play into this? Why was he locked away by the old warden? How will the town itself play a factor? Most of those questions will be answered, but the majority of our curiosity is generated in the latter half of the season when new inquiries are manifested from the second half of a season that is sensationally brilliant for its bulk.
For those who are die-hard King fanatics, “Castle Rock” is a show that is meticulously assembled for you. Each episode opens with cut out pages from many iconic King novels as the opening credits play. The cast consists of Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard who have each depicted infamous novellas for King. (Spacek as “Carrie” and Skarsgard as “IT”) Among them is a healthy alumni from past King productions like Terry O’Quinn (Silver Bullet), Melanie Lynskey (Rose Red), Ann Cusack (Mr. Mercedes), Frances Conroy (The Mist), and that’s not all. The sheriff of the town is Alan Pangborn, depicted genuinely by Scott Glenn, who’s previously been played by Ed Harris (Needful Things) and Michael Rooker (The Dark Half). Key plot points are residing around Shawshank Prison and The Mellow Tiger. Along with key references to events that took place in this universe, like that of Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy), the niece of the infamous crazy-wielding ax murderer known as Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It’s all connected to a multitude of King memorabilia, like that of a collector’s museum where every turn reveals a snippet of the Author’s past and how they seemingly connect to one another.
Fair warning though, the narrative unfolds at the pace of molasses, slowly and sloppily sprinkling details; leading you to ask questions more in line with “why am I watching this show” than “what’s gonna happen next?” It plays like that of a cover band, beginning their set with more of the familiar hits than their stuff, referencing names and locations as if to shout “remember this?” That’s not to say there is no actual narrative occurring until the latter half of the season, rather that the show doesn’t drill into the nuts and bolts of that story until the fifth episode.
But, for those who weren’t either familiar with the “King of Horror” or share scorn for the popular genre writer, “Castle Rock” has some great things for you too. Yes, the easter eggs and references may go over your head or irk you with their production line assembly, but “Castle Rock” tells a story that will incite and invoke curiosity. It’s a good mystery built into an assembled tribute act, one that occasionally runs the risk of relying on its inside baseball knowledge more than a well-written narrative. It’s an anthology series though, meaning each season will connect in broadness but differ in the details. It’s a new story occurring in the same universe, which is why the first few episodes feel more fixated on fabricating the world that the characters inhabit more than the character and stories themselves. When the story does get going though, it’s an emotionally evocative journey that is both a great mystery and a traditional horror story in one.
The series most notable elements derive from the screenwriting. It’s the kind of story that develops and molds and mutates over the course of the season in a meaningful fashion in which the surprises are earth-shattering. The reveals are dumbfounding, and the majority of the emotion produced is genuine, but each show has a standout quality, and this one is two-fold in both it's direction and performances. The camera work is cryptically radiant. Working like that of a crisp page-turner, each frame and cut tugging at your collar to lean in closer to the screen. It’s a masterwork of editing as well, though not on par with HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” few shows can compare to that level of editorial mastery though.
What may be seen as cheap tricks, can also be seen as timeless tools. Transitioning sets in one-shot maneuvers, how a character walks from one place to another without a cut, mimicking that of a stage play. Some savvy film geeks consider this as a low totem, but for me, it's always brilliant, primarily when it serves the purpose of the story, like that of episode seven “The Queen.” An episode that swings and wanders through timelines, investigating the legitimacy of dementia, providing an expressive tour into a woman’s regret. Every show has their best episode and this the episode that reflects the best of what the show offers, a sci-fi/fictional outtake on a relatable issue that is constructed with splendor.
It’s a tour de force of an episode where we focus on Henry’s mother Ruth, depicted by Sissy Spacek in an episodic performance worthy of an Emmy. Throughout the season she confronts the disease of dementia, forgetting the face of her own son at one point. The episode provides insight into those feelings of traumatization lingering through memories and how those memories teach her things she didn’t know, translating how the past affects the present. It’s framed, designed, and executed with a precision that ends with a reanalyzing of moments that crush the heart. Crumbling you into a mess of tears and sobs, realizing the hidden truth lying in front of you all the while. It's truly a masterwork of television.
The episodes that follow struggle to match that level of expertise, but the best moments occur in Episode nine in which the story is given a whole new framing, forcing us to re-contextualize everything we know. It’s a genius maneuver that is immediately refuted by the show itself in a finale that echoes the authenticity of Stephen King. Marc Bernardin, writer & geekdom enthusiast, worked on the show and described the process of writing for the show as “pulling and choosing the elements that we like, but making an original story that feels like a Stephen King book, but isn’t really.”
In that mindset, the ending feels like a King novella. As a self-admitted fan of both the man and the creator, King has consistently struggled with resolutions. He has his exceptions like that of “IT” and “The Green Mile” and his short stories, but for the bulk of his career, it has been his single-biggest weakness. He can manifest a heavy amount of tension through genius character development that builds to a large and compelling story that inevitably dwindles to a finish, the same happens with “Castle Rock.”
It’s a show that delivers dramatically; boasting clever and understated performances from Holland, Skarsgard, Spacek, Lynskey, Glenn, and much more. It lives in the right vein to carry that essence of a Stephen King riff, understanding and updating his concepts of everyday American evil in one of his best adaptation in recent memory. As a horror story though, as a mystery, it works like a bad twilight zone episode; making promises and then all but going out of its way to breaking those promises. A grand bait and switch that makes us feel like a catfish victim, hooking us into a concept that isn’t nuanced but transforms the story into something transfixing, but it's all for nothing.
It’s a big ruse, a big joke, an “I can’t believe you fell for it” kind of moment that finalizes a show that captured and gained steam over its tenure, inevitably concluding in shambles of disappointment. Each episode feels as if got better and better on each successor, delivering new themes, new references, and new places for this intertwining story to explore.
It peaks in its near-season finale, an episode that wows and delivers a soaking amount of anticipation to set-up the finale, but when you reach the final credits, it's a moment where you feel empty. Asking for answers to be filled in, pleading for your time to be rewarding, but it's an ending that nearly crumbles the show if it weren’t for the previous entries being so staggeringly excellent. Endings are important, and hopefully, our next visit to this treacherous Maine town doesn’t let us down near as much.