If you’re a King fan, then you know that Stephen King has been connecting his novels to each other for decades, from subtle references to even appearing as a character himself. When Castle Rock was first announced by Hulu, many fans, including myself, wondered just how it was going to finally bring to fruition the universe that King had been building for so long. Now that it has finally released on Hulu, we have our answer, and the early results are thrilling…
…Created by Sam Shaw (Manhattan) & Dustin Thomason (Lie to Me), Castle Rock is based on the collective works of Stephen King, a series that intertwines various King characters and themes that all takes place in his fictional town of Castle Rock. In this first episode, we are introduced to Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a man who returns to his hometown after a mysterious phone call alerts him that there is a John Doe (Bill Skarsgard) who has been found in a cage at Shawshank prison, shortly after the death of the warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn).
Castle Rock features a ton of notable actors/actresses, all of whom play intriguing characters that seem to be hiding something. There’s Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), the man who found Henry lost in the woods when he was a boy (an event that Henry does not remember much about). Sissy Spacek (Carrie, anyone?), shows up as Henry’s dementia plagued adoption mother, Ruth. We also have Ann Cusack (yes, those Cusacks) as the new Warden trying desperately to deal with finding a John Doe (Skarsgard) in her prison on her first day. And you think you’ve had rough first days. Lastly there’s Melanie Lynskey as Molly Strand, a peculiar woman who seems to have psychic ability and who I swear is playing her character Rachel Wheaton from Rose Red (another King story well worth the watch). They may have different names but damnit, by the name of whatever whiskey has King drunk right now, I know it’s her!
Not only is each character well-acted and fully rounded, as you would expect in a King story, but it’s fascinating to me that so many of the key players have appeared in other King films/TV adaptations. Perhaps most interestingly is the casting of Skarsgard. Not only is his character a bit on the so creepy it makes me want to smack him side of the spectrum, but we as the audience know jack and shit about him. Throw in the fact that Skarsgard just played Pennywise in the IT remake as recently as last year, and my mind is blown. Is he going to be playing Pennywise the clown here as well? Maybe another established King villain? Or is he someone/something new entirely? There is certainly something unusual and perhaps even supernatural about his presence, so it’s fair to wonder just who he might be and what his intentions are. And oh shit, what if he’s actually the Man in Black? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then Castle Rock may seem pretty average to you at first glance, but if you are a King fan, then you likely just started nodding and saying oh shit, what if he is!?
Castle Rock is filled to the brim with intrigue, both for King fans and for casual audiences alike. There’s a lot going on, and at times this first episode can be difficult to follow, but as is usual with King’s novels, there is plenty to sink our custom-made Salem’s Lot teeth into. Creators Shaw and Thomason clearly have a vast knowledge of the King universe and his style of storytelling, because Castle Rock is not much different. We have a man with a mysterious past, Henry, coming back to the small town he calls home to deal with something that he is afraid of, or to redeem himself for something he has done wrong. Whatever Henry’s true reasoning is, we have seen this time and time again with King’s work, such as Salem’s Lot, IT, and Bag of Bones. It’s a classic King trope that is used quite effectively here.
The first episode of Castle Rock works brilliantly by coupling these strange secrets with a persistent sense of eerie dread. While there is nothing in this first episode that I would expect to “scare” viewers, nearly each and every scene is tinged by a darkness. Sometimes that darkness comes from the actions of characters, such as the ridiculously violent “guillotine car” death of the old Warden (extreme, much?), or Skarsgard watching with an emotionless gaze as a rat breaks its neck in a rat trap. And then there’s another kind of darkness. An evil that slithers through the town and hides in the shadows. We as the audience can practically feel it all throughout the episode, but Castle Rock is patient in its delivery, giving the viewer just enough to keep them intrigued and wanting more without revealing even a smidge of what the hell is lurking behind all of this. But believe when I say that the ending to the first episode will have you grabbing at your remote as quick as you can to hit play on episode two. What a world we live in now, having full seasons available to us all at once!
Hardcore King fans will be delighted at the Easter eggs littered all throughout the show. I mean come on, the first episode revolves almost entirely around Shawshank prison, who doesn’t love that? It does make me wonder how the show will continue to progress. Since this episode takes place largely around Shawshank, will others feature different King stories as the main centerpiece? Is there going to be an episode that takes us into the sewers and deals with the Losers Club? Are we going to visit the high-school that Carrie burned down? Are the fucking Langoliers going to show up and ruin the whole experience by reminding us of that crap? There are certainly more questions than answers, but that’s good, great even, because that’s what a pilot episode is supposed to do.
I do however worry that Castle Rock may be excluding non-King fans from being “in on it”. While I find the first episode wonderfully executed and standing on its own as a unique story taking place in the King universe, it’s possible that the show will begin to feel a bit gimmicky, especially for those who don’t understand or care much about the references. After all, it’s one hell of a tall order to combine so many different King stories and characters into one functioning story contained within the fourth walls of Castle Rock, so the concern is there that Castle Rock could eventually just become too big for its own good.
Honestly, I’m not too worried about the gimmick becoming just that. Shaw and Thomason seem to be telling a story that is wholly their own, and they’re doing it as big King fans themselves. Just as the synopsis promises, the show has captured the theme and style of King’s work, right down to the language often found in King’s characters, like “honkytonk”, complete with a little bit of casual racism (Henry’s adopted mother, upon not recognizing him, tells him not to worry because she’s not like the others in the town, she adopted a black son…yeah, okay “mom”). Along with the mysterious darkness and evil, there is another element that Shaw and Thomason have thrown into the mix, and that is a sense of wonder. Of good. Of dog spirit animals that make a hell of a lot more sense than a giant, metaphysical turtle. Like all great King stories, Castle Rock appears to be building itself up into an epic battle between good and evil, the past and the present fighting for control of the future. It’s a battle that I can’t wait to see through to its conclusion. And if King cameos, the only role he should be playing is himself, because what else?
The entire first season of Castle Rock is available to stream on Hulu now.
By Matt Konopka
Have you watched Castle Rock? Are you excited for it? Post your thoughts below!