Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the episode yet and don’t want to know what happens, go watch it before reading this.
I was nervous about watching “Castle Rock,” the new series from Hulu that takes place in Stephen King’s fictional Maine small town. As much as I love all things King, even the most diehard of fans has to admit there’s been a bit of an overload on film and TV adaptations of King stories, since the massive success of “IT.”
It’s a lot. And a lot of it isn’t great.
But I was genuinely impressed by the first few episodes of “Castle Rock,” which Hulu premiered today, July 25. It’s good. It’s very good. King diehards and casual watchers and readers will like it. Trust me.
Episode 1 begins with a classic King scenario. A frozen lake. Cold, wintry light. A rattly old car driven by an unnerved-looking man, who we learn is the younger version of Castle Rock sheriff Alan Pangborn (known by King fans as one of the protagonists of “Needful Things” and “The Dark Half”). Pangborn’s out looking for a boy, Henry Deaver, who in the early 1990s was missing for 11 days. He eventually finds Henry, who’s standing stock still in the middle of the frozen lake, presumably in shock.
Fast forward to 2018, and we meet Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), the warden of Shawshank Prison — yes, THAT Shawshank. He’s presumably off to work, until we realize, quickly, that he’s getting ready to commit suicide by car, a gruesome death involving a noose and driving off a cliff (that episode title is darkly apropos). Before Lacy finally puts his foot on the gas, he sees a shaggy dog appear. This definitely means something. I’m sure that later we’ll find out what.
— Castle Rock (@castlerockhulu) July 20, 2018
The staff at Shawshank has to pick up the pieces after the warden’s sudden death. Two guards are instructed to pick through a cell block that’s been closed off for most of Lacy’s term as warden. One of the guards, Zalewski (Noel Fisher), finds a mysterious vault in the floor, and like a good horror character should, climbs down into it with nothing but a flashlight to protect him.
There Zalewski finds a young man locked up in a cage, played by Bill Skarsgard — the same actor who portrayed Pennywise in the hit movie. Here, instead of being a flamboyantly evil monster, Skarsgard is all silent-suffering, wide-eyed and haunted-looking. His unnamed character is an off-the-books prisoner, presumably kept in a hole by Lacy for an unknown number of years.
The only words the prisoner utters during the entire episode is to ask for Henry Deaver — the boy who was missing in the first scene of the show, now a grown man and a lawyer living in Texas, played by Andre Holland.
Zalewski decides to anonymously call him, and Henry, having just lost a case that saw his client executed, decides he has nothing to lose and comes back home to Castle Rock. As he gets off the bus, he’s watched by Molly Strand (Melanie Lynsky), a mysterious woman who seems to know Henry. He arrives at the home of his mother, Ruth (the fabulous Sissy Spacek), who is in the early stages of dementia, where he sees Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) — the same guy who found him when he was missing as a boy, now retired and, shacking up with his mom.
It appears nearly all the main characters have now been set up. Of them, the most mysterious and intriguing are, of course, the prisoner — who reveals some sort of supernatural power in the last few moments of the episode, as Zalewski sees through the closed circuit TV the prisoner somehow escape his cell and leave a trail of presumably dead bodies behind him.
The other mysterious one is Henry Deaver. He’s a man who feels uncomfortable and out of place wherever he goes — be it in his adopted home of Texas, where he keeps losing cases, or in his hometown of Castle Rock, where most of the townsfolk blames him for the death of his father, who was a beloved local pastor.
To be fair: Castle Rock doesn’t look like it would be a particularly welcoming to anybody. This is a place with seriously bad vibes. I’m really looking forward to see what causes them.
BAD ACCENT ALERT: Dale Lacy’s mother/caretaker/whatever she was (Phyllis Somerville), who he says goodbye to before leaving the house to go kill himself, sounds more like someone doing a Jackie Kennedy impression than an actual Mainer.
MAINE IN-JOKE: Just before Dale Lacy does the deed, the radio is tuned to 100.3 — the frequency for the beloved local radio station, the Stephen King-owned WKIT 100.3 FM. The station Lacy is listening to is playing classical music, however, not the classic rock WKIT plays.
MOVIE REFERENCE: One of the wardens in the first scenes at Shawshank references the bullet hole where an old warden shot himself — that’s the evil Warden Norton, who offs himself in lieu of getting caught for his many crimes at the prison. Looks like Shawshank hasn’t lived down its tarnished legacy.
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