It’s not every writer who can lay claim to a literary universe. Welcome to Castle Rock, an original series set in the world of Stephen King, a writer you may have heard of before. His books have a habit of being adapted into movies, some well-known (Christine, The Shining) and others which are popular but not always associated with his name (Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption). It’s the latter short story that stands out as being the most overt reference to King’s work on Castle Rock. Shawshank Prison is the town’s main employer, to the point that one of the guards laments there isn’t a Walmart in the area to act as an alternative.
When the show begins, Warden Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) has just committed suicide. The new warden (Ann Cusack) (who was already being brought in for Lacy’s retirement) learns there’s a wing of the prison that hasn’t been used for thirty years. She sends two guards to investigate, they come back with a guy (Bill Skarsgård) they found locked up in a cage, and now she has to figure out what to do with him. No one knows who he is, or how long he’s been down there. Does she let him go?
Skarsgård, like fellow cast member Sissy Spacek, will be remembered for a different Stephen King role (the It remake’s Pennywise the Clown and, for her, the titular Carrie). While his performance is faultless, the attention his casting draws isn’t entirely helpful to his character’s mystery. Even when his innocent expressions overtake his menacing ones, you’re always sort of looking for him to turn evil at every turn.
The opposite goes for Noel Fisher’s prison guard, Dennis Zalewski, whose survival past the first episode almost comes as a surprise. One of three characters who emerges as a potential hero for the town, he’s certainly the most considerate, and an expectant father. Fisher gives Zalewski a real earnestness. He wants to do the right thing but is very aware of the fact that he has a kid on the way and a family to support. The problem is that all of this points to him being the next person the town destroys. I’d love to be proven wrong, because Fisher is one of my favorite actors, but every time he appears on screen I’m in fear for his life. Most horror has some will they, won’t they die drama, but his fate feels so sealed it’s not fun.
Going off the show’s promotion and his excellent work on Cinemax’s The Knick, I thought that André Holland was going to be the main character. His Henry Deaver is a lead. The traditional local boy who’s been out of town for years and comes back a lawyer, Deaver recently lost his last capital case. When he was a kid, he disappeared and returned to find his dad dead and the town turned against him. This keeps him from being able to completely pass judgement on the town from the outside, though in the same breath, the assumption by the town that he’s guilty is way too unbroken.
The biggest surprise (I mean, not huge – he was great on Leftovers) is Scott Glenn as Alan Pangburn. Ex-sheriff of Castle Rock, he has that town protector air down. He’s also the one who stayed and helped Deaver’s mom (Spacek), when she started to lose her memory. As comes from being protector to a town like Castle Rock, there are definitely some skeletons in his closet (for instance, it sounds like he has some concept of how long Skargard’s been cooped up in Shawshank but isn’t sharing).
Is it possible to be a hero in Castle Rock? Is that in anyone’s control? The third episode, “Local Color,” puts a spotlight on Deaver’s neighbor, Molly (Melanie Lynsky), before we’re really looking to learn more about her. In it, we start to see how the town might be asserting control over its residents. While most characters are connected, everyone behaves like lone wolves and puts up barriers. Nothing is explicitly wrong with these episodes, and the cast is alarmingly amazing, but it’s tough to get excited about what’s going on so far, or to know where it’s heading. Prison is isolating, but outside of Shawshank, Castle Rock lacks that small town feel you get from shows like Twin Peaks or Gilmore Girls. This could be the build-up to something great or the status quo for the show and in the meantime, my verdict’s undecided. Maybe passionate King fans will enjoy more of the references, but so far Castle Rock is too reclusive for its own good.
The first three episodes of Castle Rock start streaming July 25th. After that, new episodes stream every Wednesday on Hulu.