With the recent surge of Stephen King adaptations, such as IT, The Dark Tower, and Gerald’s Game, Hulu has delivered Castle Rock, a brand new series featuring an original story based on characters and settings from King himself; there are even a few actors fans of other adaptations will recognize. King serves as executive producer alongside J.J. Abrams in what serves as a disturbing and mysterious tale full of intrigue and Stephen King’s trademark supernatural thrills. Plenty of plot twists and reveals lie ahead in what is being touted as an anthology series (as opposed to one running story throughout the show’s lifetime), so if King is your cup of tea, read ahead to see my spoiler-free thoughts on Castle Rock’s first season.
Castle Rock is set in the titular small town in Maine, which is familiar territory for many stories from Stephen King’s universe. Castle Rock isn’t your average small town, though, as it has a dark and strange history, with the events that start the show only being the most recent. Upon starting the first episode, we are immediately brought into familiar territory. Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn, Lost, The Stepfather), warden of the infamous Shawshank State Penitentiary, commits suicide in a gruesome and unique manner on his final day before retirement. This sudden death triggers a chain of events that set the stage for the rest of the season. After the new warden plans to open up a previously abandoned cell block to maintain inmate population, it is revealed that Warden Lacy was keeping a mysterious man (Bill Skarsgard, IT (2017), Hemlock Grove), a.k.a. “the Kid,” imprisoned in a cage deep underground. No one besides Lacy had any knowledge of this prisoner, and he is definitely not on record as ever being booked into Shawshank. Who he is and why he was locked away are only the start of Castle Rock’s main mystery, and believe me when I say, things only get stranger as the story develops, with twists and turns coming with every episode.
Upon hearing of the Kid and his story, death-row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland, American Horror Story: Roanoke, Moonlight) returns to his hometown of Castle Rock to investigate. Henry had previously left the town after being suspected of having something to do with his adoptive father’s mysterious death years prior. With the Kid being held unlawfully at Shawshank, it becomes Henry’s new mission to not only get the Kid released but to work towards unraveling the mystery surrounding the strange prisoner. This proves to be a far greater task than Henry initially imagined, as the Kid barely speaks and knows nothing besides being inside a dark hole for the past 27 years. Eventually, as the law states a prisoner can’t be kept if there are no charges or crimes for which they are indicted, the Kid is set free. Henry takes to keeping track of him while he can figure out what exactly to do with him. Once the Kid is no longer imprisoned, even odder things begin happening around Castle Rock, and Henry’s past comes back to haunt him as he already has the lingering shadow of his father’s untimely (and unsolved) death looming over him; the people of Castle Rock already have an aversion to Henry, and being tied to the Kid and the strange happenings surrounding him are inadvertently deflected back onto Henry himself. Aside from the situation surrounding the Kid, Henry’s adoptive mother (Sissy Spacek, Carrie (1976), Bloodline) is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, which presents tougher personal issues for Henry to face. Her struggle with these diseases leads to an interesting subplot in its own right, as it brings about a bit of development for the town of Castle Rock itself and its dark history. There are plenty more side stories going on in Castle Rock’s first season, but to discuss them here would give away a bit too much. Some are immediately integral to the film’s overarching plot in one way or another, and some are merely world or character-building, but all of them are well done and never seem like filler; you’re always curious and left asking questions, in a good way, regardless of what is unfolding on screen at any particular moment.
The writing on Castle Rock is so well done that you will not only grow attached to the characters, but you will also grow fond of them (“good” or “bad”). But the town of Castle Rock is the real star here, as it is almost a character in and of itself, with layers of its mystique peeling back with each episode. Castle Rock has typical pacing for a thriller/mystery show; questions will come about, and they won’t be answered immediately. This is completely okay, though, because what is shown next is equally interesting, and more often than not, the payoff for waiting for those answers is well worth it. Set designs and production are excellent. Every episode shows off the environment in such a way that the town of Castle Rock feels lived in. Downtown Castle Rock feels bustling with small businesses, and the neighborhoods seem distant from everything else, even fellow neighbors. This makes a lot of sense, because Castle Rock seems like a very secluded place, even within itself. Sure, there is a sense of community (albeit in weird ways, such as the town as a whole being apprehensive about Henry), but you also get the feeling that some neighbors don’t care to interact with each other. On the other hand, the townspeople seem close-knit enough to bond over the fact that their hometown has a history behind it that isn’t quite normal. It’s brought up more than a few times that there is just “something about this town,” and you’ll totally feel that while watching.
Each character introduced serves a purpose, and even if their tenure on the show is only one episode or less, their effects are lasting. Andre Holland delivers a great performance as the show’s main lead. As with most compelling characters, Deaver will say and do a lot of things that will anger viewers, but he’s not a perfect man; that would make for a pretty boring show. Though he isn’t immaculate, we can empathize with and understand his decisions, and a character the audience can identify with and feel for is the best kind. Another stand-out performance is Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver. Her struggle with Alzheimer’s and dementia is something some folks may be familiar with, and it weaves a fascinating tale. There is an episode that focuses solely on her and, as it turns out, ends up being one of Castle Rock’s strongest. You’ll be hard-pressed to convince me that any actress other than Sissy Spacek could have pulled off this role quite as well, and the show is better for her casting. Hats must be taken off to Bill Skarsgard also. His showing as the Kid will be remembered for ages, right alongside his performance as Pennywise in the 2017 version of IT. He evokes a natural eeriness, so much so that, even when he’s not speaking and simply acting physically or even just present in a scene, he commands your attention. As with Sissy Spacek, there is an episode centering around him (the penultimate episode, to be exact) that will completely throw you for a loop and mess with your head, and I’m convinced that no one besides Bill Skarsgard could have portrayed the Kid how Castle Rock demanded. To speak on this much more would be a disservice to those wishing to avoid spoilers, but just know, the Kid is creepy, and his story will hold your attention more than anything else in the show. Special shout-outs must be given to Noel Fisher (Shameless, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) as Shawshank prison guard Dennis Zalewski, Scott Glenn (Daredevil, The Defenders) as former Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, and Melanie Lynskey (Girlboss, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later) as real estate agent and childhood friend of Henry’s Molly Strand. All deliver masterful performances that are sure to be enjoyed immensely.
Castle Rock is a perfect example of how to do a thriller correctly. With plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting over the show’s first ten-episode season, you’ll be binge-watching this one, ready for more by the time you’re finished. While it doesn’t end exactly how I wished it would, I totally understand and respect the decisions that were made. Amazing acting, believable production design, and excellent writing all make this show a must watch, and the fact that it is set in Stephen King’s universe only makes it better. If you enjoy thrillers, mysteries, horror, or the supernatural, Castle Rock is right up your alley. It’s hard to say what exactly will come next for the show since it will be an anthology of sorts, but I’m certain it will be quite the sight to see. Make sure you stick around for the mid-credits scene after the final episode, as it may give some semblance of a hint to a future story the show will tell.