Hulu’s Castle Rock starts with a man, in the dead of winter, searching the snow with a stick. He stabs the ground every so often, venturing deeper into the woods by Castle Lake, as though trying to find a less frozen surface. He uncovers something and digs up a dead deer. He looks almost disappointed, retiring to the edge of the lake. A strange noise haunts the area, and before his eyes materialize the very thing he was looking for: a young Henry Deaver, standing in the middle of the frozen lake.
This is the beginning of the mystery that is Castle Rock, a series based on characters and settings by bestselling author Stephen King. We are treated to hallmarks of his books, with newspaper clippings that hint at Cujo, lines that refer to The Dead Zone and Stand By Me (also known as The Body, in novella form), a name that evokes The Shining, and of course the Shawshank State Penitentiary. These could all be window dressing there to elevate lesser work, but they are only little hints and teases of a darker game at play, a reminder that cruelty and evil lie in the fringes of this community that is trying to move beyond its past.
The first three episodes are a strong start to the series. Andre Holland stars as the adult Henry Deaver, a capital punishment defense attorney who appears to be nearly at his wit’s end. He receives a call from Shawshank, as a mysterious prisoner (played by Bill Skarsgard) suddenly appeared in the bowels of the prison and whispered his name. With some twists and turns, this becomes the central story, the mystery of who this young man is and how he fits into Henry’s life. It is explained in the second episode how he came to be in the cage deep underground, though it only raises more questions, adding to the fun twists that the show likes to take. Around the edges of this story is Sissy Spacek, playing Henry’s adopted mother who suffers from dementia; Scott Glenn, her new (or perhaps old) boyfriend; Melanie Lynskey as Molly Strand, a childhood neighbor with a special gift and a failing real estate/development enterprise; and Jane Levy, assistant to Lynskey and a great source for the gossip around town.
Holland’s Deaver is a strong central lead, a man with a history in Castle Rock that makes his life difficult and questionable; those entering his orbit again see him in a different light than we do. He is determined and ready to right every wrong, despite how he is viewed by the townspeople, and Holland is great in the role. Melanie Lynskey is always a captivating presence, and her role here is no exception. Her ability and its ties to Holland’s character are quick but effective, but it is her almost self-destructive and desperate need to quiet the volume of her life that adds the most to her character and her performance. Bill Skarsgard is not given a lot to do in these three episodes, but his fascinating face is more than enough. His wide eyes and tall, lanky proportions add up to a character that is just as unsettling in his stillness as his uneven shuffling walk, a complete puzzle that the show is not quite ready to solve yet.
I found myself easily enamored with these opening hours, going through them with ease and enjoying every moment of them. The storytelling is tight and never messy, every piece feeling necessary and adding a wrinkle to all that came before. The show does a wonderful job of getting into the mind of its main characters, specifically in Henry and Molly’s case. The third episode is a good showcase for Lynskey, as it dives into what makes her character tick and what eats away at her as she spends more time with Holland, while also providing some creepy moments.
There are plenty of these creepy moments, used sparingly and with expert precision. The show is less violent than I was expecting, preferring to deploying unsettling imagery and playthings in a more atmospheric direction. The show, directed by Michael Uppendahl in the first two episodes and Dan Attias in the third, is always a visual treat, using the sets and setting to make the town look like it’s already in collapse rather than on its way there. Shawshank looks like it’s rotting from the inside, and the older houses are full of character and charm. The setting is just the right level of ominous.
This is a strong opening to Castle Rock. The show does have some things to work out: it could use some of its supporting cast a little more, speed up the pacing, and put more weight on the mysteries, but it’s still early and there is plenty of time before these issues become major problems. I am very pleased with the beginning, and can’t wait to delve further into this world and its characters.