Stephen King has achieved that almighty high that I think a lot of writers (myself definitely included) dream of; his world-building has grown so rich, so densely populated and fully conceived, that the world itself can stand as a complex, compelling character all its own – in this case, the haunted (and haunting) town of Castle Rock, Maine.
Castle Rock is alive, or so the haunted warden of Shawshank Prison tells us in voice-over, and it means its residents ill. This pretty much sums up the depiction of the isolated Maine town. The first few episodes spend a lot of time on slow, sweeping shots of the town and its surroundings; lingering on boarded-up storefronts, fire-gutted buildings, the ominous bulk of Shawshank and the stark hills and forest that surround it all. The land feels dark and Gothic, and the reminders that terrible things happen here are ever-present.
I mean, yes, there’s the easter eggs. The show is studded with references to King’s stories that have taken place here – you can find some pretty exhaustive lists of them online if you’re curious – but I honestly stopped looking for them after about the first twenty minutes. The story Castle Rock tells is compelling enough on its own, and the cast and crew have done a bang-up job on creating a tangible feeling of tension that hangs over all of the proceedings.
From the brutal ending of the extended opening sequence onward, one gets the feeling of something vast and terrible surrounding the curious case of Henry Deaver, and his troubled backstory adds an interesting level of menace to his interactions with the people of his old home town. Do they stare at him when he walks by because of his father, or is there something deeper, more sinister at work..?
And the cast! André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Glenn, Bill Skarsgård, Sissy goddamn Spacek – this show is a treasure trove of great character actors. There are too many great performances to call out individually, but there are some highlights that demand comment. Holland’s Deaver vacillates from anger to fear and back, often within a scene, and does an admirable job conveying Henry’s air of simultaneous guilt and resentment.
Likewise, Skarsgård does a good and creepy job as the nameless prisoner of Shawshank, a creep who is the polar opposite of his monster clown in It. Where Pennywise was all over-the-top alien horror, the Prisoner is a great study in silent, minimalist weirdness, and I can’t wait for this character to go full-on Stephen King Monster. Seriously, does Bill Skarsgård just like giving people nightmares? Is that what this is?
The supporting cast is fantastic as well – Spacek is an eternal delight, and her portrayal of Deaver’s fragile mother, slipping back and forth between lucidity and the first hints of dementia, is poignant. I find myself hoping for good outcomes for her character, which tells me that she is probably doomed. RIP Ruth Deaver, just calling it now.
Scott Glenn is a perfect choice to play former Sheriff Alan Pangborn, the world-weariness he conveys in Pangborn’s every word and movement is palpable. Also, I am loving Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand. The tormented psychic real estate developer is probably the character I have grown most attached to in the first three episodes, and I hope this all works out for her. It likely won’t, tormented psychics get a raw deal from King most of the time. But hey, it worked out okay for Danny Torrance, right?
And speaking of the Torrances…about that Jackie Torrance kid. I like the cut of her jib, and I can’t wait to find out her relation to the decidedly psychic Torrance family. The next episode drops later tonight, and I am here for this.