Watching Castle Rock as a longtime Stephen King fan feels like coming home. Sure, it's a home filled with a sense of impending dread, a home that definitely has a dead body under the floorboards, but it's familiar. You know that beneath the small town cosiness there are secrets and forgotten histories and maybe even a Native American burial ground. You've done this danse macabre before.
Four episodes in - all that was available to preview - and I'm hooked. The story centers around Henry Deaver, an attorney who represents death row inmates, but still suffers from the secrecy and stigma of his disappearance as a child. He was found eventually, with no memory of where he'd been, to find out that during his absence his father had been gravely injured and died. But now, he's been called to Shawshank (yes, that one) to represent a strange, mostly silent young man who has been found locked in the bowels of the prison.
That might be the starting point for the plot, but by the end of the first four episodes mysteries are starting to stack up like pancakes at a diner breakfast. There are masked children playing a sinister game of judge and jury, a woman who acts like a psychic sponge, absorbing the feelings and thoughts of those near to her. There's Deaver's father, a priest, who seems to have been more than just a humble man of the cloth. Then there's the mysterious prisoner, who barely speaks but seems to be very bad luck for anyone who comes into prolonged contact with him.
All the way through there are references, large and small, to Stephen King stories. Mentions of a rabid dog (Cujo), a body found by the train tracks (Stand By Me), and the appearance of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Needful Things) pepper the early episodes, and Shawshank Penitentiary looms over the plot like a hefty co-star. It's fitting for a show based in Castle Rock, a longtime King location, and you'll be able to smell the smugness coming off King fans as they count up their fan points for spotting every connection. I don't think it makes it any easier to know exactly where the series is headed, but it has the effect of making the world feel more real. A place with its own history and myths and legends.
The show plays with its audience in other ways to, even when it comes to the casting. Sissy Spacek does sterling work as Deaver's mother struggling with dementia, but it's impossible for a King fan to see her without her famous role, Carrie, hanging behind her like a bloodied ghost. It's an even stranger sensation - though one that might turn out to be part of a double bluff - to see Bill Skarsgård, AKA Pennywise the Clown, staring through the screen, his face free from circus makeup but still wearing that unmistakable leer. Of course Pennywise is - and spoiler if you haven't read or seen It (opens in new tab)- a shapeshifter, so the writers of Castle Rock can have all sorts of fun with whose face it may or may not have used.
It's hard to know, with so many loose ends thrashing around like tentacles, what the show will look like by its final and tenth episode. Series that reply on mystery - like Lost or Westworld - are often much better at asking the unsettling questions than delivering satisfying answers.
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