Castle Rock – Episode 1: Severance
Starring: André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Frances Conroy, Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn
Director: Michael Uppendahl
Writers: Sam Shaw, Dustin Thomason, Stephen King
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS SPOILERS. You’ve been advised!
Stephen King. It’s pretty hard not to notice his name these days. Though his stories have consistently been adapted for movie and television series, recently there’s been more. And good ones, for the most part. Looking only at the last two years, there’s been The Dark Tower and the highly successful IT, Netflix’s adaptations of 1922 and Gerald’s Game, and 11.22.63 and Mr. Mercedes as television series. And there are no signs that this trend slowing. However, whereas all of the above are adaptations that are directly based on one of King’s stories, Castle Rock takes a different approach. Rather than be based on a specific story, it’s an original one that is set in King’s universe, pulling ideas and themes from various sources.
Severance, the first of this ten-episode mini-series, begins with a flashback, where we meet young Henry (Caleel Harris). It’s winter, and he’s been missing for days. When he’s finally found, out on the frozen lake, he exhibits no signs of exposure, nor does he remember what happened. Or so he claims. Fast forward to the present, adult Henry (André Holland) is now as a death row attorney, though he doesn’t appear to be very successful as he fails to save his client. Heck, even her execution fails to go smoothly. And that’s when he receives an anonymous phone call from a prison back in his hometown of Castle Rock. He’s told that a prisoner was found who, unresponsive to the prison staff’s questioning, utters only two words. Henry Deaver. Of course, it draws him back home – reminiscent of the Losers’ Club members drawn back to Derry…
This first episode establishes Henry as a, if not the, central figure. For reasons unknown so far, various characters are linked to him. Dale Lacy, played by the wonderful Terry O’Quinn (the man behind John Locke from Lost, one of the most memorable characters to have graced our television sets) appears to be behind Henry’s return to Castle Rock. But his shocking Thelma and Louise moment (which likely relates to the title of this episode) can only portend to something dark.
Henry’s mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) suffers from dementia, affecting her memory and filter about what she says. It wouldn’t be surprising that this leads to her providing some details regarding Henry’s disappearance. And spending time with her is Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Castle Rock’s retired sheriff. He knows the town and its people, and he was the one who found Henry in the woods, all those years ago. A tension between him and Henry is strongly hinted at but remains unexplained.
And lastly, Molly (Melanie Lynskey, the hilarious Rose from Two and a Half Men), recognizes Henry as he gets off the bus. Back in her house, she looks through a box, pulling out Henry’s missing person’s poster and a shirt. But strangest is that she limits her interaction with these items using a timer. As with the other three people, she has something to do with Henry. But what?
One of King’s strengths is how he writes characters. He makes them come out of the pages as though they were real. And this works because he controls the medium, being the creative force behind all the words. However, when it comes to adaptations, he has to relinquish that control over to the actors and rely on them. Along with J.J. Abrams, who’s also created strong roles (John Locke, Jack Sheppard, Olivia Dunham, Kirk, Spock, Rey and so on), they’ve created the blueprints for intriguing, flawed, and fascinating characters for the cast to give life to. And this the ensemble of Castle Rock does very well from the start. André Holland, Terry O’Quinn, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Lynskey and of course, Bill Skarsgård (who, even with only three words spoken this episode, is downright creepy), are outstanding.
Fans of Stephen King won’t be disappointed with the easter eggs in the show. Most obvious is Castle Rock itself, a town that features in some of King’s stories (Cujo, The Dead Zone). There’s Shawshank prison (oh, watch out for a nice easter egg when Warden Porter visits her new office for the first time). Retired sheriff Alan Pangborn is a name straight from Needful Things and The Dark Half. There’s even a slight nod to The Green Mile’s Mr. Jingles. And some of the actors themselves have strong connections to King. Sissy Spacek was the titular character in Carrie, and The Kid is played by the creepy looking Bill Skarsgård who plays Pennywise in IT.
From the first seconds I watched, as the story unfolded and characters were introduced, I couldn’t help but hear words echoing in my mind. The Owls Are Not What They Seem. For those who remember Lynch’s Twin Peaks, nothing in that show could be taken at face value. The people and the place all had secrets. And Castle Rock has that same feeling. Every character we’ve met seems to have secrets, as does the town itself. And like Twin Peaks, there’s a strong indication of something supernatural occurring. The similarities in building the mysteries are many between these two shows. I’m not suggesting we’ll see something as weird as The Man from Another Place dancing in a room draped in red curtains, but this is the world of Stephen King. Anything can happen.
Only one episode, a total of fifty-four minutes, but already so many questions. What did happen to Henry during his disappearance? Who is The Kid and why did Warden Lacy keep him in a cage? And what’s with those specific instructions? Does Ruth know anything about Henry’s disappearance? Why does Molly keep that box of items, and why does she time how long she can look at them? What happened to Henry’s father? It’s King at and Abrams at their best.
Hulu has once again shown that it is a serious competitor for original programming. Castle Rock is off to a great start. It sends out its tentacles, grabs you and brings you into the story. The show looks great. The mood, supported by great visuals, has been set. The characters are perfect and the actors outstanding. There’s a heaviness in Castle Rock. Perhaps evil. Perhaps malevolent. The surface is simmering, and underneath are secrets waiting to break through. So far, it looks as though it’s captured the essence of King. It’s a must watch – over and over especially if you want to catch all the easter eggs!
Castle Rock is now streaming on Hulu.