Based on the mixed history of Stephen King screen adaptations, it’s only natural to be wary of Castle Rock. The Hulu original drama, which counts J. J. Abrams as one of its executive producers, isn’t based solely on one story but has rather lofty aims to “combine the mythological scale and intimate character storytelling of King’s best-loved works.” It’s an ambitious goal, with a somewhat-endearingly messy execution.
There are multiple plots strewn about but the main story involves a mysterious, mostly non-verbal prisoner (Bill Skarsgard, who recently played Pennywise in It), found locked in a cage underneath — you guessed it — Shawshank Prison. When “The Kid” is discovered, he only utters a name: Henry Deaver. Henry (Andre Holland) grew up in Castle Rock but has a fraught relationship with the town; many people blame him for his adoptive father’s death. Now a death-row attorney, Henry is drawn back to the town to help The Kid, returning to his mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek!) who is slipping into dementia, and a neurotic old friend Molly (a perfect as always Melanie Lynskey) with some secrets of her own. While there, he has to confront his own childhood trauma — isn’t that always the case? But in Castle Rock (which frequently reminded me of Sharp Objects), it’s not just personal. The entire town is haunted by trauma; it’s practically built into the roots, spreading slowly to infect everyone else.
The series is, of course, set in Castle Rock, Maine, and gets great mileage out of the plagued town. It’s a place where most of the inhabitants seem to have come to terms with the macabre, making dark jokes about suicide or describing the devil without any hint of irony. They retell stories of past deaths both gravely and matter-of-factly: “Take any house in this own —hell, take mine — every inch is stained with someone’s sin,” one character ominously narrates. “I lie awake at night thinking about all the blood spilled under my roof alone.” Sometimes this helps to set the eerie mood (and Castle Rock is, indeed, one of the moodiest series I’ve watched in a while) but other times, it feels like you’re getting beat over the head with it.