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.
Predictably, Castle Rock is a mixed bag of tricks. It has a lot of enthralling mysteries piled on top of each other — who is The Kid? What happened to Henry’s father? What happened to Henry during those days he disappeared as a child and returned with no memory? It doesn’t all gel together seamlessly, or at least not in the first four episodes, but there’s inherent intrigue to power it through. Castle Rock is also incredibly slow at times, particularly in its first two episodes (fortunately, Hulu is premiering the first three at once), but when it picks up in the next two, it really gets going. After so much slogging, it was a relief that the fourth episode, “The Box,” ends on a note that dramatically pushes the story forward — it just requires a bit of patience to get there.
Much of Castle Rock requires extra patience. It’s intent on jamming in King references throughout, which can grow a bit tiresome. Some, like the prison, fit in effortlessly while others can feel clumsy and desperate. It’s surely a treat for diehard fans who will delight in keeping track of all the Easter eggs strewn about but for others, it doesn’t feel quite as welcoming. (I will say that you don’t have to know much about King’s stories to watch Castle Rock, as it introduces you to what is necessary.)
Fortunately, it’s easy to look past the occasional eye-rolling reference to instead focus on its better qualities. It’s not the scariest show, but it has fun playing around with horror, throwing in jump scares and finding ways to get under your skin. There are some noteworthy performances, such as Shameless‘s Noel Fisher as Dennis, a corrections officer who would rather be working at Walmart but finds himself drawn more and more to The Kid. Skarsgard is legitimately unsettling, Jane Levy pops up for her signature snark, and, in a bit of genius casting, Allison Tolman plays Melanie Lynskey’s sister.
Castle Rock isn’t going to work for everyone — I kept going back and forth from minute to minute — but it’s trying hard enough to craft such a specific, sinister world that it’s worth sticking around to see where it goes.
‘Castle Rock’ premieres on Hulu on Wednesday, July 25.