Castle Rock, the setting for some of Stephen King’s most memorable chillers, is at the centre of many creepy goings-on again – and aren’t we Constant Readers/Frequent Viewers just thrilled to bits?
This time, however, the supernatural strings are being pulled by different creative minds.
Showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason make use of the vast “shared universe” created by King to spin all-new stories featuring this familiar place – and some characters, too. (Also, actors who are strongly associated with their roles in past King adaptations. Nay, let’s call them icons, and deservedly so.)
Two seasons of the show have come out so far, comprising 10 episodes each, with different core storylines each year. While they are the result of other writers’ work, great attention has been paid to ensure that the series bears King’s DNA, so to speak.
There is some overlap between seasons, although some of it is so tantalising and under-explained that we are left thirsting for more. Sadly, a third season has yet to be confirmed.
So let’s consider the two seasons available to us now. Season One’s opener takes us right to good old Shawshank Prison (yes, the one of Redemption infamy), where it is found that the now-retired warden had been keeping a strange prisoner locked up in a cage in a burned-out wing.
When the prisoner (let’s call him The Kid, played with equally unnerving effect by Bill Skarsgard as he played Pennywise in the recent It movies) asks for hometown boy and noted Death Row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), his request sets in motion a series of events that are by turns horrifying and tragic.
Henry himself was the subject of some controversy in his childhood, and now-retired Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) is quite certain that no good will come of his return.
He’s right, of course, and we know it from the start. It’s in how the disasters tied to Henry’s return pile up and snowball that Castle Rock’s debut season shows its storytelling muscle – even if it is not always accompanied by verve.
The pace is pretty glacial in the first few episodes, and this tends to work against getting viewers invested in Henry and The Kid’s troubles. It isn’t until the fourth episode that the numerous story threads being woven actually come together as a cord that’s strong enough to yank us right in.
Thankfully, it isn’t a case of “too little, too late” because from there, the season builds up to a dizzying brain-bender of time skips, dimension hopping, memory manipulation and multi-layered storytelling.
In the process, it delivers several gut-punches that reward patient and attentive viewers with some of the most craftily structured stories in the genre (notably episode seven, The Queen, featuring a mesmerising performance by Sissy Spacek, who starred in Carrie, the first King adaptation ever).
While the first season takes a while to get going, the second certainly gets off to a startling, uh, start.
Never mind that the main character is a young Annie Wilkes (the psychotic fan from Misery), played as an engaging, fascinatingly damaged but wannabe-functional character by Lizzy Caplan.
The fact that we are introduced to the pre-Misery and already-on-the-run Annie as the mother of a teenage daughter is even more intriguing.
Annie and Joy Wilkes’s (Elsie Fisher) flight from whatever is pursuing them leads to a certain Castle Rock neighbour, a town known as Jerusalem’s Lot (and yes, of course the Marsten House is prominently featured).
There, they get inextricably bound in the town’s tensions – fuelled by a bitter rivalry between the blood kin and adopted children of patriarch Reginald “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, Mr Redeemed-at-Shawshank himself).
Annie Wilkes wouldn’t be Annie Wilkes if she didn’t commit a horrific murder in the very first hour – though to be honest and at the risk of sounding insensitive, it’s kind of hilarious as well.
This killing, however, leads to the unearthing of a long-slumbering malignancy that, once again, turns Salem’s Lot into a place of horror and makes up the season’s Big Evil Menace.
The second season gets off to a more confident and sure-footed start than the first, maintaining a brisk pace with only a few missteps despite having to introduce us to a veritable army of new characters.
These include Pop’s adopted kids Somalian siblings Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Nadia (Yusra Warsama), Joy’s newfound clique in town, Pop’s mean-spirited nephew Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), Annie’s fairly odd parents (Flashback City, here we come), and a whole colony of 17th-century French settlers (don’t ask what they have to do with anything, and I won’t tell – no really, it’s better this way).
It loses its way a little towards the end by trying too hard to tie into the first season, or perhaps with too little preparation so that we can readily accept the link.
Suffice to say that it ends in a manner most befitting the key parties involved – especially Annie.
And by the end of 20 episodes of Castle Rock, I found myself hungry for more despite having been served a veritable feast of excellent performances, thoughtful writing and Easter eggs (such as a supporting character named Torrance who mentions an uncle who tried to axe-murder his whole family).
With a third season still uncertain, these two seasons stand nonetheless as a juicy and rewarding treat for King aficionados to savour.
Seasons One and Two of Castle Rock are available on Netflix.
It’s Castle Rock, not Casterly. But you pay your debts all the same.
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