WARNING: The following review contains minor spoilers for the first four episode of Castle Rock, debuting on Hulu, July 25.
There is creeping dread that fills each episode of Castle Rock. It’s an omnipresent sense of loss and trauma that haunts the hollow residents and the dilapidated structures populating the fictional Stephen King town. Castle Rock has been a staple in the works of King for several decades now. Novels like Cujo, Needful Things, The Dark Half , portions of the Dead Zone and several short stories have all taken place in the sleepy New England community. Terror fills Castle Rock so frequently it’s easy to see why the notion of the town being cursed would be ripe for picking in a horror television show. And for the most part, the harvest is bountiful.
Castle Rock follows death-row attorney Henry Deaver, played by Andre Holland (Moonlight, The Knick), being drawn back to his home town after getting a distressing call regarding a mostly-mute man (played by It’s Bill Skarsgard) who has mysteriously appeared in a burned-down section of Shawshank State Prison. Henry is looking to represent the young man and protect him against scheming administrators of Shawshank who are looking to sweep the whole ordeal under the rug. And while this seems to be the central hook of Castle Rock, there is so much more happening, almost to the show’s detriment.
Spinning Too Many Plates
It’s important to note Castle Rock is based on the works of Stephen King, which means the characters and iconography will be familiar to fans of King, but the story is its own animal....sort of.
The show makes no bones about borrowing several hallmarks from King’s work, and not just his tales set in Castle Rock. A mysterious man arriving out of thin air, characters are haunted by fractured memories of their childhood, mysterious deaths that leave unanswered questions, and a fallen hero hiding a dark secret are all reoccurring motifs in Stephen King’s ever-growing bibliography. Castle Rock has jammed them into a television series, which isn’t a terrible idea if the creators behind the show can keep all the plates spinning at the same velocity. Unfortunately, they don't, and it might be Castle Rock’s biggest failing.
Stephen King is no stranger to creating a world with an expansive cast of characters in his novels. He’s had decades of practice, and if you’ve followed his career, you've seen him hone this skill over time. A novel like Salem’s Lot, which was his second published book, isn’t written with the same godly authority that later works like It or Under the Dome are. Even The Stand, which was released not long after his sophomore vampire novel, has a better handle on world-building and keeping the myriad plot lines interesting. This is where Castle Rock struggles.
The plot threads are draped over the show and its characters like thick nautical ropes when they should really be pulled taught like a garrote wire. And while the show is never boring, there are moments that may have you wondering why any of this matters. The show is structured as a puzzle box (as executive producer J. J. Abrams is wont to do), which seems out of place for a show based on the works of Stephen King. Say what you will, but King is pretty forthright with his story telling. Sure, there are shocks and scares along the way, but it’s rare to question what is going on in one of his novels. No matter how bizarre or terrifying the situation is, the reader is always in the know to some degree. They may not know the why or the how behind the moment, but they understand the moment’s relevance and how it may have lasting impact on the rest of the story. Uncle Stevie lays it out for you like a buffet more often than not; Castle Rock is more like tapas.