Photo: Sissy Spacek, André Holland (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

“Remember the dog? The strangler? Sure you do.” Early in Castle Rock’s second episode, Dale Lacy’s voice-over sets the tone for “Habeas Corpus.” In the title sequence (introduced in this episode), torn pages from Stephen King’s oeuvre allude to horrors he’s written over the decades. The Shining. It. Misery. The Green Mile. A map of Maine shows King’s fictional towns of Derry and Haven placed alongside Bangor and Old Town. Castle Rock sits along a dim edge of that map, the note “pop. 1500” scrawled in red. Outside Haven, someone’s marked the crash site from The Tommyknockers. Just off the coast, near Little Tall Island, a handwritten note reads Storm Of The Century.

When Lacy’s voice-over continues, he tells a fraction of a story from his own youth. But it’s just a fraction, barely more than a reason to drop another reference, setting his not-quite-a-story in “the fall after they found that boy’s body out by the train tracks.” In Dale Lacy’s study, Henry Deaver leafs through a file of clippings telling these stories and more. Needful Things. Cujo. Dolores Claiborne.

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Do you remember? Castle Rock keeps asking. Do you remember all the stories? Basing an original horror anthology on the blighted, malignant landscape of Castle Rock, setting a new story in Stephen King’s imagined repository of evil, is a fascinating idea. But like some Maine territories, this premise might be too full of byways and backroads for anyone but a native to navigate. So far, Castle Rock is too busy remembering horrors from other stories to tell one of its own.

Whatever you think of his prose style, Stephen King knows how to write a gripping story. He’s rarely guilty of leaving a tale too ambiguous, of teasing out a hint too long. If anything, he over-delivers, turning a haunting suggestion into sometimes hokey substance. Dale Lacy laments the bloody history of Castle Rock, but a montage of old horrors isn’t a substitute for a story. Castle Rock keeps promising its sense of dread—and its sense of dread is potent—will blossom into something. But promise isn’t enough. The story has to deliver, has to become a story before it withers on the vine.

In the second episode, Castle Rock is still trying to eke mileage out of Bill Skarsgård’s dark eyes and Kubrick stare. But whoever (or whatever) his character is revealed to be, the scariest thing in Castle Rock—and Castle Rock—isn’t the lanky, looming, nearly silent young man recovered from the recesses of the prison. It isn’t the mystery of Henry’s childhood disappearance, or the jolts of psychic connection Molly feels with him. It isn’t the miasma of decay and malevolence that the characters attribute to some great evil.

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The scariest thing in Castle Rock is a well-meaning man in a position of power who believes he’s heard the voice of God, and who trusts himself to distinguish between the commands of God, the devil, or his own inner demons. The scariest thing in Castle Rock is a warden ready to build his own private prison for a child, and the corporate lackeys so eager to “fix things” that they’d rather bury an unknown captive than admit that they’ve uncovered him.

The scariest thing in Castle Rock is the ease with which ordinary people fall into a conspiracy. The scariest thing in Castle Rock is Shawshank’s new warden saying Lacy was a good man, “so he must have had a good reason” to keep a child caged in the dark. She says it even as she sits in his oubliette, holding a box full of nail trimmings cut off over a lifetime of captivity. The scariest thing in Castle Rock is Alan Pangborn remembering the fevered half-story of a boy imprisoned by a man who thinks he’s doing God’s will. The scariest thing in Castle Rock is that once-decent lawman retelling that half-story and barking, “Don’t let that fucking kid out.”

Appropriately for a series starting in Shawshank, redemption gets lip service throughout “Habeas Corpus.” The new pastor for The Incarnation (Aaron Staton) sees a story of redemption in Henry Deaver, the problem child turning his talents to justice and mercy. The street sign outside the penitentiary reads Redemption. But there’s little sign of actual redemption here.

“People say ‘It wasn’t me, it was this place,’” Warden Lacy continues, “and the thing is, they’re right.” From the grave, he has absolved every inhabitant of Castle Rock, himself included, of every evil they’ve committed. Dale Lacy, his widow says, believed in redemption. “Off the clock, he called it grace.” But in his blanket pardon, he denies any need for the repentance that precedes redemption.

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The key question is whether the writers understand the moral implications of what Lacy is saying—whether they’re ready to grapple with the real evil they’ve created in Castle Rock. Their characters keep glancing at the more mundane horrors in this half-story: “Private prisons should be outlawed,” Martha Lacy tells Henry. Zalewski snaps, “Do you think I’d be working in a prison if there was a fucking Walmart within 60 miles of here?” Then the action (if anything as meditative as “Habeas Corpus” can be called action) pulls everyone’s attention away.

Photo: Frances Conroy, André Holland (Screenshot/Hulu)

In a series so jammed with allusions, it’s easy to see them where there are none. (As King himself paraphrases Bob Dylan, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.”) When Henry sits listening to Martha Lacy, we can see the vague shape of a coat and boots through the doorway, dark against the bright hallway. It’s not a glimpse into a closet, but I immediately thought of Dr. Harper’s raincoat and galoshes waiting harmlessly inside a closet in King’s 1973 short story The Boogeyman. But here’s the secret of Easter eggs: If the effect is good, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a reference or just a good piece of staging, a smart line, a fitting piece of casting. The shadow of the coat and boots give the scene a silent, almost invisible tension, as if something or someone is peering in on their talk.

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Rich in the ambience of dread and decay, Castle Rock spins a spell. But it hasn’t mastered its story beats, and despite its often deft direction (the first two episodes at the hands of Michael Uppendahl of Mad Men, Legion, and American Horror Story), it’s littered with small clumsiness: characters unnamed or half-named, expository lines looped into scenes that couldn’t stand on their own, long empty beats intended as tension builders that just bulk out running time. In Alex McLevy’s terms, two episodes in, the series has mastered texture but neglected text.

Dale Lacy was a jailer, and in his plea to God, he thought like a jailer. “Let me stand athwart a doorway,” he prayed, and whatever force answered him, it answered in his own terms. It gave him instructions for a special prison, and a special prisoner. “God doesn’t take requests,” Lacy laments, but he’s wrong. Whatever spoke to the warden, it gave him exactly what he asked for.

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There’s one strong suggestion in “Habeas Corpus” that writers/creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason are in command of the half-story they’ve spun so far, and it’s all part of the scariest thing in Castle Rock. Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy) asks Henry, “Do you want the real story or the cover story?” before spilling the scandal that closed Nan’s Luncheonette, then the popular version of his own childhood mystery. Jackie, who pops up everywhere in Castle Rock—at The Incarnation’s prison prayer partnership, in cahoots with Molly Strand, on the barstool next to Henry—is an informal town historian with a nose for details. But in Castle Rock, everyone knows there’s a real story and a cover story, and everyone falls in line with the cover story. Everyone but Henry Deaver.

Stray observations

  • Jackie Torrance. Are you kidding me?
  • “They’re naming a bridge after me,” Alan Pangborn idly mentions to the new warden. I have a bad feeling about that bridge dedication, Constant Reader.
  • In flashback, Dale Lacy builds his private dungeon while George H. W. Bush (“the good Bush,” Ruth Deaver specifies in a separate scene) drones in the background: “The answer is clear. The world could wait no longer.” Lacy’s revelation comes to him in January of 1991, right when Henry Deaver disappears. In our world, that’s not quite six months after Bill Skarsgård was born.
  • Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Carrie White by turns as a statue-stiff recluse and a vibrant, blushing embodiment of teenage hopes and fears, is here notable mostly as a near-absence. Ruth Deaver flutters around the edges of the show, fussing and forgetting, with terrible realism.
  • Maine accents are slippery things, varying from region to region and person to person, notoriously hard for actors to reproduce. (Disclosure: This column is the work of fellow A.V. Club writer Dennis Perkins, who is also my spouse.) Except in egregious cases, I’m not planning to catalog the failures of Castle Rock’s actors. But I’ll admit that Spacek’s soft, almost swallowed “You probably don’t remember…” as she recalls Henry’s seventh birthday isn’t quite right. But it’s so, so close, I can hear my best friend’s grandmother in it.

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