“There’s a lot of history in this town, and not all of it good,” Molly Strand straight-talks her out-of-town buyers when they discover the home they’re touring belonged to the warden of a notorious prison, who performed an even more notorious suicide just days ago. With that line, “The Box” seems determined to continue Castle Rock’s quiet, almost reverent digging into the past, and into the atmosphere of dread hanging over the town. Everything in the first 40 minutes of “The Box” feels like a methodical continuation of the story so far, as grim and methodical as Henry Deaver marking his father’s grave with an X for later excavation. And that would have been just fine.
Even before its explosive third act, “The Box” is the best episode so far, building up layers of key characterizations and adding important plot beat without sacrificing the tension and texture it’s worked hard to create. The all-but-silent prisoner found in Shawshank’s disused wing gives his longest speech so far, maybe the longest speech of his life. Advancing on the warden’s flunky (Josh Cooke), his rusty voice rises as he intones a passage from Revelation: “He has a name. He has a name written on him, which no one knows except himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is called The Word Of God.”
Henry Deaver is starting to recover flashes of memory, and I do mean “flashes.” His snapshot glimpses into his forgotten past—a voice calling for him in the dark, a grate penning him in, his small hands propelling an old toy car through loose dirt—are punctuated by the glare of a flashbulb popping. Confronting his mother about his childhood mystery, Henry asks, “Where did you think I was those 11 days? Why didn’t we ever talk about it?” It’s a good question. It might be the most important question Henry has ever asked.
Getting no answers, only a fight in response, Henry tries to track down Vince Desjardins, the closest thing to a suspect in his disappearance. Everything about this encounter is constructed and paced to create creeping unease, starting with the driveway, obscured by thick trees, that Henry overshoots at first. Everything about the Desjardins house is… off. An upright piano has crashed through the floor, coming to rest in the middle of the kitchen. Boxes and baskets crowd the rooms, strewn with clothing, papers, anything and everything apparently left where it was tossed. In the yard, there’s a wooden pen. The house is open, but the cage has a sturdy lock.
When Joseph Desjardins (David Selby, best known as Quentin Collins of another bedeviled Maine town) arrives, this scene begins to produce the hushed tension of a scene from Zodiac, where our intrepid viewpoint character finds himself in a strange house with an accommodating but unnerving stranger. A stranger who patrols the dump for debris. A stranger who kept his brother’s severed finger bones in a jar. A stranger who happens to have Henry’s missing case file in a banker’s box under his bed.
Castle Rock’s sound design is derivative but effective, part Carpenter, part Lynch. Along with the score and soundtrack, Castle Rock is filled with sounds—a pervasive hum, a drone of tension, an occasional faint scratching. At its best, it’s the auditory equivalent of the sensation of being watched that prickles the hair on the back of your neck. While Dennis listens to Henry’s voicemail, that thrum grows to a crescendo so thick, it’s oppressive… and when Dennis cuts off the voicemail, the sound cuts off, too, drawing attention to itself with the sudden silence.
Watching the first two episodes of Castle Rock, I found myself thinking (with indulgence and exasperation) of “The Howling Man,” one of The Twilight Zone’s broadest episodes. Seeing that episode playing in the background as Ruth and Alan talk is a pleasing glimmer of self-awareness, a sign from the writers/creators that they’re aware of the dangers of their story. All in all, “The Box” was shaping up to be a very solid, even scary episode of television.
Then series writers/creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason threw a flash-bang grenade into the middle of their show.
Calling Dennis Zalewski’s last act “operatic” would be accurate—in its violence and its suddenness, Dennis’ rampage is at least as operatic as Warden Lacy’s suicide—but it would also be an insult to the actual soundtrack. Roy Orbison’s “Crying” could feel clichéd, but it jibes perfectly with the melancholy shine Noel Fisher puts in Dennis’ eyes, with his brisk, even breezy progress through the prison, mowing down his colleagues as they let him through gate after gate, not knowing they’re letting their death in with him.
In the moments leading up to Dennis’ spree, the wall of surveillance monitors shows him (and us) the everyday outrages and violations of Shawshank without resorting to a montage. As he works his way through the prison, that same bank of screens allows director Michael Uppendahl to show us Dennis’ rampage with both horrible clarity and disorienting dislocation. Over and over, he walks into frame, kills, and walks out, only to enter the next room from a different angle, an unexpected direction. It transforms an already shocking act of violence into something uncanny, as if Dennis is magically appearing in doorway after doorway to rain down violence on the colleagues trapped there. It feels like a nightmare. It feels inescapable.
“The Box” of the episode’s title could be that banker’s box marked Henry Deaver, of which we see only one file. It could be the coffin Matthew Deaver was buried in—twice now—which arrives at The Church of the Incarnation for a third burial just as his widow happens to walk by. It could be the wooden pen in Desjardins’ yard, which Henry smashes open with frantic haste. (“Did he have a dog?” Henry asks Joseph, but a dog wouldn’t explain the spoon he finds inside the crate along with an old dish.) It could be a prison cell; it could be all of Shawshank State Penitentiary. It could be the surveillance room where Dennis Zalewski watches over Shawshank. It could be the safe in that room where the duty pistol resides.
Or it could be the bundle of secrets Alan Pangborn’s kept penned inside his head and heart for 27 years, secrets that finally burst out of him when Henry challenges him: “I know, Henry!” he snaps, suddenly breaking the quiet tension of their sparring. “I’ve always known. He told me.” For almost three decades now, the former sheriff has been certain Ruth’s 11-year-old son murdered her husband. “He wrote it out for me on a goddamned bank slip, all capital letters: HENRY DID IT.” He spells out for Henry all the machinations he performed to keep Henry from being charged with his father’s death, concluding ruefully, “You’re the one dug up Desjardins. I’m just out here trying to keep this fucking fence from falling down.” It’s not much of a fence, that rickety box penning in the Deaver place. But it’s all the barrier they’ve got.
Drew Grant’s catalog of Castle Rock’s Easter eggs is great reading, even if you think you caught them all.
Gordon (Mark Harelik), one of Molly’s prospective buyers from Des Moines, is too interested in Dale Lacy’s art for my comfort, and too familiar with Castle Rock’s local landmarks.
Sometimes they come back: Though Maine has no shortage of Desjardins, it seems Joseph Desjardins’ brother Vince is the bullying buddy of Ace Merrill (from The Body, and later appearing in Needful Things). And (spoiler warning for a 39-year-old novel and a 35-year-old film) either Molly’s family home on North Prospect is where Frank Dodd lived with his mother or Castle Rock has been home to two known serial stranglers.