Photo: André Holland (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

Castle Rock opens in flashback, showing Alan Pangborn (the quietly capable, deceptively adept sheriff of Stephen King’s Needful Things and The Dark Half) trudging alone through the bleak Maine winter, wind howling around him as he plunges a stick into mounds of snow. This is no longer a rescue operation, but a recovery mission. He’s looking for a body.

What he finds is a boy.

To faithful King readers, the casting—and the countenance—of the older Pangborn might come as a surprise. In the books, Alan Pangborn is tough and thoughtful, capable and kind. Scott Glenn’s portrayal is as unflinching as the Pangborn of the books, and as wary of sentiment. But he’s gruffer, rougher, seedier. He’s cynical.

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It’s not hard to see why. A man who digs with his hands in snowbank after snowbank, hoping and fearing to find a child’s corpse, a man who lived a life where that hope (of a case closed and a sorrow resolved) and fear (another tragedy to break to another parent) was business as usual, could grow hard-bitten too fast. As Pangborn says late in “Severance,” contemplating another lawman’s suicide, “It’s not always a happy job carrying the keys.”

Henry Deaver, too, is a savvy piece of casting. Having left behind his notorious childhood in Castle Rock for a career representing death-row defendants, Henry’s called back—literally—by an anonymous caller telling him he has a client is waiting at Shawshank State Penitentiary. (Yes, that Shawshank.) André Holland, justly celebrated for Moonlight, brings the same measured, sensitive depth to Henry Deaver’s first appearance that he brought to Matt Miller—the “real” Matt Miller—in American Horror Story: Roanoke.

Henry’s quiet. He’s deliberate. He’s gentle but not fragile. He’s dismayed and sometimes puzzled, but nothing in this sometimes surprising world can really shock him, not the executioners taking a second, unauthorized run at killing his client, not his own mother mistaking him for a tree surgeon, not the grizzled former sheriff stepping out of his mother’s shower and into one of his late father’s shirts. His expression when a prison gatekeeper instructs him to present his ID, and then to present it again but closer, betrays years of patient, tired, almost invisible negotiations with hostile institutions. And there’s no more hostile institution, or so the show hints, than whatever ungodly mystery lays claim to the town of Castle Rock.

But hints of Castle Rock’s mysteries are all “Severance” delivers. What happened to Henry (Caleel Harris) at the age of 11, when he vanished for 11 days during a bone-chilling cold snap, then returned unharmed to learn his father had died? Why does Henry remember (or claim to remember) nothing before his rescue by Alan Pangborn? What spurred Warden Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) to lock up an unnamed man—a boy when he was imprisoned—in the bowels of the prison he commanded?

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Photo: Bill SkarsgĂĄrd (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

As that man, Bill Skarsgård is the actor most tasked with creating presence without dialogue or props. His unnamed prisoner—not an inmate, but a strange young man found deep in a disused water tank off a long-closed wing—speaks only a handful of words. Undiluted by It’s sometimes comical effects, Skarsgård’s physicality is impressive as he moves through the prison. He looms over the guards who hem him in, but his pale, slim frame (Skarsgård “sort of starved myself” to create his gaunt, haunted look) and his dark, guarded eyes look more fearful than fearsome. Pulled from a lightless hole and led through Shawshank’s still-dim corridors, he gives the impression of both floating through the unaccustomed light and shrinking from it.

Writers (and creators) Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason lay out Castle Rock’s characters and situations in broad but clear strokes. “I wish you’d taken that buyout 30 years ago,” the warden’s wife (Frances Conroy, who deserves more name than “Mrs. Lacy”) says when she catches him cheerfully making her breakfast before leaving for what should be his last day of work. Instead, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) drives out to Castle Lake, where he sits on the bluff, car idling as he listens to opera (the same duettino played by Andy Dufresne when he barricades the warden’s office—different warden, same office). Then Warden Lacy places a noose around his neck and floors the accelerator, the rope around his neck pulling taut as his big sedan plunges over the cliff. He’s taken the buyout, all right. He’s counting on full severance.

“Severance” is just as deft, even glib, in sketching out other characters’ backgrounds. Noel Fisher is the sharp-eyed, soft-hearted corrections officer with a pang of conscience and a baby on the way. Ann Cusack is the seasoned professional, successor to Warden Daly, called in a day early after his dramatic death. Melanie Lynskey is the wary, troubled local woman (not a MILF, she spells out to her teenaged drug dealer, because you need kids to be a MILF) who spots Henry Deaver the moment he arrives but hangs back, avoiding eye contact. Sissy Spacek is Ruth Deaver, forgetful enough to let a fire burn on the stove unattended or to mistake her own son, arriving in a suit and with a suitcase, for a hired hand.

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

Castle Rock is based not on a specific Stephen King story, not even on the many stories that take place in the titular town, though they are plenty. The series (under King’s imprimatur as executive producer) promises to draw not just from the haunted town, or from its equally haunted, equally fictional neighbors like Derry, Haven, or Salem’s Lot, but from the mythology that’s grown up around all of King’s tales, long or short, earthbound or otherwise. Because that mythology is something wild, growing unbidden in between the stories, creeping out of the edges of King’s fiction like bittersweet vines climbing over a Maine roadside.

The show succeeds crucially in one arena where too many Stephen King adaptations fail. Castle Rock quietly, competently fills the screen with a sense of Maine. It’s not the bright summertime snapshot of beaches and lobster rolls that the tourist councils might prefer, and not the toothless backwoods terrors that low-rent horror promises. Instead, Castle Rock explores the lands in between those imagined extremes: the weary grace of once-grand houses, long ago homes to lumber barons and bevies of servants; the brutal blankness of abandoned storefronts and crumbling mills; the eerie emptiness of a town still full of people but somehow deserted. I’ve spent the past year visiting (and ultimately buying a piece of) Maine real estate, acquainting myself better than ever with neighborhoods, histories, and houses outside of Portland’s bubble and away from waterfront-property luxury. Though filmed in Massachusetts, Castle Rock reproduces the best and worst of central Maine’s inland landscape in troubled economic times, the sense of old grandeur and of once-lively downtowns now dying. I can practically feel the bittersweet vines encroaching on this cursed town, creeping in at every corner—bucolic, even beautiful, but ready to choke out all other life.

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Nostalgia is like bittersweet, too, and I hope Shaw and Thomason have a firm grip on theirs, or Castle Rock could get lost under its greedy grasp. There’s something beautiful about bittersweet, its deep green leaves, its graceful tendrils, the red berries that stand out bright against fallen snow. But bittersweet is invasive. Tenacious and all but unkillable, it sends out creepers to cling to a tree, a shrub, a flowering plant, and it chokes out its host, starving it of water and sunlight, crawling inexorably over surrounding plants until nothing remains but a huge hump of ivy, vaguely mimicking the shape of the host.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to A.V. Club coverage of Castle Rock! Since Hulu is debuting Castle Rock’s first three episodes today, we’re publishing three reviews today, and you can expect a new review as each episode premieres. Thanks for reading!
  • In a small Maine town, it is absolutely possible to ID a former classmate 10 or 20 years later just by seeing them step off a Trailways bus. I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done. There is no town smaller than a small Maine town, especially if you were notorious in your youth, and almost certainly especially if you’re not white. The warden is lying when she talks to Henry Deaver, but not about Maine being “lily-white.”
  • “Severance” is a catalog of King-universe Easter eggs, and I won’t have room to list all of them in each review. Have at it in the comments! And don’t miss Erik Adams’ pre-air review, where he covers the cast members’ previous dips into Stephen King’s world.

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