“It was that damned dog,” Ruth Deaver laments to her son in the aftermath of her leap from the bridge—from the Pangborn Bridge, dedicated seconds before her leap. “That damned dog” isn’t a St. Bernard like Cujo, but his bark is enough to rouse memories of the terrible siege in the Camber’s dooryard. Or maybe Ruth believes the stray dog she and Alan buried—and dug up, just to be sure—is back. Again.
Or maybe Ruth is afraid of rousing something more terrible than memories. In the same breath, she says, “Nothing stays dead in this town,” and indeed her memories of her late husband—who is sounding more sinister in every episode—don’t lie quiet.
Jackie Torrance revels in Castle Rock’s hellish history, and not solely as history safely past. “I’d give my left tit to go back there,” she says, smoking weed and airing stories to the strange, strangely quiet man she found nude in Molly’s office. “The ’80s, man!” She can’t see past the lurid excitement of “serial killers and psychopathic dogs,” and she renamed herself after her axe-wielding uncle to spite her parents, who refuse to rehash their own shock and loss for her amusement.
The town of Castle Rock is awash in its own history, whitewashing what it can. The christening of Pangborn Bridge begins with a moment of silence for “our fallen heroes at Shawshank.” But the moment of commemoration flashes Henry back into memories of bullets flying and blood spattering as his star witness’ spree ends. If Zalewski were there, maybe he’d disabuse the ceremony’s attendees of the heroism of his fellow guards, who beat inmates for any reason and no reason, who blind prisoners with delousing powder. But he isn’t.
At the ceremony honoring him, Alan Pangborn waves off praise and hints of heroism past. Alan, who has seen too many horrors to believe in heroes, tells the crowd, “I just hope I’ve left Castle County a little better than I found it.”And his own complicity in the current mystery isn’t Alan’s only reason for shying from nostalgia. He has lost one love to death and is slowly losing another to dementia. (That’s not counting Polly Chalmers, who might exist in a different version of Castle Rock, or who might simply go unmentioned in this tale, as many of the town’s former residents will.) Ruth is right that the past won’t stay buried in Castle Rock, but it also can’t seem to stay lively and loving. Not for Alan.
Castle Rock—a show built on the bedrock of nostalgia not just for a story or a character, but for a whole fictional town—is warning its characters (and its audience) against nostalgia’s seduction. It’s crossing the bridge to the past, ginning up a whole new story, weaving together strands of a history that was never written, in a town that never existed. And it’s burning that bridge as it goes. The background is littered with nods to the past, names from King’s oeuvre, scraps of stories. But those stories are incomplete, sometimes intentionally obscured. (Drew Grant suggests the series’ conscious interweaving of texts, reflected in Castle Rock’s credit sequence, acknowledges the existence of an urtext against which all its variations can be compared, and maybe of an observer doing the comparing.)
Let’s talk about “The Kid,” as Castle Rock’s promotional materials call Bill Skarsgård’s unnamed character, and as its in-universe characters are starting to call him. I’ve resisted using the name, in part because it was used infrequently at the beginning, but mostly because calling a man accused of terrible things—even an apparently young man, even when those terrible things are supernatural and unspecified—a “kid” is a powerful act. Skarsgård’s character isn’t a “kid,” and in “The Harvest,” it’s revealed that he wasn’t a kid 27 years ago, when Dale Lacy locked him up. “You haven’t aged one goddamned day,” Alan says, facing the unnamed man in the woods near Ruth’s house. “Are you the devil?”
Whatever he is, this looming, pale specter of a man isn’t a kid, and he wasn’t a kid 27 years ago. Henry was a kid. Henry was a child when he vanished for 11 freezing days. A child who, according to his missing poster, already had a scar prominent enough to ID him. A child who was blamed—for his own disappearance, for his father’s death—by an entire town. A child convicted in the court of public opinion so thoroughly that the sheriff “ginned up” leads to keep Ruth’s son from being charged. In a town where every inhabitant for generations quietly agrees that an unnatural evil dogs their heels and shapes their destiny, when Matthew Deaver died, the community ignored what they knew about their town and came together to agree that the kid did it.
At the bridge dedication, Alan Pangborn talks about his childhood ambition of becoming a magician. (Readers of King’s books will remember Alan’s dexterity and how he uses simple magic tricks to calm and cajole witnesses into telling their tales.) “But,” he says, pausing heavily. “A magician has to tell a little story, something to distract you while they palm an ace off the deck. I was never any good at that, never any good at the patter.” But Alan was good enough at misdirection to give Henry a chance to grow up, to leave Castle Rock, to get his clients the due process that almost eluded him as a boy.
Henry knows, and the writers of Castle Rock know, that a story changes as its telling changes. Lila Byock’s script for “The Harvest” hits this theme hard, over and over, ringing changes on it as the episode goes on. “Don’t be afraid to reframe your narrative,” the host of Shawshank’s smarmy re-entry video says. Soon after, Henry greets his nameless client by suggesting they “start from scratch,” with a new story and a fresh chance to meet each other. Dale Lacy reflects on his story, his choices, his decades dedicated to imprisoning a kid, comparing his former righteous fire to the uncertainty that grew as the years crept on. Walking in on Ruth and Alan in their room, barely embracing, Henry reframes their entire relationship in an instant; when Alan tells him the rest of their love story as they sit in the hospital corridor, Henry listens more sympathetically than he’s ever listened to Alan before.
“Restore the context, restore the memories,” a doctor examining The Kid tells Henry, but Henry knows better than anyone that’s not a guarantee. What context? Where? With whom? For The Kid, there is no context except a dark, solitary prison. (He tries to rebuild that prison from the old windows littering Molly’s office.) “After all these years,” Dale Lacy says, “I still don’t know what you really are, or if I did the right thing.” Looking at The Kid, unchanged after almost 30 years as a captive, Alan asks, “What the fuck are you?”
Castle Rock keeps glancing from individual evils and corruption—a serial strangler, an abusive husband—toward systemic ones. Almost every episode includes a remark about the wrongs of privatized prisons, where corporate stooges care more about their reputations than their responsibilities, and where prisoners are overcrowded, underfed, and (as in “The Harvest”) dispatched on dangerous duties for pennies. But it isn’t clear where this line of thought is going, or if it’s going anywhere.
Five episodes in, Castle Rock has grown from a stilted, shallow collection of half-characters to an assured, often eerie collection of half-stories. But they’re still half-stories. The difference is that now I trust the show—trust its quiet confidence, trust its comfort with unease, trust its gradual, patient building of tension—enough to look forward to the next five episodes. Like the doctor’s advice, that’s not a guarantee. But it’s a good feeling.
- Exploding casket syndrome is real. (Exploding head syndrome is also a real, if not well-documented, complaint, though not one that seems consistent with Henry’s recurring condition.)
- That’s Richard Schiff berating Warden Porter over the phone. Suddenly it makes sense that the warden’s first name (Theresa) was withheld until now, then dropped into the show as a casual display of power by the only person so far to outrank her.
- At Henry’s cognitive examination in 2016, the five words for his recall test are boat, family, church, dog, white; he repeats them with a pause before “dog.” The Kid’s recall words are face, velvet, church, family, red; he repeats them as “face, velvet, red, church, family.”
- Dogs are all over “The Harvest.” There’s the dog barking during Alan’s speech, spurring Ruth to leap from Pangborn Bridge. Jackie mentions Cujo (or some other “psychopathic dog”) to her unnamed companion. Disgusted at Henry’s surveillance of Ruth’s house, Alan asks, “Why don’t you just put a chip in her like a golden retriever?”