“How much doubt are you folks comfortable with?” 

The first season of Castle Rock is woefully uneven. It’s slow-paced and sluggish, it’s ingenious and action-packed, it’s derivative. It crafts its crumbling surroundings with crushing realism, and it fails to weave those real-world pressures so crucial to in the work of the author who is its inspiration) into its stories.

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It’s a thoughtful character study that introduces and discards characters with thoughtless abandon. It knows chapter and verse of Stephen King’s stories, but has less of his powerful punch. At times, it’s frankly a mess. Castle Rock is a story split in two as surely as any of Stephen King’s intertwined selves of hero and villain.

It’s also eerie, emotionally dense, and elegantly haunting. And “Romans,” the finale of season one and the end of Henry Deaver’s story, hit me square in the gut.

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Photo: Melanie Lynskey (Screenshot/Hulu)

Above all, this season of Castle Rock is acted with towering excellence. In a cast this talented, it should be hard to stand out, but André Holland makes it look like no effort at all. In this final episode of the season, packed with strong performances and quiet power, the most striking acting is nearly silent, with Holland’s Henry stealing scenes even from the expressive eyes of Melanie Lynskey. As Henry and Molly have their last conversation over the scarred table of Castle Rock PD’s interrogation room—as he asks her to take Wendell back to Boston, and from there to drive farther, to drive somewhere warm, to drive as far away from him as she can get—their words are simple and powerful. Their pauses and wary glances are even stronger.

If Castle Rock’s first season leaves me rocked with doubt, that’s only appropriate. This season is about doubt, and about certainty, and about the stories we tell ourselves to feel one or the other. The Kid tells his story to Molly, then asks, his voice pleading, “You believe me, don’t you?” Her answer says it all: “I want to.” Molly wants to believe one thing. Dale Lacy wanted to believe another. Henry knows from bitter experience that people can believe anything, especially if it’s ugly, but he persuades himself anyhow. From the first episodes, the scariest thing in Castle Rock—and Castle Rock—wasn’t the idea of an otherworldly monster. It was the too-real monsters that we can too easily become.

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The Kid—Henry Matthew Deaver, Baby Deaver, Henry II, whatever you want to call him—isn’t responsible for Castle Rock’s woes. They predate his arrival, even his birth (or death, depending on the world) by centuries. There may have been a devil driving Castle Rock to despair for generations, but it isn’t the person, or persona, played by Bill Skarsgård. His optimistic, joyous life in another universe is more than just a story he’s told to Molly, to Henry. It’s more than a tale told in hopes of escape. We’ve seen it. We are witnesses to his truth.

We are complicit.

But complicit in what? Complicit in the capture of a man turned into a monster by decades of ageless, and therefore endless, imprisonment? Complicit in the conspiracy of ordinary people who make bargains with evil, and therefore become evil themselves, in the pursuit of certainty? Complicit in Henry Deaver’s assumption of a captor’s duties, and in the recruitment of the next generation of wardens when Henry can no longer descend into the small hell he tends?

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Photo: Bill Skarsgård (Screenshot/Hulu)

More than the face he flashes at Henry in the woods, it’s The Kid’s chiseling, sniveling voice at the end that most persuades me he’s a monster. And that means I’m a monster, too, at least partly, because who wouldn’t chisel or snivel or manipulate, who wouldn’t threaten or bluster or persuade, to gain any chance of release, of relief, from this ceaseless torment? Who could see someone in those straits and not expect him to use every tool, every tone, every inflection, within reach to plead for freedom?

Henry has doubts. So did Dale Lacy. Who would bother to say grace over a devil’s meals? Who would give a devil a Christmas dinner? Sometimes you know the ax is wrong, but, as Jackie Torrance says in the stinger, it feels right in your hand. The transition from Henry’s cozy life in his late mother’s house to his grim self-appointed duty as jailer, is sickening—as dizzying as the moment when the camera dollying along Castle Rock’s railroad tracks takes flight and solid ground drops away—and it’s inevitable. As Jackie also says, the best place to end a story is where it began.

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So Castle Rock ends where it began, with a man of conscience devoting himself to caging someone he believes is a devil, and doubting his belief. If the stories he tells himself about himself are less self-soothing than the stories Dale Lacy told himself, they’re still just stories.

And, as it began, Castle Rock ends with another rendition of “24 Hours From Tulsa”: “Dearest darling, I had to write to say that I won’t be home anymore / ’Cause something happened to me while I was driving home / And I’m not the same anymore .”

It would be unfair to describe the first season of Castle Rock as a disappointment when it so far outstrips my hopes for it. If anything, it’s a welcome surprise. The disappointment comes from seeing the cumulative impact of these 10 episodes: seeing how high the creators have set their sights, how lavishly bleak and beautiful the production is, how deft the direction and how poignant the performances… and then seeing that the storytelling falls short of the creators’ and writers’ ambitions. It’s not entirely successful. But it’s challenging, it’s cruel, it’s compassionate—and if it leaves me with more doubt than certainty, it’s still successful enough to whet my appetite for season two.

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Stray observations

  • Sometimes they (never) come back: A few pieces of Castle Rock’s first season, now as abandoned as the old mill Molly tried to rehabilitate. The ominous introduction of Pangborn Bridge. Matthew’s murderous mother, and his resurrection in infancy. Dale Lacy’s paintings. His junked car and The Kid’s planned “monument” to everyone who conspired to keep him caged.
  • Sissy Spacek’s performance throughout this season is nimble and smart, and her portrayal of Ruth’s sudden deterioration—her tremor, her lost look, her raspy voice—is one more demonstration of her depth and breadth.
  • Another shout-out to the sound design department, who end the story of Henry Deaver and, well, Henry Deaver with an unidentified sound thrumming in the background as the screen goes black. It could be the wind, it could be a grinding, it could be a growl. Whatever it is, it sounds threatening. It sounds hungry.
  • “It’s, like, a horror whatever?” “That’s pretty reductive.” Maybe season two will follow Jackie Torrance, who derives the same satisfaction from driving an ax into a man’s skull as she does from rehashing Castle Rock’s lurid past, as she makes her way out to The Overlook to look into her notorious uncle’s last months. Speculate all you like in the comments. Like the Torrances just settling in to wait out the winter, we have nothing but time… or so we think.
  • That’s the end of coverage for the first season of Castle Rock! Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you back here for season two.

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