Photo: Bill SkarsgĂĄrd (Dana Starbard)

The biggest revelation of “Henry Deaver,” the penultimate episode of Castle Rock’s uneven first season, isn’t the identity of Bill Skargård’s The Kid. It’s the atrocity visited upon André Holland’s Henry when he went missing as a child.

That Henry—let’s call him Henry I—was missing for days. But he was imprisoned for decades. Locked in a cage, pleading with his own father to free him, to believe him, to see as something other than a devil, Henry Deaver lived, unchanging and ageless, in a hell of his father’s creation. He was so isolated that eventually he all but lost the ability to speak, to sit in a lighted room, to bear the nearness of other people.

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Alternate-universe Henry Deaver, played with bright good cheer by Bill Skarsgård, is markedly different from the wary, drawn man found in Shawshank nine episodes ago, and with good reason. Henry II had a troubling early childhood, but his mother managed to leave his father, moving him away from Matthew Deaver’s obsession with the schisma and his incessant, abusive attempts to make Henry hear it, too.

This Henry is more than superficially sunny and successful. He’s a different man down to his bedrock. He’s confident, he’s eloquent, he’s outgoing. Over and over, “Henry Deaver” shows Henry II’s optimism. He expects his project to start earn profits almost immediately. He “just [has] a feeling” that his wife (like Wendell’s mother, named Marret) is pregnant though they’ve just begun trying to conceive. Even as he cradles Molly, bleeding out on the forest floor, he promises, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay.”

Henry II is as different from The Kid as the spry cat he releases from his luxury carrier is from the pitiful, lost Puck before Henry’s hippocampal implant restored the cat’s memory and his zest for life. Only decades spent ripped from his rightful universe, locked in a dark cage, can strip away the bright, easy joy from this man’s face and bearing.

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Much remains the same from universe to universe, from timeline to timeline. The Deavers’ son, whoever he is, is named Henry. Henry’s pet, whether dog or cat, is named Puck. Matthew Deaver remains obsessed with the haunting sound he hears in Castle Lake’s woods, and in each universe one of the pillars of Castle Rock’s community builds a secret prison for a supposed devil. The men obsessed even use the same words to describe their burdensome desire to serve God: “Let me stand athwart a doorway.” And in each case, these men are the true evil, caging a stranger, assuming they and they alone know and understand God’s plan, or of the devil’s.

It’s possible to interpret the profound change in both Henrys—in the adult Henry II, in the young Henry I—as an indictment of institutional imprisonment of adults and children alike, but that reading requires an unearned faith in the writers. In its early episodes, Castle Rock gestures toward considerations of larger social evils and ills, but it seems that gestures were all those ever were. Its early indictment of for-profit prisons, its cursory indictment of the casual cruelty of Shawshank’s guards and the willful inattention of their superiors, the terror of a black child (or the man he would grow into) facing off against armed and angry police officers, are entirely abdicated by the ninth episode. Even Dennis Zalewski, who wept over the wrongs perpetrated by his fellow COs, seems comfortable in his alternate-universe position as the sheriff’s right-hand man. If Castle Rock’s writers didn’t plan to excavate those issues, they would have been better off not paying lip service to them.

The same is true of Matthew Deaver’s ponderous reminiscences about his mother (Mamie Gummer), an ungainly excuse to shoehorn in more ruminations about resurrection. Dennis Zalewski, dead in the fourth episode, is resurrected here as one of the sheriff’s most trusted officers. Molly—not the exhausted, hesitant Molly of the first eight episodes, but a buoyant, bright-eyed go-getter—dies in the woods of Castle Lake, but lives on in the original universe. Alan Pangborn, shot down by his true love in the first timeline, here lives on with Ruth, safe in Sarasota. Even the town of Castle Rock, once at death’s door, is resurrected into a bustling small city, full of ice cream parlors, gastro-pubs, and smiling crowds eager to spend their time and money.

This revival of the doomed town as a booming success points out my biggest question about setting this story in Castle Rock, or indeed in any Stephen King setting. King is masterful at trapping his characters in dire circumstances, tying them in place not just with the bonds of love or loyalty, or family and friendship—though he can write both of those with heartbreaking honesty. However incredible Stephen King’s worlds may be, at their best, his characters and settings are grounded in practicalities, often cruel ones.

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Wendy Torrance doesn’t throw her lot in with Jack’s winter caretaking just because she loves him, though she does. As the novel makes brutally clear, all her alternatives look worse… until it’s too late to change her mind. Delores Claiborne hatches a scheme to outwit her vicious husband only after her first plan, one crafted from pure pragmatism, falls through, and after she sees there’s more at stake than her own safety. Even the characters in The Stand, surrounded by all the consumer goods and canned foods they could want or need, are trammeled in situations, in relationships, in communities they might rather be freed from by concrete practical concerns.

But not in Castle Rock—not in this Castle Rock. In Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s Castle Rock, despite the town’s trappings of economic decay, most characters are driven by abstract concerns, not by the mundane but unrelenting pressures of workaday life. Even Molly, so strapped for cash she’s nickel-and-diming her teenaged drug dealer, can scrounge up the credit to rent a massive mill. Only Dennis, who spits out that he’d rather work at Walmart than Shawshank, seems genuinely driven by the threat of poverty.

That’s precious little gritty reality for a series that takes its setting and its name from the works an author celebrated for the gritty reality of even his most fantastical tales. Stephen King is the architect of unbelievable worlds and impossible horrors, and one element that keeps them plausible is the terrible reality of the challenges pressing on the people who live in, and through, those horrors.

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Photo: Bill SkarsgĂĄrd (Dana Starbard/Hulu)

A researcher into Alzheimer’s prevention and recovery, Henry II announces to an attentive boardroom that “when continuity is interrupted, everything starts to slide.” That statement is the core of this season’s story, and a terrible foreshadowing of Henry Deaver’s own fate. Of both Henrys’ fates. But it’s also an argument for watching Castle Rock as a bingeable series instead of in weekly installments. Castle Rock toys with its own continuity a little too blithely and with too little command of its timelines, so that individual episodes feel fractured and unreliable, and not with the rich ambiguity of an unreliable narrator. The delay between episodes gives us time to reflect on its red herrings and detours without the reassuring sense of speedy resolution.

For all the graces of its remarkable cast, its thoughtful direction, its lush visuals and unsettling sound design, Castle Rock is a little rockier than its writers seem to realize. As a horror series, it’s fine, meaning it’s more than satisfactory as a collection of complexly connected characters and heady horrors, admirably performed and elegantly presented. It’s good! It’s fine! But Castle Rock is a drink that would go down smoother taken in a few lusty draughts. This ain’t sippin’ whiskey.

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Stray observations

  • The overhead shots of Molly and Henry II at a table as they listen to Matthew’s tapes feel a little showy, but later in the episode, they’re mirrored by overhead footage of Molly, Henry I, and Henry II making their escape from the trailing police cruiser. It’s a visual echo underlining the many narrative and situational echoes of “Henry Deaver.”
  • If Henry I, Henry II, and Molly can connect to other versions of Castle Rock only at the vortex in the woods, why can Ruth slip from reality to reality as easily as crossing a threshold in her own home? If her illness is what untethers her from fixed reality, that’s a gaffe on par with (narratively presumed) depression granting visions of alien monsters or autism as superpower.
  • Should I still expect dire happenings on the Pangborn Bridge, or is Castle Rock’s fondness for bridges (including this week’s introduction of Henry II jogging along the grand expanse of a bridge) merely a nod to the bridging of universes?
  • The empty Moxie cans on Matthew Deaver’s desk are impossible to miss, but fewer will note the half-seen bag of Little Lad’s popcorn.

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