Hulu’s Castle Rock is good, folks. It’s really good, and that goes for fans of Stephen King or those who are largely ignorant of his work (if those people even exist). I’ve read plenty of King books and seen most of his movies, but I wouldn’t call myself a Stephen King fanboy. However, Castle Rock seems to work just as well for the casual King fan. Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have brilliantly concocted a series that uses themes, settings, and characters from the works of Stephen King and remixes it all into a new story that feels like one of the best works of King’s career, only someone else is writing it.
There are plenty of Stephen King “easter eggs,” as folks are bound to call them, in Castle Rock and while it’s neat if you recognize them, they don’t affect the story so much as they evoke the world of Stephen King. The story is set in King’s fictional city of Castle Rock, Maine for instance, a town with basically only one major employer, a privately run prison called Shawshank.
A lot of fun in watching Castle Rock is seeing how it unfolds, so I’ll offer only a bare-bones description of what’s going on, but you’re obviously welcome to skip it (in fact, I recommend it):
The story kicks off with two major events. In 1991, a kid named Henry Deaver surfaces on a frozen pond 11 days after he’s gone missing. In those intervening days, Deaver’s adopted father — the town preacher — was found but subsequently died. Molly Strand, a kid who lives across the way from the Deavers and has a crush on Henry, may hold some insights into Henry’s disappearance and her father’s death, although much of the town blames Henry for the death of his Dad.
Meanwhile, in the present day, the warden of Shawshank prison, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) commits suicide (in a brutal fashion) soon after retiring. When the new warden takes over, she discovers underneath the prison that an unknown man (Bill Skarsgård at his creepiest) has been living in a cage. When a corrections officer (Noel Fisher) frees him, Mr. Creepy asks only for Henry Deaver, who is now all grown up (and played by André Holland) and works as a defense lawyer on capital cases in Texas. He comes back to Castle Rock, reunites with Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) — who has an unspecified condition — and that’s when the town’s secrets begin to surface. Deaver’s mother (Sissy Spacek) — who has Alzheimer’s — holds some of those secrets, while her boyfriend — the same town sheriff who found Henry in 1981 — holds some of the others.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot.
I will say this, however: Like many of Stephen King’s better works, Castle Rock superbly combines mystery and horror, strong character work and disturbing imagery. The dialogue can be a little thin at times, but the performances bring it to life, and by the end of the second episode, Castle Rock hooks its viewers into the mystery (the first two episodes air on July 25th before it moves to a weekly format). It also possesses the same page-turning qualities of the best of King’s work — critics were given the first four episodes, and I am absolutely miserable about having to wait for the rest to arrive. And unlike Hulu’s Stephen King adaptation of 11.22.63 — which worked from a strong premise but sputtered as it progressed — Castle Rock improves as the mystery deepens and as the lives of the characters continue to intertwine.
The performances, likewise, are stellar. Holland, who was so good in The Knick and so very good in Moonlight gets an opportunity here to show more range, and while he’s largely a seriously minded lawyer, he also has moments of warmth (and when Holland grins, GOOD LORD). Lynskey, as one might expect, is a stand-out — her character is also, perhaps, the best written of the series. There are, of course, some actors from previous Stephen King movies (Spacek, Scott Glenn, Skarsgård, as well as Lynskey) who help to bring that Stephen King vibe to the series, as does a quintessential Maine setting (actual location: Massachusetts).
There’s so much more than I want to say, but I won’t, because it’s enough here to nudge folks in the direction of Castle Rock and allow y’all to make the discoveries for yourselves. Just trust this: It’s very good, and in a summer that’s been thin on quality shows, this one hits the spot.