Over the past decade, many attempts were made to bring Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s beloved graphic novel series, Locke & Key, to our screens. At one point a film trilogy was in the works at Universal, before the rights passed to Dimension and then to Dreamworks. Mark Romanek directed a pilot for Fox that went nowhere, then both Scott Derrickson and Andy Muschietti were attached to direct a different pilot for Hulu. Why was it such a tough nut to crack? It’s hard to tell, though ballooning budgets seem to be a likely reason in a lot of cases. The books, which revolve around the fight to control a set of magical keys that unlock strange abilities, would require a hefty SFX budget to pull off well. Then there’s the fact that the story blends kid-friendly fantasy with nail-biting terror and heaps of gore, which seems effortless on the page but would in reality require studios to pick a lane — and a target audience to appeal to. In the end, it was Netflix that succeeded where all the others failed, and we’ve finally got the first ten episodes to prove it. The first ten of what I hope becomes a pile more, as soon as Netflix renews this sucker. Because here’s the thing: Season one of Locke & Key is… fine. It’s decent! At times it’s almost outstanding! The only problem is that it pulls its punches, delaying or withholding key pieces of the plot for future installments that aren’t yet guaranteed — and what remains is a season that may not give enough substance to hook new viewers, while also not giving fans the things they’ve been waiting to see brought to life all this time.
It would be absurd to expect a seamless adaptation, and I respect the balance that creators Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) and Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House) tried to strike between the source material and the screen. The general premise remains unaltered: After the shocking murder of their father, the Locke family packs up and moves to coastal Massachusetts to take over his ancestral home, the mysterious Keyhouse. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the the siblings — teenagers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and their kid brother Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) — to discover how the house earned its unique name. All around the estate, strange keys are hidden. Keys that whisper to the kids. Keys with equally special locks, which open up amazing, unexplainable possibilities. Keys that are… well, magic. There’s a key that can open a door to any place you can imagine. There’s a key that can open up your own mind, allowing you to sift through your emotions and relive your memories. There’s a key that can change your appearance, or release your spirit from your body, or make broken things whole again. Sounds fun, right? Not always. Some of the keys are dangerous, and all of them contain potential pitfalls if used by the unwary — and that’s not counting the weird woman who lives in their well, and who will do anything to collect the keys for herself.
Beyond that, the details of the plot begin to differ. Events from the books are remixed, and some of it is quite effective. There’s one major swerve that may stump the comic fans, right up until the last minutes of the season finale. Others changes seem more like a cost-saving endeavor, to drag the proceedings out so the big action set pieces are fewer and farther between. In their place, the show adds a lot of teenage drama filler as Tyler and Kinsey go through massive pendulum-swings of emotion that certainly tried my patience as a viewer, and frequently made the characters unsympathetic. Not all of the emotional groundwork felt like treading water, though. The Locke family is recovering from major trauma, having witnessed the brutal murder of their father Rendell, and each member carries their own unique guilt. Their mother, Nina (Darby Stanchfield), throws herself into uncovering the personal history that her husband always kept hidden, while also trying to fill the parental shoes he left behind. Tyler blames himself for not being in the house when it happened — and for being friends with the murderer, Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet). Kinsey blames herself for hiding rather than taking a stand. Bode doesn’t have time to worry about the past, because he’s too busy uncovering more keys — not to mention the fact that the well woman has targeted him for the brunt of her schemes.
The show has mysteries aplenty to sort through: What really happened to Rendell when he was a teenager, and how do the keys connect to the deaths of his friends? Why did Sam Lesser kill him? Who is the woman in the well, and what does she need the keys for? What’s up with that strange, glowing door down in the sea caves below their house? Why can’t adults like Nina or Uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) retain any memory of events involving the keys? All that, plus the ongoing revelations around the nature of the keys themselves, and you’d think there would be more than enough story to fill ten episodes… except that the show barely answers half of those questions, before wrapping up in a pseudo happy ending that leads directly into a final cliffhanger twist. Worse, it never addresses the elephant in the room: What even are the keys? Why do they exist, and who made them? I’m sure that will be explored if (when?) a second season launches, but it also seems like a necessary piece of the show’s mythology. I know where they came from, because I’ve read the comics, but for people who only know the show, that seems like a frustrating detail to omit.
If I’m being overly harsh, then it’s just because I had so much hope for this show. It’s not all dire news, though. The casting is inspired across the board. In particular, Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie from IT!) turns Bode into the absolute heart and soul of the show. Characters that young can be tough to nail, and Bode is a very unique mix of annoying kid brother and central hero. He is, more often than not, the first person to figure out what’s really going on in Keyhouse. You need to bristle when he ignored by his family, and share his childlike joy of discovery as he plays with the keys — and you need to worry for him when he is targeted by the well woman. By the way, her name is Dodge and she’s played with silky menace by Laysla De Oliveira (who recently starred in another Joe Hill adaptation, In The Tall Grass). As a villain, Dodge is omnipresent in every misfortune that befalls the Lockes. She is single-minded in her pursuit of the keys, and in particular the Omega Key, which unlocks the door in the cave — yet she rarely gets her hands dirty, preferring to manipulate others behind the scenes in her stead. De Oliveira effortlessly conveys the essential core of the series’s most inexplicable character, while also riffing on that character as she seduces and cajoles and threatens her way through every scene. If there is one inspired trick the show pulls on the comic readers, it’s a twist regarding Dodge that manages to be wholly original while also clearly in keeping with the source material.
I walked into Locke & Key expecting a one-and-done show, so the fact that this season is an incomplete story is sort of a relief, if only because there’s the possibility that the big show-stopping events I was waiting for have simply been tabled until future installments. However, what is apparent from this season is that the keys themselves have been sort of sidelined, and that’s a shame. So much of the focus is on life outside of Keyhouse rather than the mysteries in it. Don’t get me wrong: People talk about the keys plenty, or hide them or steal them or pass them back and forth, and when they are finally put to use it can be quite marvelous, but that happens few and far between. It also seems like the show has focused on keys that are frankly cheaper to implement and lack real visual oomph. I can understand why the outright gore was toned down, to be replaced by a more palatable forms of fear, but I can’t understand why the tradeoff wasn’t instead to invest more heavily in the wonderous, fantastical elements of the story. In the end, the show left me wanting more, which is sort of the point I guess — but if you didn’t already know what more there is to this story, would you care as much as I do?
For those who have seen the show, or who read the comics, I wanted to end with a few SPOILERS and predictions (so, you know, READER BEWARE):
— Kinsey’s new group of filmmaker friends call themselves the “Savini Squad” after Tom Savini, the SFX mastermind. But did you notice that Tom Savini himself played the Locksmith that Bode met with?
— The show invents a wholly new key, one that starts fires, and there are several others that are as yet still undiscovered, like the Giant Key, Animal Key, Hercules Key, and Timeshift Key. I suspect that the Timeshift Key will have to come into play next season, in order for the show to introduce the genesis of the keys and history of Keyhouse. The others may simply be too expensive, so may be written around. Which would be a shame.
— The Gender and Skin keys seem to have been combined into one general Identity Key, which honestly comes off as a whole lot less problematic.
— About that cliffhanger: Tyler and Kinsey think they’ve pitched Dodge through the Omega door, but they haven’t — it was actually Ellie (Sherri Saum), who had been transformed to look like Dodge. Meanwhile we learn that Dodge had always been masquerading as Gabe (Griffin Gluck), one of Kinsey’s friends and maybe love interest, and that another girl named Eden (Hallea Jones) was struck by the metal from beyond the door and possessed as well. The show hasn’t really explained just what is on the other side of that door, nor has it connected it to the whispering iron of the keys, but for readers who were expecting Kinsey to start hooking up with “Zack Wells”, it was a tidy little subversion.
— Now that I love Bode as much as I do, I’m going to really hate it when/if Dodge takes over his body. Dammit.
Header Image Source: Netflix