By all accounts, and despite (or maybe because of) its natural inclination toward horror, Hulu’s Castle Rock should be a program that is, first and foremost, fun to watch. An extended journey through the mind of author Stephen King, the series, produced by J.J. Abrams and created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan), is set not only in the eponymous fictional town, but in a world where themes, locations, and sometimes stories from King’s oeuvre overlap and intertwine, weaving a tapestry that’s part psychological horror, part fan-focused Easter egg farm.
References to previous King works abound in the first few hours of the series (the Castle Rock premiere will include episodes 1, 2, and 3 before going to a weekly format similar to The Handmaid’s Tale). Shawshank Prison is a major part of the series’ narrative, as Bill Skarsgård’s mysterious character is discovered in a wing of the correctional institution that’s been cordoned off by its previous warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn). It’s not the Shawshank fans know from King’s writing or Frank Darabont’s Oscar-nominated film turned cable television staple, The Shawshank Redemption. It’s still a bureaucratic nightmare run by unscrupulous officials, but it’s literally a shell of its former self. There’s something wrong inside Shawshank, and it’s in Castle Rock and its residents, too.
Shawshank is but one of many mentions of one story or another written by King that the series points to with increasingly frequency, and without necessarily stating the importance of the nod. It doesn’t take long before the subject of IT and Cujo and The Dead Zone are broached, and the references don’t stop there. But while the series' writers are busy constructing a story on a foundation of King’s most popular stories, the narrative they themselves are tasked with assembling never quite comes to fruition.
At the center of the story is Holland’s Henry Deaver, a death row attorney whose clients are all dead. Called home following the discovery of Skarsgård’s mysterious inmate, Henry begins to reconnect with his troubled past, one that has him coming home to his adoptive mother Ruth (Spacek), who has, in the intervening years, opened her house to Glenn’s cantankerous Alan Pangborn. While there, Henry is reacquainted with Molly Strand (Lynskey), a childhood friend who claims to suffer from psychic visions and procures drugs from a local teenage dealer in order to help stifle the voices in her head.
Henry’s backstory is presumably a key part of the larger mystery unraveling within the town. The first four episodes toy with the notion of childhood trauma, particularly an incident that left young Henry as the town pariah. Details are teased out in a cold open and other flashbacks shunted into the episodes themselves. But the particulars of Henry’s past remain obscured, and there’s an overwhelming sense that Henry himself is either unwilling or unable to engage with his memories (but really it's the narrative itself), and so the viewer waits as one mystery is layered upon another, with hints and clues and allusions sprinkled in with each subsequent installment.
It’s clear that Castle Rock wants to build toward something big by alluding to something more substantial than a web of loosely interconnected events described in greater detail in King’s writing. In the early going, though, the series is less a story on its own than it is a cursory cataloging of stories fans already know. The appeal of that is apparent, as connected universes comprised of seemingly disparate stories are incredibly popular at the moment, and affording fans a chance to discover the connective tissue between Shawshank and Cujo and more is an acknowledgement of their decades of loyalty. It would be a monumental achievement if the show’s original story were more substantial and moved with a greater sense of urgency.
As it stands, the first four episodes are like a leisurely stroll through the mind of Stephen King, or at least this newly minted Kingverse. Numerous threads begin and then seemingly begin again, rather than delve deeper into the story and a greater understanding of what Castle Rock is and why everything about it is so portentous. The various storylines give the series freedom to jump from one scenario to the next, filling each hour with an incredible amount of plot. After a while, though, these threads become too fragmented, and are in no hurry to get to where they’re going, much less converge into a cohesive whole. Instead, Castle Rock is content to tease out a number of eerie implications, avoiding any direct exploration of the significance of whatever evil is lurking in this sleepy little burg. At one point, Terry O’Quinn’s character refers to the town as “stained by it’s own sin.” That line sounds great; it’s spooky and captivating and suggests that there’s someone with all the answers sought by viewer and character alike. But it’s also indicative of Castle Rock’s first four episodes: Allusions to things greater than what’s actually on screen.
Still, the series boasts fine performances from Holland, Lynskey, and Glenn, as well as supporting roles for Allison Tolman, as Lynskey’s sister, Jane Levy as Jackie, and Shameless’ Noel Fisher as Zalewski, a prison guard at Shawshank. The series rightfully leans heaviest on Holland and Lynskey, and the two are more than up to the task of shouldering the weight. Holland brings a mix of dogged determination and weariness to a character defined primarily by his ideals and a dicey past that’s regrettably kept from the audience for too long. Lynskey, meanwhile, acts as a welcome leavening agent to the story, while also tying it directly to elements of the supernatural.
Ultimately, Castle Rock is a King lovers’ dream, one that rewards longtime fans for their knowledge of the author’s many stories. But the series comes up short when it’s time to ascribe meaning or importance to the many allusions to Kings work and, worse yet, when it comes time to deliver a narrative that can stand on its own.
Castle Rock premieres Wednesday, July 25 on Hulu