Hulu’s Stephen King universe series, Castle Rock, wraps up an uneven first season by focusing its attention and various energies on what’s coming next, rather than reaching a logical and conclusive end point for its first season. Throughout season 1, the series wrestled with the need to develop and follow through with its own engaging storyline, while also delivering nods to a supposed expanded universe created by the heretofore unseen connective tissue between many of King’s stories and characters. Early on in the series, Easter eggs were the order of the day, even when shoehorning a Cujo or The Dead Zone or The Shining reference into the proceedings ultimately did a disservice to the ongoing narrative of Henry Deaver’s strange, increasingly violent life after returning to the show’s eponymous town.
As can sometimes be the case with ambitious high-concept series — especially ones intended to tangentially use the pre-existing IP of one of the most popular and successful American authors ever — there sometimes wasn’t enough underneath the concept to make for a truly compelling, cohesive story. That is to say, over the course of its first season, Castle Rock offered up a number of fascinating and engaging pieces, but the sum of those parts didn’t add up to something greater. That’s especially true after watching the perplexing, seemingly incomplete season 1 finale, ‘Romans.’
To its credit, the tail end of Castle Rock’s first season was a lot more fun and energetic than its first five or six episodes. That second half was also evidence the series had the creative real estate to move into more interesting territory in its second season. Episodes seven, eight, and nine were a relief from the over-serialized and lethargic narrative that dominated the first half of season 1. Though they didn’t necessarily deliver the thrust Castle Rock needed, ’The Queen,’ ‘Past Perfect,’ and ‘Henry Deaver’ altered the way the series unfolded, offering up a blueprint of how the it might look and function moving forward.
The Greg Yaitanes-directed ‘The Queen’ served Castle Rock in two important ways. First by igniting the first real conversation about the show online, after a surprisingly quiet response to the first few episodes. It also appeared to be the start of a course correction. Despite the unevenness of the series as a whole, that three-episode stretch delivered compact, emotionally driven short stories with a level of style and execution not seen in the series up until that point. And while those episodes opened the door for some cautious optimism about season 2, they made it painfully clear what a huge step backward ‘Romans’ was. A regression was due in part to the need to wrap the season up and also point the audience in the direction Castle Rock is headed with its second season.
But showing the building blocks to a potentially better season 2 doesn’t explain the many perplexing choices made in the final hour, especially the decision to eschew an actual climax in favor of jumping forward a year in time. The shift from Henry (André Holland) holding The Kid/Alternate Henry (Bill Skarsgård) at gunpoint to a surprising flash forward is so abrupt and its consequences so unearned that even the mid-credits scene with Jane Levy’s Jackie Torrance does little to amend the narrative whiplash.
The lack of a satisfying conclusion to the first season or to any character’s plot thread over the last 10 hours of television does have one thing going in its favor: It points to the need to pull Castle Rock out from under the crushing weight of a serialized structure it’s clearly not meant to bear, and to transition the series toward something to which it’s better suited. That is, telling a collection of interconnected, single character-focused short stories, rather than a more conventional television narrative in which the show’s impressive ensemble cast navigates a shallow and nebulous plotline.
As a finale to the first season of an ambitious new series, ‘Romans’ is a disappointment. The urgency in getting the alternate Henry Deaver back to his own dimension never quite materialized or built the tension necessary for an engaging season (or in this case, story) ender. Moreover, the remaining character threads, namely Molly (Melanie Lynskey) and the plight of Henry’s mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) failed to gain any traction at all, and instead relied on what was essentially a coda to tell the audience what their fates were. That meant depriving the audience of a true sense of conclusion. While it’s clear that the two Henry’s story is far from over, that’s not the case for the other characters, necessarily. And that’s where the finale again falls short. With Ruth having passed, Molly in the Keys, and Jackie planning a trip out West (to get in touch with her inner author/murderer), Castle Rock has more or less closed the book on this story, but it has done so in a way that leaves an awful lot to be desired.
With the series supposedly moving into anthology territory next season, it will be interesting to see whether the show adopts a mode of storytelling that’s akin to what was seen in ‘The Queen,’ ‘Past Perfect,’ and ‘Henry Deaver,’ or if history will instead repeat itself.
Castle Rock will return for season 2 on Hulu.