There’s always a steep learning curve when new shows premiere butÂ Castle Rock comes with a special primer in the form of Stephen King’s prolific body of work, much of which is located in or near the titular town of Castle Rock, Maine.
However, I’m coming into this with only general pop culture awareness of the works. (I readÂ The Dark HalfÂ in high school but never saw the movie.) Still, the premiere is designed to provide all the backstory you need to jump into this new offering.
It’s also the highest quality of creepy. The background music does a rich and effective job underscoring the deepÂ wrong-ness of this town where everyone is hiding something in their past, in their thoughts, in their darkest hearts.
Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played byÂ Bosch‘sÂ Jeffrey Pierce in the flashbacks) is sitting in his car parked in the woods, listening to the radio report on the futile search for young Henry Deaver who has been missing for twelve days in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record. The search has been called off until the spring thaw with the searchers having lost any hope of finding the boy alive.
Pangborn loads his sidearm and gets out of his car to continue the search through the woods. Using a walking stick, he pokes at snow drifts until he hits on something that’s not just sticks and leaves. He scoops the snow away and finds a frozen deer carcass.
His search leads him to the edge of Castle Lake where he sits and tries to warm up with a drink from his thermos. There’s a strange sounding wind that blows through the area and he stops to listen. Suddenly, he sees the boy standing alone out on the frozen lake.
Castle Rock – Present Day – 2018
Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn, Hawaii Five-O) prepares for his last day of work. His blind wife, Martha (Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under) tells him to have a good final day and mentions that she wishes he had taken the buy-out decades ago. He drives off, smiling as he looks around at the idyllic streets and nods hello to neighbours.
However, he doesn’t drive to work. Instead, he parks his car on an outcropping of the woods overlooking Castle Lake from a similar perspective toÂ Pangborn’s 1991 viewpoint. Lacy has tied a rope to a tree and,Â sitting in the driver’s seat, he takes a moment to look out at the lake before he loops a noose around his neck. There’s a moment of hesitation when a sheepdog appears over the rise and barks but he takes a deep breath, guns the motor on the car, and drives it over the cliff, splattering his dash with blood.
As the car sinks into the water, the last thing we see is the bumper sticker for the Shawshank Prison where Lacy was the warden until today.
The next day – Shawshank Prison
A new warden (Ann Cusack, Better Call Saul) arrives at the prison. She would’ve been on her way to take over for Lacy anyways since he was retiring but his suicide makes things more… interesting. The guard who shows her in informs her that Shawshank has had FOUR wardens die while in the job. One apparently shot himself in the prison. Welcome to the job.
Shawshank is a private, for-profit prison and the warden is reminded by her administrative consultant (?) Reeves (Josh Cooke, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) that if she “boosts enrollment” by 20% she gets a 1.5 million dollar bonus. However, Officer Zalewski (Noel Fisher,Â The Long Road Home) nixes the plan to bunk more bodies in the gym when he points out the whole prison is already double-bunked except for Block F which was shut down after the Christmas Fire of ’87.
With the potential of sixty or seventy more beds for inmates, the warden sends Officers Zalewski and Boyd (Chris Coy, Banshee) down to Block F to see if it’s inhabitable. On the way down, they discuss why Lacy would kill himself considering he was leaving with a generous severance package as well as his full pension.
Boyd finds a comfy bunk to relax on while Zalewski continues counting beds. Finding signs of disturbance in the debris, he shouts back to Boyd that someone’s been here and follows the footprints down into the prison block and finds a hatch in the floor past the showers.
And… of course, he opens it and climbs down. (You KNOW he ain’t going to find anything good at the bottom of that hole.)
The discovery of a prisoner in a cage in a hole in the abandoned Block F prompts an immediate inmate check throughout the rest of the prison. Everyone is accounted for. So the Prisoner (Bill SkarsgÃ¥rd, Hemlock Grove) remains an unknown.
In the medical wing, Officer Chesterton (Frank Ridley, House of Cards) questions the Prisoner while Zalewski stands guard. The Prisoner remains silent under questioning, looking around and jumping at most noises. Zalewski has to show him how a shower works.
Zalewski and Boyd are sent down the hole with generator-powered lights to examine the space the Prisoner was held in. Zalewski notices that a coffee can full of cigarette butts that he saw when he first found the Prisoner is gone. The new warden has the can in her office and is comparing the butts to the ones left in the ashtray by the late Warden Lacy. They’re a match.
Rumours begin to spin out of control regarding the Prisoner, Warden Lacy, and some sort of sordid perversion. When the new warden tries her hand at getting information out of the Prisoner, she succeeds in provoking him into speech. “Henry Deaver,” he says,”Henry Matthew Deaver.”
Henry Deaver (AndrÃ© Holland, American Horror Story) is a lawyer in Texas, defending a death row inmate on her last chance to avoid execution. He fails and he meets with his client, Leanne (Phyllis Somerville, Outsiders) as she waits to undergo lethal injection. When she shares her very first memory with him over her last meal, she asks him what his first memory is and he flashes back to the day Sheriff Pangborn found him on the lake and the song playing in the car – Gene Pitney’s “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa”.
In a moment of genuine, profound humanity, Leanne questions if memories exist in the afterlife. “I mean, wherever you go next, does the tape get erased? And, if it does, you’re not really you anymore, are you?” When Henry asks if that’s what she’s afraid of, she corrects him. “That’s what I want.”
In the viewing room, Henry waits for Leanne’s execution and continues to relive the day he reappeared. Pangborn checked his hands for frostbite and found none.
Leanne’s execution is carried out but when Henry’s signing for the release of her effects, an alarm goes off and one of the guards informs him that Leanne’s revived. He rushes back to the viewing room and tries to get them to stop the reapplication of the injection because Leanne is entitled to a witness. They draw the curtain and proceed with this final indignity.
Back in Castle Rock, Reeves is giving exposition on Henry to the Warden. While Henry was missing, the searchers found his father with his back broken and bring him home. Henry’s father died three days later and when Henry is found he can’t remember anything that happened.
The Warden and Reeves discuss the options for the Prisoner while Zalewski fills their coffee cups. The Warden doesn’t want Deaver contacted as he is a criminal attorney. Reeves suggests just dropping the Prisoner off somewhere in the next state and the Warden is concerned that he’ll commit a crime and she’ll be held accountable. As Zalewski leaves the room, Reeves offers to put the Prisoner in with an inmate who is pretty much guaranteed to kill him.
MeanwhileÂ in Texas, in tribute to Leanne’s memory, Henry makes a pilgrimage to Doc’s Lizard Bowl, a run-down crocodile viewing park. He takes a river cruise and then pays the extra to watch a kid hold a live chicken over the fence to lure a crocodile closer. As the show ends, Henry’s phone rings and Zalewski informs him anonymously that there’s a kid in Shawshank Prison that’s asking for him.
In the Castle Rock High School parking lot, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey, Togetherness) is buying some pills off a teenage dealer. After correcting him on the use of the term “milf” she drives away, seemingly in a good mood, but notices Henry getting off a bus at the terminal and has a dramatic reaction to the sight. She drives away as unobtrusively as she can and finds a quiet place to take half of one of the pills she just bought.
Henry gathers his bags and takes a look around at the boarded-up buildings in the town center before walking to his mother’s house. Townspeople begin calling out,”Hey, Killer,” to him and staring as he passes. Not creepy at all.
He stops at the church and is upset to find a large paved-over patch where he was expecting to find the cemetery. Entering the rectory, he follows the sound of voices but stops in front of the portrait of his late father, the Reverand Matthew Deaver.
Flashback to 1991 – Driving them up to the Deavers’ house, Pangborn tells young Henry (Caleel Harris, The Loud House) that it was minus forty the night before, that you’d freeze to death in that kind of cold in a few hours. He wants to know what happened to Henry but Henry says he can’t remember.
Pangborn asks if he knows what happened to his father. Henry shakes his head. Pangborn goes into the house. A minute later, Henry’s mother comes running out. Henry, still sitting in Pangborn’s truck looks down at a small white figurine in his hand and then hides it again. His mother opens the car door and hugs him tightly.
When he gets to his mother’s home, the smoke detector is going off. He finds a smoking cast-iron pan on the stove and burns his hand on the handle before removing it from the burner and shutting the heat off. Seeing his mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek, Bloodline) in the backyard garden, he goes out to see her only to be mistaken for an arborist she’s hired to cut down some dead trees.
Once he’s reminded her of who he is, they move into the house to talk. She asks after his baby and heÂ has to again remind her that his son, Wendell, is fifteen years old. He hears a noise and asks her if there’s someone else in the house. She’s confused.
Henry slowly peeks into the front room and meets up with a man coming down the stairs asking if the smoke was to get him out of the shower. Ruth smiles and moves between the two men and (re)introduces Henry to Alan Pangborn (now played by Scott Glenn, Daredevil).
Alan suggests Ruth go find some fresh sheets for Henry and he and Henry have a few words about the situation. Alan explains that he and Ruth enjoy each other’s company. Henry points out that Alan’s living in the house and wearing his dead father’s shirts.
Henry asks where his father’s remains have been moved and Alan explains the whole cemetery was moved out near the airport a few years ago. When Henry argues they needed permission to move the bodies, Alan says that Ruth gave that permission and accepted the compensation they paid her. Well, Alan accepted on her behalf. Henry is pretty unimpressed with all of this.
In Shawshank, the Prisoner watches with intense focus as a mouse get killed by a trap. Henry signs in and meets with the Warden. She claims total ignorance of this mysterious inmate he’s been called about, even suggesting that the call was a racist prank of some sort, and shows him the door.
On his way out, Henry makes eye contact with Zalewski in the exercise yard and suspects he knows who called him.
Night-time activities in Castle Rock are a bit of a jumble. Zalewski is tiredly monitoring the cameras in Shawshank from the control room. Henry wanders around his childhood home, sneaking peeks at the house across the way, and having a chat with Pangborn about his mystery client and the late Dale Lacy. Alan comments that Lacy killed himself on the same bluff by Castle Lake when Pangborn found Henry in 1991.
In her basement, Molly is having a timed visit with a box of mementos from the time of Henry’s disappearance. Yeah, that’s not weird either.
Henry goes for a drive. Ends up on the bluff, looking at the little shrine to Warden Lacy.
Zalewski finds a dead fly in his coffee. While he’s looking down, his monitors start to glitch out. When he looks back up, the first thing he notices is that the Prisoner isn’t in his cubicle cell. Scrolling through the feeds, he finds the Prisoner wandering freely through the corridors. He looks to make sure the door to the control room is secured. The next thing he sees on the monitors is dead bodies everywhere. All guards. All dead. He hits the alarm.
Back on the bluff, Henry looks up and sees snowflakes falling. He’s transported back to a snowy night in 1991 with his younger self looking on.
The camera pans into total darkness and we hear a match strike. Warden Dale Lacy lights his cigarette down in the hole next to the cage holding the Prisoner. “When they find you,” he tells the Prisoner, finishing the cigarette and dropping the butt into the can,”ask for Henry Deaver. Henry. Matthew. Deaver.” With those words, he leaves, presumably for the last time.
Castle Rock premieres on Hulu on July 25.
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