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Castle Rock: Severance and Habeas Corpus (Pilot)

I went into this series with little knowledge and fewer expectations. I knew it was produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot company (but what isn’t?). It starred Terry O’Quinn and either Sissy Spacek or Frances Conroy (it has both!). It was set in Stephen King’s fictional small Maine town and was beholden to, but not based on, a variety of his works (that’s more or less accurate). And I knew I shouldn’t get my hopes up: for every The Shining or Shawshank Redemption there’s a Maximum Overdrive, a Dark Tower, or even—heaven forfend—an Under the Dome.

I wound up pleasantly surprised and mildly interested. I did not regret renewing my Hulu subscription, and I’ll likely watch each episode as it premieres on Wednesday. That’s the tl;dr version of this review: read on for more information that gently discusses but does not violently spoil the first two episodes of the three that dropped this week.

King, for all of his imaginative power, tends to have two core plots. One is the lone working-class hero fights supernatural evil that epitomizes his—almost always his—internal struggle. The other is a plucky band of outsiders drawn together in a fight against supernatural evil that epitomizes their internal struggles. It, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Needful Things, Bag of Bones, 11/22/63, Under the Dome… I won’t keep listing.

Castle Rock does something interesting with those formulae: it combines them. By the end of “Habeas Corpus,” we understand that in the past, a group of “Maniacs” united to fight and contain something, someone, truly evil. Having done so, they watched their town flourish. No more killer dogs, no more evil shopkeepers. Terry O’Quinn, Scott Glenn, Frances Farmer, and Sissy Spacek—not to mention the characters they play—could rest easy at night.

But now, that older generation is aging and dying. And the evil man they contained in the basement of the nearby Shawshank prison gets out. He’s played by Bill Skarsgard, who played the clown Pennywise in the recent It movie—and that’s not the only hint that he’s up to no good. What his emergence means, and whether or not the nature of evil is as straightforward as the first three episodes suggest, is still up for grabs. Will the actions of that long-ago plucky band of outsiders come back to haunt their beloved town? Is Spooky Skarsgard as dangerous as he seems?

What isn’t up for grabs is the second plot: Henry Deaver is the lone working-class hero who fights supernatural evil. As a child, Henry, a black orphan, was adopted by white parents in a version of Maine described as “lily-white.” When he was young, he and his adopted father, the local pastor, disappeared for eleven days. His father wound up dead and the entire town blamed—still blames—the amnesiac Henry. Now a poor death-row attorney who just wants his clients to have a “do-over,” Henry (played by AndrĂ© Holland), returns to a hometown haunted by more than just casual racism and his sundowning mother.

The first two episodes show the intersections of, and connections between, these characters: Terry O’Quinn’s Warden Lacy; Henry Deaver and his adoptive mother Ruth (played by Sissy Spacek); Scott Glenn’s Alan Pangborn, the sheriff who discovered young Henry all those years ago; and Melanie Lynsky as Molly Strand, who is psychic or a stalker or a drug addict. Possibly all three. Lurking behind them all, like an evil clown hiding behind the couch, is Bill Skarsgard’s nameless wraith.

The result is akin to some of my favorite King novels: The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, Needful Things, even parts of The Dark Tower series. At three episodes in, we don’t fully know how these characters will come together in conflict or camaraderie, but we trust that they will. We trust they will fight evil of both the jump-scare and spine-tingling varieties. And we assume that it will end strong at the end of the summer, since the already-renewed Season Two will focus on a new plot and a new cast.

Maniacs and Castle Rockettes:

• The big-name producer here is J.J. Abrams, but the showrunners are Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason. Thomason wrote The Rule of Four, which was one of those novels everyone was talking about in 2004. I remember liking it.

• Although I liked this show, I’ve sort of lost (pun!) patience for scavenger-hunt Easter Eggs, which are thick on the ground throughout Castle Rock. Here’s an enthusiastic article to wet your whistle if that’s your type of thing.

• Writing this review was difficult. I typically review Stephen King-related stuff (like Under the Dome and the Dark Tower movie) with my two housemates, the inimitable Sam T. Cat and his fluffy sidekick Duckling. But Duckling died on Sunday, having never yet figured out the series finale of Lost, and I think he would have enjoyed this show, perhaps, more than I did. Or perhaps I will enjoy things more when I stop missing my friend.

Three out of four Shawshanks

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Sounds intriguing. I was reluctant to try Castle Rock but I certainly will now. Thank you, Josie.

    And my deepest sympathies on the loss of Duckling. :(

  2. This review certainly makes the show sound intriguing. It has all of the plot and character elements that I tend to enjoy in shows. But alas, I don't own Hulu and am reluctant to sign up for yet another streaming service. Oh well. I might have to either rent it when it's all released or find some other way to watch it.

    I'm very sorry to hear about Duckling. :(


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