Castle Rock is the most successful inaugural season of any Hulu Original. That is, if you go by things like social media engagement, streaming completion, and other internal measures Hulu excitedly referenced when announcing the show’s almost instantaneous season 2 renewal after the first three episodes dropped earlier this year. Now that the first season is over, however, how successful is it as a storytelling experience? That depends on how much you value closure.
Mild spoilers below. Major spoilers will be indicated.
Castle Rock, Maine, that fictional town so often central to or at least referenced in some of Stephen King’s most famous stories, has been home to multiple serial killers, a rabid St. Bernard, unjustly incarcerated lawyers, train accidents, and finally the devil himself peddling Faustian deals out of a curio shop. When taking all of this into account and considering what to do with their Stephen-King-cinematic-universe series Castle Rock, co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason wanted to know what exactly keeps people in a town like that. What stories do they tell themselves to make sense of everything?
Thus it is that we both begin and end the season with good, but corrupted men delivering their own summations of what it’s like to live in Castle Rock. “People think we’re just one of those dead towns they’ve heard about. A run of bad luck, worse judgment, broken promises. We know differently, don’t we? It’s not luck; it’s a plan. And not God’s either,” Warden Lacy informs us at the start of the second episode. It’s a cursed town, he seems to be saying.
Henry Deaver, the protagonist who grew up in the town and had escaped to a life as a lawyer in Texas before being drawn back, offers a rebuttal in the finale: “Everyone in this town has some sin or regret, some cage of his own making. And a story, a sad one, of how we got this way. ‘It wasn’t me, it was this place. That’s what we say. But that’s a story, too. It doesn’t change a thing. Maybe something turned you into a monster or maybe you were one all along.”
Both excellent speeches delivered by Terry O’Quinn and Andre Holland respectively, the former referencing a belief in a higher, malevolent force at work and the latter a sense of personal responsibility.
Their worldviews have each been shaped by their exposure to “The Kid,” (It’s Bill Skarsgard) a mysterious figure found at the bottom of Shawshank prison after Lacy’s suicide. There’s no record of him. His fingerprints bring up no results. And all he’ll say is “Henry Deaver,” seemingly requesting Castle Rock’s forgotten son return to be his lawyer. Is “The Kid” a victim or villain?
The entire season plays with this question. Either way, we do know he’s an absolute shit magnet, directly or indirectly (it’s unclear) causing mayhem wherever he goes.
Because he’s played by Skarsgard, adopting a constant-hunched over stance and thousand-yard stare, the natural assumption among aficionados is there must be a Pennywise connection (a fan theory I personally never bought into). However, even to the non-King superfans, it’s clear there’s something wrong here:
What exactly that “something” is, however, remains unanswered, at least not definitively.
By the end of the season, contrary to Henry’s stated believes we know something larger IS at work in the city. Spoiler, there’s some kind of portal in the forest. Birds continue to fall from the sky. Scary, ethereal noises haunt Henry and his son. Their neighbor, played by Melanie Lynskey, has a Danny Torrance (of The Shining)/Johnny Smith (of The Dead Zone)-like psychic ability which is so overwhelming she has to dull it with sensory deprivation glasses and marijuana. And we have no idea if we can trust any of the explanations we’ve been given. It involves a story about – major spoiler – parallel universes, but it’s delivered by a potentially unreliable narrator.
Where Does This Leave Things for a Season 2?
It’s frustrating, in part, because we’re in newish territory here. When Castle Rock was first announced it was explained as being an anthology series, one whose only commonality from season to season would be the setting. Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, with producer J.J. Abrams’ blessing, were going to kind of madlib their way through it, creating entirely new stories out of familiar Stephen King tropes. Once episode 9 arrived, however, and introduced more questions than answers fans were left wondering how in the world the show could wrap everything up with just one more episode to go, especially since the second season will start a new story with different characters.
Well, we’re still wondering because the finale is here and it is maddeningly short on any actual finality. Plus, when pressed on what to expect next season the showrunners are choosing to be very delicate with their words. Here’s what Shaw told EW:
“Part of what we always set out to do from the beginning is tell a new story each season, to see things we haven’t seen before from the point of view of characters we haven’t met before in any season. That said, I think there’s something really terrific with the way Steve handles his anthology and his universe — you see Father Callahan in Salem’s Lot and then you bump up against him again in a huge way in The Dark Tower […] I think it’s something that we can do, and allow it to be an anthology but still embrace stories and characters that we love. It just may not happen in the way that one might expect.”
What’s This About a Shining Spin-Off?
On top of that, the finale includes a post-credits scene which seems to set Jane Levy’s character (a niece to the Torrance family from The Shining) up either for her own spin-off called Overlook (a title whose significance requires no explanation for Shining fans) or at least for a parallel season 2 storyline not set in Castle Rock. About that Shaw was also rather vague:
Here’s where we’ll probably be infuriatingly tight-lipped, but what I would say is that we would sure love to see Jackie explore the Overlook Hotel. Part of the fun of season 2 and beyond will be seeing what some of the questions [will be]. The penultimate episode of this season points to the idea that there are other worlds than these, and in this final tag there’s this sense that there are worlds of Stephen King’s that this show may explore eventually that are more far-flung than the state of Maine.
The Mystery Box Returns
This is what happens when the J.J. Abrams mystery box approach of storytelling is married to Stephen King’s universe. He writes books, usually about the evil lurking beneath a normal veneer, which are a real chore to adapt due to their extreme length and continued dives into the inner-monologues of the characters.
Castle Rock occasionally captured that, particularly in the clear stand-out episode of the season: “The Queen.” Sissy Spacek’s experience of dementia is presented almost as if she was a time traveler slipping in and out of old and new memories, and it is a heartbreaking hour of television which should easily earn an Emmy nomination if not win.
Similarly, individual showcase episodes for Skarsgard and Lynskey’s characters stand out. When the show stops to focus on what it’s like to live in Castle Rock and how quickly the good can go to shit, like one poor couple’s ill-fated attempt to open a murder-themed bed and breakfast, it’s at its best; when it tees up grand explanations and weaves mysteries it’s less successful.
As Super Dark Times co-screenwriter Luke Piotrowski pointed out on Twitter, “Typically, Stephen King spins yarns, not mysteries. The appeal of his stories for me is they make me lean in and ask ‘What happens next?’ as opposed to ‘What is happening?’”
And he said that only halfway through the season. Just last week, 1428Elm.com was singing a similar tune, pleading, “Does anyone understand what’s going on anymore?”
That this became the resounding question haunting Castle Rock from week to week might be exactly what the writers were going for, but it strikes me as a bit of an indictment in itself.
Stephen King stories are notorious for their “evil never dies” endings, the idea that while the immediate threat might have been eliminated the larger threat persists. But he does that while also managing to end the story at hand. Castle Rock doesn’t do that. Not really.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Perhaps we should have expected the season to end with nothing really solved, the status quo upheld albeit with a character death or two along the way. After all, a show called Castle Rock can’t exactly cure the town after just one season.
But the ending they went with is just so disappointing, so flat, and so poorly paced. Now, if they want to do a second season with Jackie at the Overlook in Colorado or maybe even do that as a spin-off I’ll watch the hell out of that out of Shining/Jane Levy fandom. However, another season in actual Castle Rock? I might have to tap out. I’m left not dying to see more of the mysteries answered next season but instead really annoyed that we spent all of that time simply for this to end on a menacing smile and hint of better things to come.
What about you? Let me know in the comments.