We’ve seen the face of evil. It belongs to Henry Deaver. Sort of.
Castle Rock‘s first season finale — “Romans” — is a tale of two Henrys. There’s “our Henry,” played by André Holland: a beleaguered lawyer haunted by his unexplained disappearance as a teenager. And there’s “alt-Henry,” aka The Kid, a.k.a. Bill Skarsgård’s man from a parallel reality marooned in the wrong dimension or … well, something ancient, and evil.
In hour after hour, the show slowly built up the mysterious menace of the Kid. Then came the big shift — last week’s alternate-reality episode — and suddenly we’ve got a painstakingly constructed, perfectly convincing trans-dimensional backstory. Granted, the question of how true this story was remained debatable. But if it was all gonna be a headfake, then wow: mission accomplished.
Which brings us to the finale. Sometimes alt-Henry seems like a deeply wounded yet articulate man, who’s just trying to convince people like our Henry to help him get home. He continues to display intimate knowledge of what their shared life was like, i.e. that their father intended to kill their mother if she hadn’t run away with Alan in the alternate reality or if he hadn’t been pushed him off a cliff in this one. He even knows the chapter and verse (Romans 6:23, hence the finale’s title) that the crazed preacher quoted to justify his planned homicide.
Other times, though, he comes across like something truly demonic. He causes Warden Porter‘s death — she is run over by a bus transporting inmates from her own prison — by driving her nuts with one of his little soap figurines. He seems to telepathically direct the brutal jailbreak that enables him and his counterpart to escape the cell where they’ve both been locked up, leading to an all-out massacre and a Dawn of the Dead–style outbreak of explosions and violence in the surrounding area. In the end, alt-Henry pulls a gun on our Henry to force him back out into the woods, ostensibly hoping to return to his own timeline. He’s just that desperate. Wouldn’t you be?
But as the pair march through the snow, alt-Henry sounds an awful lot like the other one’s abusive father, who tracked his son through the woods while promising he wasn’t gonna hurt him. (Sounds a whole lot like the lies that crazy old Jack Torrance spewed during his climactic rampage in The Shining, doesn’t it? In flashbacks, we see young Henry backtrack through his own snowy footsteps to throw his dad off the trail, an even more overt homage to the Kubrick/King masterpiece.) So when our Henry finally remembers pushing Pops off a cliff in order to spare his mom, he’s had enough with his gun-toting counterpart. A struggle ensues. Tables are turned. The lawyer points the weapon at his former client. Alt-Henry looks up — and he’s a shriveled, shrieking thing, like a mummy exhumed from a sarcophagus. It’s the show’s biggest jumpscare. Then: Cut to black.
“One Year Later”: Henry has gone from defending death-row inmates to litigating disputes about neighbors’ property lines. He has a pleasant relationship with his son Wendell, who comes to visit during Christmas. His mother has died and is buried next to Alan. His old friend and lover Molly lives in the Florida Keys, where she frequently visits her incredibly creepy but apparently benign grandmother. And alt-Henry is once again being kept prisoner in the bowels of the abandoned Shawshank Penitentiary. As the episode builds to this revelation, a voiceover from Henry 1.0 intimates that maybe the residents of Castle Rock have all been monsters all along, himself included. All the signs of an open ending are there.
But the truth is shut as tight as alt-Henry’s prison cell. That jumpscare? Freeze-frame and you’ll see your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you — this is some eldritch horror, and not, say, what he would look like if the twenty-seven years he spent in captivity suddenly caught up to him. It’d have to have been more like one hundred and twenty-seven years for him to look like that.
Even more conclusively — literally so, since it’s the concluding shot of the entire story — the alt-Henry grins in the darkness after Original Deaver leaves him behind. You don’t make Bill “Pennywise” Skarsgård smile like that unless you want to announce HE’S EVIL loud enough to wake the dead.
Which leaves us to wonder: What, exactly, was the point?
It’s not just that you can find more compelling (and bewildering) horror-tinged alternate-reality dramas without breaking a sweat, from Lost to Twin Peaks to The Leftovers. It’s not even that the ending cribs so hard from The Shining (and, from non-King country, The Babadook) that you feel déjà vu. It’s that Castle Rock undermined its own big twist — the introduction of the whole parallel-world concept and the idea that the Kid might be a hero rather than a monster — almost immediately after introducing it.
As a drama,the show boasted intelligent, understated performances from Holland, Skarsgård, Spacek, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Glenn and more. As a Stephen King riff, it understood and updated his concept of everyday American evil better than any adaptation of his work in recent memory. But as a horror story of its own, the series made promises then all but went out of its way to avoid delivering in the end. A finale that seemed destined for dark magic was just a bait and switch. The show has been renewed and a new tale will be told. Let’s hope our next visit to this terrible Maine town lives up to its potential.
Previously: The Kid Stays in the Picture