Warden Dale Lacey was on a mission from God. Before he severed his own head, that is — though on a show like Castle Rock, doing something after you decapitate yourself isn’t outside the realm of possibility. His mission, according to his suicide note: “Never again let him see the light of day. That’s what God told me.” Sorry, Warden (and God): Life has other plans. In the second episode of this Stephen King mash-up — “Habeas Corpus” — “The Kid” does indeed step out into the sunshine. And to the consternation of the prison’s authorities, he also fails to get killed by getting locked him up with a Nazi. (Spoiler: Things do not go well for the Nazi.)
So for the first time in possibly decades, this strange young man is hastily escorted outside so that his would-be counsel, Henry Deaver, can catch a glimpse of him. The attorney raises a hand in greeting. “I can be your lawyer if you want me to be, but you have to say it,” he continues. “Henry Deaver,” murmurs the Kid, before the bulls drag him back inside.
The bright glare of the sun, the heavenly choral music on the soundtrack, the ritualistic bond formed by the utterance of a name: Something momentous is happening here, even if it’s not clear what. And for the first time, Castle Rock captures the mythic power of the author who inspired it.
For an episode absolutely bursting with Stephen King Easter eggs, it says something that the moment stands out the way it does. An opening montage references key King-verse stories such as Cujo, The Dead Zone and the short story (“The Body”) which inspired Stand By Me. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it news clipping about the events of Needful Things, once touted as “The Last Castle Rock” story (LOL). Then there are the sideways homages: recurring King character Alan Pangborn digging up a dead dog from an ersatz backyard pet cemetery; the debut of a manic pixie Shining shout-out named Jackie Torrance. (Heeeeeere’s Jackie!) If the spectacular suicide of the Warden’s kid brother — leaping from the top of the high school while still dressed in an absurd mascot uniform — is also some sort of reference, you’ll have to ask the Internet.
There’s a reason for the show to go this hard on teasing connections to its beloved source material this early, and it’s not just a way to get a cheap fan-service pop. As the late warden narrates from beyond the grave, when you visit Castle Rock, you’ve come to a place where “every inch is stained with someone’s sin.” The recurring power of evil is one of King’s great themes … and this fine Maine hamlet has that power in spades. Lacey says he used to think maybe the idea that there’s something wrong here was all in his head. He eventually concluded otherwise. “It wasn’t me,” he says. “It was this place.” The dots are connected. The man locked the Kid up in a cage in the basement of Shawshank State Penitentiary on orders from the Divine, so that Castle Rock could be free of evil.
“The Devil was a boy,” Pangborn tells Lacey’s successor, Warden Porter, after cornering her at a hotel bar. “He’d locked the Devil in a box, and from here on out it was blue skies and butterflies.” No shrinking violet when it comes to human-rights violations, Porter is still taken aback. “How long ago was this?” she manages to ask. “Don’t let that fuckin’ kid out,” the grizzled ex-sheriff responds, before excusing himself. Later, he burns Lacey’s suicide note, ensuring that some mysteries stay mysterious.
Still, there always seem to be more questions just around the corner. Take Molly Strand, played by Melanie Lynskey — one of many lynchpins in a powerful cast that now also features Aaron Staton (Mad Men‘s Ken Cosgrove) as the town’s new pastor and Allison Tolman (Fargo) as Molly’s sister. The pill-popping basket case has legit psychic powers that she can barely keep at bay, Percosets be damned. That same telepathy also helped her forge a connection with Henry when they lived across the street from each other as kids; she saw his preacher father drag him out in the middle of the night before they both vanished. Later, Molly lied about what she’d seen to the police, perhaps sensing that everyone in town wants to blame the sole black kid within a dozen-mile radius for his own disappearance.
The Kid seems to have supernatural abilities as well — a much scarier variation, naturally. As the episode opens, we learn that the kill spree that Officer Dennis Zalewski saw on the monitors was a false alarm. The peculiar prisoner never really left his cell. Or did he? Then there’s that ill-fated Nazi, who harasses the guy in the evening and is dead of out-of-control cancer (in virtually every organ in his body) by morning. Maybe Warden Lacy was right all along?
The bigger question facing Castle Rock is how much it wants to tap dance between the Master’s raindrops. Strong performances by the cast in general, and by the remarkable, dead-serious Andre Holland in particular, make the show watchable if you don’t know your Randall Flagg from your Kurt Barlow. But if you’re a fan, hearing Lacey talk about “the dog” and “the strangler” most likely gave you a bigger thrill than anything else narrative-wise. And when you think back through the King mythos, it’s not hard to come up with another character who had the ability to inflict disease and cause death with a just glance of his own dark, intense eyes. Is the show content to be a superhero-comic-style nostalgia act, where the main dramatic drive is figuring out when your favorite villains are about to return? Or does its portrayal of an economically devastated small town where the biggest source of jobs is a privatized prison provide fertile enough ground to grow evils all its own?
Previously: King’s Landing