Welcome to the Hotel Castle Rock: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave … except chopped up into little pieces, stuffed inside garbage bags and dumped in the back of a station wagon.
This week’s episode (“Past Perfect”) continues the Stephen King-inspired show’s hot streak, digging deeper than ever into the madness generated by the town’s resident boogieman — The Kid — that’s been infecting the locals like a virus. Our Patient Zeros this time around are Gordon and Lilith, the troubled couple who bought Warden Lacy’s old house from Molly Strand a couple weeks back. It turns out the gentleman, a professor with an academic interest in serial killers, discovered the missus was sleeping with his department chair; one assault during the middle of a faculty meeting later, the academic cuckold is talking about a change of scenery. The intention is to move to Maine and set up a bed and breakfast — one that doubles as a tourist attraction for aficionados of the “true crime” craze. Gordon wants to commemorate the killings that have taken place in the building with historical accuracy. If this means guests have to share a couch with a mannequin that’s got an ax embedded in its noggin, so be it.
The casting here is especially effective. With coke-bottle glasses perched on his strikingly sharp features, actor Mark Harelik has an owlish look, both in the “bookish dweeb” and “ruthless bird of prey who slaughters helpless animals at night” sense of the word. His character is a lot like The Shining‘s Jack Torrance — whose apparent niece, Jackie, winds up killing him with an ax — in that he has a history of violent outbursts beneath his professorial exterior. And he immediately becomes obsessed with the late Warden’s artwork, the bulk of which Lilith discovers in the previously locked-up basement. Soon, dozens of portraits of the Kid line the bedroom walls.
The way he finally snaps is particularly effective, and driven by detail rather than horror-movie clichés. As the hosts chat with their first guests, they ask how long the young couple have been married. “Thirteen years,” replies the woman; “Uh, two for me,” adds the man. Then both their age discrepancy and the true nature of their little illicit getaway together becomes apparent (Lilith, too, had cheated with a younger man), and Gordon visibly chokes back a wave of resentment and revulsion.
That night, he sits upright and unmoving in bed, listening to the couple have sex in the next room. Lilith is awakes by the sound of their moans … which then turn to screams. She discovers a charnel-house scene: Her husband in blood-soaked pajamas, holding a knife, his victims sprawled naked and slashed to ribbons. He staggers to his feet like a zombie. He has no idea what he’s done.
“I don’t know what came over me,” he says to her plaintively. “I’m not a murderer!”
“It never happened,” she says, reassuring him. It’s a miracle she’s still alive, but that’s not all that’s going on here: Whatever infected Gordon has infected her, too. Sure enough, they’re methodically chopping up and disposing the bodies. The couple that slays together …
As for our man Henry Deaver: In various visions and flashbacks he and Molly have shared, he’s envisioned his younger self locked in a cage in a basement. The Kid — who’s still wandering around despite his involvement in a few dozen deaths — says he rescued Henry from a basement 27 years ago, so the lawyer’s out for answers about what’s locked away in the bed and breakfast.
He finds all the paintings of the Kid — as well as Lilith, who stabs him from behind. In the struggle that ensues, she nicks her own jugular and bleeds out. Driven into a screaming rage, Gordon chases Henry down the stairs and out to his car, wrestles him to the ground and nearly kills him before Jackie intervenes. It’s a tight, savage, scary sequence — pretty much exactly how you want supernaturally inspired murder rampages to play out in a Stephen King story.
That’s why saying this episode continues the show’s hot streak isn’t telling the whole story. It doesn’t rely on the introduction of world-building sci-fi/fantasy concepts like “The Schisma” and “The Filter,” nor is it carried on the back of an Academy Award winner given an entire hour to herself. It simply expresses the horror of sublimated violence and the ability of the supernatural to unleash it — the stuff that drives so much of the Master’s work — in its own voice.
If you’ve ever watched a show like Boardwalk Empire or The Americans, you might recognize the vibe. Like the Prohibition-era mob in the former and Cold War espionage in the latter, the particular strain of horror on display here is the mannequin that writer Mark Lafferty and director Ana Lily Amirpour (of the modern horror classic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), as well as showrunners Dustin Thomason and Sam Shaw, can position into new shapes of their own devising.
A lengthy outro, set to the eerie strains of the Haxan Cloak’s song “Miste,” speaks of the shape of things to come. Jackie tells the police that when she killed Gordon, she “wasn’t myself anymore.” Henry’s son Wendell defies orders to return to Boston and hops off the bus in the middle of nowhere, walking back towards town. Henry races from the crime scene to find his mother, whom he learns has wandered both to and from her late husband’s church seeking answers. And the Kid connects with a desperate Molly, telling her intimate details of her life no one else could know. He also confirms her vision that the woods outside of town is the place where she’ll die. The stakes are high. The ante is being upped. Castle Rock is finally becoming something genuinely exciting to watch.