Mass shootings, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, a telepath or two — OK, so Castle Rock isn’t strictly a case of art imitating life. But its very good fourth episode — “The Box” — contains enough real-world ugliness to make the supernatural stuff almost superfluous. (Almost.) It’s the clearest sign yet that the show is taking the themes of its source material seriously. Whatever evil lurks in this sleepy Maine town, it has plenty of homegrown nightmares to draw from.
“The Kid,” the mysterious prisoner around whom the story slowly circles, gets a first-hand taste of how awful the world outside his cage can be. He receives a visit from Warden Porter’s second-in-command Reeves (a perfectly smarmy Josh Cooke), who looks like just another suit from Shawshank State Penitentiary’s parent corporation. But the man’s a combat veteran with extensive (and enthusiastic) experience in torturing people, including a member of Iraq’s Republican Guard who wouldn’t reveal his name, either … until Reeves started feeding him his own teeth.
“By the time we got to his molars,” he says, “he had a name. And a list of other names too.” Bill Skarsgård’s creepy character manages to out-intimidate the interrogator by quoting the Book of Revelation at him until he flees the cell, but the point is still clear: America’s all too happy to bring the violence we export right back home.
Corrections officer Dennis Zalewski has certainly seen his share of it, joylessly watching all manner of depravity take place through his bank of monitors — his only solace is a stale comedy routine in which the guard who precedes him on duty tells him to smile, which he eventually heeds by drawing smiley faces on every screen. All this exposure to abuse has radicalized him against his employer. As he memorably tells Henry Deaver during an ill-advised meeting in public, the boy in the basement is just “the tip of the fucking Ice Capades … I’m a prisoner in there too.” The guard all but begs the lawyer to use the Kid’s kidnapping case as a stick of dynamite to blow the whole institution apart. Deaver, though, advises caution. The needs of his client have to come first; they won’t be served if Zalewski shows up in court coming across like “a disgruntled employee.”
Deaver, of course, has problems of his own to deal with as well. He’s grown increasingly concerned about his sundowning mother Ruth, whom he wants to relocate to a home in Houston near where he lives. Meanwhile, his relationship with her boyfriend/his one-time rescuer Alan Pangborn is an uneasy truce at best. (Though the ex-sheriff does gingerly try to introduce the welcome-to-Texas plan to Mrs. Deaver on Henry’s behalf.) And when the lawyer keeps digging into his own disappearance, he discovers he may have been held prisoner at the home of Joseph Desjardins, a creepy old man (played with grinning, jittery gusto by Dark Shadows veteran David Selby) who kept his brother’s bones in a jar and Henry’s police files under his bed. Confronting Pangborn about his failure to fully investigate this lead back in the day, Deaver learns that his own father wrote a note just before he died, pinning the blame for his near-fatal fall on Henry himself. No wonder things have been so tense since he returned.
Henry tries to find solace in the arms of his old neighbor Molly Strand, who’s busy trying to offload Warden Lacy’s house to unsuspecting buyers — when she isn’t having her telepathic flashes, of course. The morning after their one-night stand, he calls Zalewski to let him know he’s planning to tell his client to take the prison’s hush money and run rather than press charges, just so he himself can get the hell out of Dodge.
This leads directly to the show’s most disturbing sequence to date. Trapped in his hellish prison job for the foreseeable future, helpless as his fellow guards beat and dehumanize the prisoners — and quite possibly tainted by the touch of the Kid — Dennis Zalewski snaps. Grabbing his gun, he methodically marches through Shawshank, murdering every officer and official he finds. When he finally reaches the warden’s office, he finds Deaver there. “I wanna testify,” he says … before a flashbang grenade drops them both to the ground and a shotgun-wielding bull blows him away.
It’s a gorgeously fucked-up sequence, in large part because it’s just so very Stephen King-ish — and not in a way we’ve really seen before on screen. This kind of killing spree is a staple of the Master’s work: Seemingly ordinary men just lose it one day. They pick up a rifle or an ax, slaughtering their way through as many people as possible, offering one final deadpan non sequitur before someone puts them down like a rabid dog. (The town history of Derry, where It takes place, is full of rampages like this.)
And there’s nothing about Zalewski’s affect here to suggest that if he’d gotten away clean, he wouldn’t have just gone down to the bar for a drink, complaining about a rough day at work. It’s not quite the banality of evil, but there’s a workmanlike quality to it that gets right under your skin. Murder is so routine it barely registers.
Isn’t that what Zalewski himself tells Deaver? “Bad things happen here because bad people know they’re safe here,” the guard warned the lawyer when he tried to downplay the potential to open a prison-wide investigation. “How many times can one fuckin’ town look the other way?” In his desperation to expose Shawshank’s horrors, the man turned himself into one of those horrors. He had to become the prison in order to destroy it.
Oh, right — did we mention that Zalewski’s rampage is exactly what he himself thought he witnessed in the pilot episode, when he looked into the monitors and saw the Kid standing outside his cell, a trail of dead bodies littering the halls? The boy ain’t right. At its best, Castle Rock seems determined to argue that nothing is.
Previously: Children of the Scorn