With the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, it would seem like Hulu has found a worthy successor to the Margaret Atwood adaptation in Castle Rock, a riff on the sprawling Stephen King universe. Both series call the ascendant streamer home, are inspired by prolific, beloved authors, and were produced to be Emmys bait with their lush, cinematic aesthetics. But anthology Castle Rock, premiering Wednesday 25th July, simply does not have the can’t-look-away draw of The Handmaid’s Tale.
That’s because — unlike the dystopian hellscape that is Handmaid’s Gilead — Castle Rock simply isn’t that scary.
The series, which is allegedly a horror psycho-thriller, takes place in the titular Castle Rock, Maine, continuing this summer’s theme of Fraught Settings As Veritable TV Characters. Castle Rock has long appeared throughout King’s work. It’s even the fictional home of the fictional Shawshank Prison — maybe you’re heard of it? Well, an awful correctional facility is merely one of Castle Rock’s many corrosive ills. It is a town rocked by economic collapse, suicide, endless murder, bizarre disappearances that often result in possible homicide, and evil dogs. This town is bad.
The titular burg is also the home of the series’ hero Henry Deaver (the wonderful André Holland, who should be cast in more things ASAP), a son of Castle Rock with a mysterious, tragic past who is now a lawyer for death row inmates. Apparently, even when you leave Castle Rock, death continues to follow you. While Henry would obviously prefer to enjoy his Texan life thousands of miles from his bloody hometown, he is dragged back over a bizarre new mystery.
Bill Skarsgård is that new mystery. It’s very own It returns to the Stephen King playground as the mostly silent, entirely eerie young man who was held prisoner in Shawshank under the kind of disturbing circumstances viewers deserve to learn on their own. Just know, Skarsgård’s unnamed, unblinking character didn’t end up in the bowels of pop culture’s most towering prison under the usual legal circumstances.
While Skarsgård’s so-called “Shawshank Prisoner” character rarely speaks, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. He is both terrifying and fascinating all at the same time, much like his turn as 2017’s scariest clown. Somehow, the youngest Skarsgård’s brother has figured out how to be skeletal and hulking at the same time.
Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek, and Togetherness’ Melanie Lynskey, as a very special person from Henry’s past with her own very special history, also turn in great performances, but the problem with Castle Rock is that it lacks stakes. Are we supposed to be worried about the deadly, decades-old mystery surrounding Henry? Or whatever less-than-angelic forces may be at work when it comes to Skarsgård’s gaunt, wide-eyed prisoner? Or is the point here to simply marvel at the general sense of fatal foreboding that seems to be in the very soil of Castle Rock? In the four episodes of Castle Rock made available to critics, the answers to those questions never truly materialise. Without that kind of basic understanding, it’s difficult to truly commit to any puzzle-bound thriller.
At least the Hulu drama has one major narrative choice going for it: It interrogates the subtle, and not so subtle, racism of growing up in a supposedly “nice” town. For someone like Henry, a Black man adopted by a religious white family in a mostly white suburban-to-rural neighbourhood, life wasn't exactly nice. It is immediately clear that the citizens of Castle Rock are naturally suspicious of Henry because of the colour of his skin. They may claim a certain tragic incident in 1991, which Henry was a central suspect in, is to blame — but, no, it’s because he’s Black. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Castle Rock would have been so sure of Henry’s guilt decades ago if he were fairer skinned or the biological (read: white) son of the Deavers.
Castle Rock won’t scratch your Handmaid’s Tale itch. Since it lacks the whiz-bang, gung-ho vibes of obvious Stephen King-by-way-of-Steven Spielberg acolyte Stranger Things, it won’t exactly fix your jones for a return to Hawkins either. But, at minimum, Castle Rock will truly make you think about racism in the last places you would expect.