By Sara Century
Among the many adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Castle Rock remains a bit of an anomaly. Created not as a direct take or continuation of any of his works and instead utilizing the rich environment of the fictional town in Maine in which many of his stories take place, it remains unique enough to scarcely qualify as an adaptation at all. On the other hand, the opportunity to drop “Easter eggs” throughout the series proved too great a temptation for showrunners to resist, making this a show that provided ample opportunity to appeal to those ambivalent about King’s works and to the most hardcore fans.
In a world of by-the-numbers remakes and franchises of ever-diminishing returns, a series that pays homage while actively refusing to be derivative of its source material was a gamble. As it was canceled after only two seasons, some could argue it didn’t exactly pay off. Still, this is perhaps one of the greatest realizations of the writer’s pop culture legacy, and it managed to be both a tribute and something uniquely its own. While its level of commercial success is questionable, this series delivered some seriously devastating twists, and it deserves credit for doing so in a cultural landscape that doesn’t always glom to ambiguity or self-reflection.
The Windup and the Pitch
The warden of the famous Shawshank Prison, Dale Lacy, dies by suicide on the last day of his tenure at the prison. When the new warden discovers that there is an entirely unused branch of Shawshank, she orders a more extensive investigation, which leads to the discovery of a tall, pale man who has been kept in inhumane living conditions for years by Lacy. This man, referred to as The Kid (Bill Skarsgård), says nothing except a name — Henry Deaver.
Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) left Castle Rock as a child due to a widely held belief that he had something to do with his adoptive father’s sudden death. Taken in by the local Reverend and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek), Henry went missing for days after his father was gravely injured in a fall that ultimately seems to have been the cause of his death. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played by Jeffery Pierce in his early appearances and Scott Glenn in later years) discovered him and brought him home. Still, the animosity of the townspeople eventually led him to leave. He is now a lawyer and returns to defend The Kid. He stays with his mother, whose Alzheimer’s has left her in a state of near-constant confusion. Henry is surprised to see that Alan has moved in with her and shocked to discover that the two had an on-again-off-again affair for decades.
As a boy, Henry befriended his neighbor Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), who has a psychic gift very similar to Danny Torrance’s “shining.” Much like Danny in Doctor Sleep, Molly leans into chemical dependency to help her cope with the constant rush of premonitions she lives with. When The Kid is freed despite Lacy’s plea to keep him in jail indefinitely, she offers him a place to stay until he ultimately goes to stay in a guest cabin at Ruth’s. Chaotic and downright evil events seem to follow both Henry and The Kid, and indeed, Alan notes that The Kid has not aged a day in the 27 years since he saw him bound and gagged in Lacy’s trunk on his way to permanent imprisonment at Shawshank. The Kid’s origins are intentionally unknown until he ultimately tells Henry that he’s an alternate reality version of Henry Deaver and implores him to help him make things right by sending him back to his world.
People Are What Makes Castle Rock Special
For diehard Stephen King fans, the only character from his novels to appear at length is Sheriff Pangborn, who was a main character in The Dark Half and Needful Things. Though his continuity seems slightly altered as we discover here that he long harbored a great and lasting love for Ruth Deaver, his somewhat tragic desire to help the people around him is on full display. Alan’s passion for Ruth is one of the highlights of the series, as the two of them share several tender moments despite the worsening of her condition and the escalation of violence around them. He muses that he waited his whole life for Ruth, but now that he finally has her, he’s losing her little by little every day.
Likewise, Henry is a wonderful character, full of flaws and hidden tragedies. As a lawyer, he is considered the scum of the earth. This is also a very much held belief by many townspeople in Castle Rock. His interactions with Molly Strand run the emotional gamut as he is infuriated by her claims of psychic powers and then forced to rely on her as she is consistently right about the premonitions she makes. Though the two leave off on unresolved footing, they’re a great, offbeat match due to their mutual weirdness. The overwhelming sense that they have harbored unspoken feelings for one another for years adds a sweetness even to their most volatile interactions.
Much of season one’s themes culminate in its most critically acclaimed episode, “The Queen.” So named because Ruth’s mental deterioration forces her to keep chess pieces around the house in order to ground herself; she moves from supporting character to protagonist here. Sissy Spacek’s triumphant return to King’s universe after her portrayal of Carrie White in the film adaptation of Carrie should have been a much bigger deal than it was, but she does not disappoint.
Ruth is a fascinating character, not only due to the heartbreaking commentary around the cognitive dissonance of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but also because she’s been trapped in an abusive marriage with Henry’s father, and we already know from Alan that she struggled for years to leave him. In “The Queen,” her time-displaced condition allows her to see the many scenarios in which she might have left the marriage. Yet, even as she is fighting to find her footing, her tenderness shines through. She befriends her grandson Wendell (Chosen Jacobs) and connects with him on a deep level by trying to explain what she goes through with her illness. When The Kid begins lurking around the house, she pushes money into Wendell’s hands and tells him to have fun at an arcade, insisting that she’ll be fine despite feeling very much in danger. This protectiveness reflects her feelings towards Henry, who she tried desperately to keep safe from his father’s abuse.
Likewise, as the season’s protagonist, Henry is both at his most loving and his most protective with Ruth. When his son Wendell asks about Henry’s “real” parents, Henry softly explains that “Gramma and grandpa are my real parents.” His love for his mother is apparent in his pained expression when she forgets who he is and the gentleness with which he refers to her. Indeed, when she loses touch with reality enough that she leaps from a bridge into the icy cold river below, he does not hesitate to jump in after her, saving her life. However, his distrust of Alan leads them to be at odds, and Henry seems to genuinely believe that she would be better off in a care facility despite her protests. When Ruth nearly dies, Alan breaks down and says he thought he could protect her, at which time he and Henry seem to connect for the first time.
Even The Kid, who is ominous and threatening, notes that he feels compelled to protect her. This further calls into question The Kid’s true identity, giving him an extra layer of depth. Every character revolves around Ruth, which speaks to the emotional gravitational pull she shows in her moments onscreen. Whether she is the center of the scene or not, she is the primary motivation for nearly every character’s action, injecting the title of “The Queen” with double meaning.
I Am Henry Deaver
The Kid is nonspeaking through many of the episodes, but things have an unsettling way of falling into place for him without much visible effort. Lacy believed him to be the devil and convinced Alan of it too. As Henry works to see him released from Shawshank, it’s an act of fate that ultimately allows The Kid to go free. Looming and unresponsive, he cuts an intimidating figure, but he remains at least vaguely sympathetic throughout the series. Still, though we never see him directly cause anyone harm, there is no denying that his presence alone seems to cause horrible events that always seem to benefit him in some way to play out. Molly notes that when she’s around him, all she can think of is everything wrong that has ever happened in Castle Rock.
Much of the open-ended characterization of The Kid is conveyed in his calm demeanor as chaos erupts all around him time and again. When Henry demands to know who he is, The Kid blithely replies, “A victim, same as you.” This assures us that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether he is the alternate reality version of Henry that he claims to be because he shares Henry’s struggle regardless. Likewise, it shows his insidious ability to force people to doubt their intentions and actions in favor of serving his purpose. In his origin story, he implies to Henry that things would be better if he didn’t exist, using Ruth as a testament to this. In The Kid’s alternate reality, he has supposedly made significant advancements in treating Alzheimer’s. This is a world where Ruth and Matthew bore a biological child and were happy. This is a devastating undercurrent to Henry and The Kid’s interactions in the later episodes of the season. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth, but his claims reflect Henry’s inner feelings of displacement and loneliness.
The Way This Town Changes People
The series goes on several side quests, from Molly’s comically unphased assistant “Jackie” Torrance to a true-crime-obsessed-couple-turned-murderers to a killer cop who goes on a murderous rampage. It may go without saying that many elements deserve further dissection, particularly the dynamic between The Kid and Henry, Molly’s larger story arc, and the ongoing commentary on systemic abuse that Shawshank so often represents. Even Henry’s story, which the season hinges on, seems very open to greater exploration, which will no doubt be a cause of frustration for viewers hoping for a tidier ending.
The conclusion of the first season of Castle Rock is ambiguous. Many elements are unexplained or left open-ended, leaving the audience to theorize and draw conclusions. King’s novels tend to do a significant amount of handholding regarding their resolutions. We don’t know what becomes of Molly, Jackie, Ruth, or Henry, leaving us to guess.
It’s hard to say what might have happened if Henry had gone along with The Kid’s plans, but even as Henry takes Lacy’s place as warden, delivering food to his isolated cell day after day, the season ends with a smile. Keeping Henry in Castle Rock, and causing a breakdown of his morality, may have been precisely what The Kid wanted all along, making for a chilling and uncertain end to a near-perfect season of television. Embracing a loose conclusion, Castle Rock’s first ten episodes pack a punch that is hard to shake. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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