This Castle Rock review contains spoilers.
Castle Rock Episode 2
Despite the excellent (and gruesome) cliffhanger ending of “Severance,” Castle Rock‘s second episode is a bit of a drag, moving at the slowest of crawls without ever completely coming together. Like the premiere, “Habeas Corpus” tries to fit too much into its limited runtime, which means that many of the scenes are dead on arrival. Moments like the flashback of the mascot committing suicide don’t really seem to mean anything in the grand scheme of the show and so just feel like fat that could have been trimmed.
One thing that does work during those brief flashbacks to the town’s dark history is Dale Lacy’s posthumous narration. Terry O’Quinn is a favorite of mine (I’m a huge Lost fan), so it’s nice to see him return as an omniscient voice after his surprising demise in the first episode. I was really impressed with those moments of narration when it seemed like Dale had become the voice of the town to tell stories that would have been keep hidden from us otherwise.
Stephen King often employs this omniscient voice in his own writing in order to counteract the usually cagey residents of his small town settings. That said, it’s a shame that so much of O’Quinn’s narration is spent on making references to other King tales, such as Cujo and The Dead Zone. In fact, “Habeas Corpus” plays like a reference soup a lot of the time, with callbacks to Stand By Me, Needful Things, Dolores Claiborne, and one very forced nod to The Shining. At times, it feels like Castle Rock is more interested in other King stories than its own. Of course, this will be most evident to Constant Readers and may fly past the average viewer. But I found the constant easter eggs distracting.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to really get into the heads of any of these characters. Henry (Andre Holland) remains an enigma, a death row lawyer whom many believe killed his adoptive father — as unreasonable and clearly racist as that sounds since the man died at home. Despite the fact that everyone in Castle Rock seems to be keeping secrets and that Henry’s returned to unravel at least one mystery inside Shawshank Penitentiary, the lawyer remains the cagiest of all the characters. We spend a good portion of the episode with Henry but we don’t learn much more about him than we did in the first episode.
Part of that actually feels true to the character and his predicament. The town remains closed off to Henry and so he is closed off to us — the opening of Henry’s particular floodgate will undoubtedly lead to a lot of painful memories — but the writers also don’t really try to delve any deeper than a quick conversation between Henry and his mother, Ruth (the great Sissy Spacek), or an argument with Alan (Scott Glenn) in the backyard. (I will say that Castle Rock has the creepy King imagery down, though. The shot of the dead dog, the way the camera lingers on the pup’s exposed ribcage, its mangled and twisted body made to fit in a box, is downright disturbing.)
What little we do get of Henry’s story actually comes courtesy of young Molly Strand (Cassady McClincy), who watches as Henry drives away with his dad on the night they both went missing in the woods. The show is slowly teasing out Molly, and the little bits we’ve gotten so far are actually delightful. Melanie Lynskey’s soft-spoken real estate agent is quirky but determined and perhaps the most likable character on the show, despite the fact that she’s committing forgeries behind her sister’s back. In a town where murder and suicide seem to run rampant, forgery is just something you shrug off.
Lynskey adds some much-needed levity to the proceedings. While there’s definitely a level of darkness one expects from a King tale, I’m really surprised by how little fun Castle Rock seems to have with the material. The show is grim, a bit gray, and extremely serious without any of the flourishes of camp that make King’s work so enjoyable. This is more like King via Kubrick (I love Kubrick’s The Shining if you’re wondering where I fall in that debate), a serious examination of evil that doesn’t lend itself to much beyond the dark. Hopefully, that’ll change a little in future episodes.
For the time being, Castle Rock is content with having The Kid (Bill Skarsgard) stare menacingly at the camera like a very tall and wide-eyed Jack Nicholson impersonator. The brief moments we spend with the enigmatic prisoner are definitely creepy but never rise to much more than that. For example, as an examination of the horrors of a privatized prison system, which several characters have commented on so far but nothing beyond a “I wish it were illegal” remark. While Alan Pangborn and Dale Lacy might think that The Kid is the cause of all the evil happenings in Castle Rock, there’s something much more villainous going on within the walls of Shawshank.
We see a quick glimpse of this evil as the new warden decides to have The Kid killed by another prisoner in order to cover up his existence, and it’s far more terrifying than any monster. The show should lean into that — and pick up the pace while it’s at it.
John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Follow him on Twitter.
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