Ripe with allusions for die-hard fans, “Severance”, the first episode of Stephen King-inspired Castle Rock, builds tension that even outsiders can appreciate.
The only thing I really remember about watching 50 Shades Darker, aside from having a few cocktails under my belt, is being unnaturally excited by the scene where Dakota Johnson recreates her mother’s infamous “I expect you to call me Tess” Working Girl speech. I am a sucker for that insider thrill where the filmmakers give us a wink. Call it Easter Eggs, allusions, shout outs–regardless, I dig it. If you are in that camp, Castle Rock, the new Hulu series from J.J. Abrams with Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, is your jam. It is plush with Stephen King allusions, as you might expect from a show named after the author’s most frequently visited fictional Maine hamlet. Since the series is supposed to be a crossroads of King’s works, perhaps the more important question is how it holds up for those who aren’t deeply embedded in these narratives.
Castle Rock has a literal cold open sometime in the past on a lonely figure passing through the snowy woods in search of something. He uncovers a frozen deer, only to cover it again, indicating that he is looking for something else large under the blanket of snow. Sitting at a lake’s edge, his name tag is revealed–Pangborn–before he spots a solitary child (Caleel Harris) in the middle of the ice. The last shot shows him running to a young boy, calling for Henry. King fans will certainly recognize Pangborn as Sheriff Alan Pangborn of Needful Things and The Dark Half. This is the first of many references to feast on.
In the present, Shawshank warden Dale Lacey (Lost alum Terry O’Quinn) hangs himself in his car, his head snapped off close to the location where young Henry was found. Coincidence? Surely not. Also not of coincidence is the secret the warden has been keeping in the Shawshank water tower. Our new warden, ready to clean house, sends guards to check an abandoned section of the prison, where they stumble upon the “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgård of 2017’s It remake), a creepy King character if ever there was one. How he came to be in such a place, especially with no actual record of him as a prisoner, drives much of the mystery.
His sole clue is to invoke the name of Henry Dever (André Holland, Moonlight) an attorney for death row inmates. Henry, we learn, is the same figure from the pond in the open, all grown up and hiding in Texas from his past when as a child he vanished for 11 days. His father’s search in the icy Maine winter led him to succumb to the cold; when Henry was found healthy and unharmed (and clutching a tiny white figure), the town turned on him. Yet that bad blood is not so great as to keep Henry from returning to Castle Rock where he finds his adoptive mother Ruth (King poster girl Sissy Spacek) suffering from dementia and keeping company with ageing Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn, no stranger to the darkness in Silence of the Lambs).
Attempting to visit his new client, Dever is told by the warden it was a prank, that no such man exists. That this man is later shown walking through the prison, lights flickering and inmates dead in his wake certainly speaks to the supernatural elements that have only been alluded to. In the final scene, we flashback to Lacey repeating to the Kid that when he is found he is to tell them one thing: Henry Dever.
Somewhere in all of this fits Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), a local woman who shudders at seeing Henry return. Her shudder becomes all the more suspicious in a later scene when she flips an hourglass and begins looking through a box containing Henry’s missing child poster and jacket. Curiouser and curiouser.
The showrunners have noted that their intention was not to adapt a specific King story but to create a show based on King as his own genre. From that point, “Severance” is successful. Scenes are infused with an inherent creepiness, whether it is a random child taunting a hungry gator or a close up of a mouse with its neck snapped in a trap. Often, it is the prospect of what we think might happen, our expectations of the scare, that is more terrifying than the actual fright. Some early reviews have called the show slow, without real explanation. That isn’t necessarily so, but there aren’t jump-out-of-your-skin, sleep-with-the-lights-on moments. Yet.
King also creates complex webs within small communities, showcasing just how dangerous those relations can be. That is certainly evident in the screen time given to the various characters introduced in this episode. What particularly works is that the episode sets up just enough mystery to engage the viewer with a few minor scares (Skarsgård is excellent being freaky even when he is literally just sitting still). Best of all for the show’s future, non-King fans can dive in without spending hours researching every reference.