Note: This post contains spoilers for Castle Rock.
"...you don't know what it's like hearing those doors lock behind you."
Thus far, Castle Rock contains a recurring visual motif revolving around cages. The series' central mystery involves a nameless boy (Bill Skarsgård) being discovered underneath an abandoned, burned out wing in Shawshank Prison. Beyond being a jail, the penitentiary itself becomes an inescapable profession for most of the town's men. Such is the case for guard Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher), who shudders when the bars slam home behind him each day when he arrives for work. Henry (André Holland) continues to have recurring flashbacks of being trapped inside a pen as a child, his feet kicking up dirt on the crude floor beneath him. The town itself is often treated as a trap for those who grew up and still reside there, thanks not only to the lack of industry, but also the commitment to history and family so many of its residents hold dear to their hearts. Part of this feels like a natural extension of author and executive producer Stephen King's longstanding obsession with these blue collar American strongholds, which house their own brands of ancient, all-consuming evil.
"You know how they always say that Castle Rock has some kind of luck?" Zalewski says to Henry, after handing over a sketch of the crude concealed cell he drew from memory on a bar napkin in the borough's lone gin joint, The Mellow Tiger. "It's not really luck though, is it? Bad shit happens here because bad people know they're safe here." Following the discovery of the prison's greatest secret in that custom-made bear trap – which was constructed by the now deceased former Warden Lacy (Terry O'Quinn) – Zalewski can't help but have his eyes opened to the wanton brutality that surrounds him in his place of business. Prisoners are blinded by those who are supposed to be ensuring their safety, just for the fun of it. Meanwhile, others are beaten within an inch of their lives because they stepped out of line; the punishment not fitting their meager transgressions. Every night, Dennis watches on the monitors as these scenes play out like the worst version of reality television – images of sadism and violence that fill his dreams after he clocks out, making it impossible to sleep next to his pregnant wife.
King's novels have almost always owned a rather forceful political bent, taking on everything from AIDS crisis homophobia in IT, right wing political and religious hypocrisy/megalomania in The Dead Zone and The Talisman, along with exploring (sometimes to his texts' detriment*) how small town simple-mindedness feeds into human beings' worst beliefs. Castle Rock seems to be injecting that approach into its spin-off narratives; what with making its central hero a death row civil rights attorney, and having his contact be a prison guard spiritually awakening to the casual cruelty that his massive employer turns a blind eye to. Were it not for the supernatural elements, Castle Rock could easily be setting itself up as a progressive-minded legal thriller, in which Henry represents both a whistle-blower and an abused victim, left for dead thanks to a corrupt system. Holland and Fisher tap into the pathos that drive these characters, even as the counselor rudely condescends this newly born crusader, looking to take down the town's most viable source of income – not to mention iron and concrete home for many of the population's now fatherless children – from the inside.
Holland has the tricky task of needing to balance Henry’s righteousness with the fact that his character’s sort of a resentful asshole. The lawyer looks down on the town and seems to despise hailing from these haunted New England woods, while simultaneously desiring to investigate how his own mark was left on its checkered history. His relationship with his adopted mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and her longtime lover/caretaker, former Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), is strained (to say the least) and becomes even more so when Henry threatens to move his mom to a home in Texas that’s better equipped to deal with her escalating dementia. Alan naturally resents this notion, as he’s been adoring and ensuring the woman gets every last thing she needs, long after her possibly patricidal son abandoned her for the South. It’s the stuff of a daytime melodrama, and somewhat bogs the more peculiar (and therefore intriguing) elements of Castle Rock’s story down.
Henry’s somewhat self-involved quest leads him to the home of Joseph Desjardins (David Selby), whose brother Vince (a reported reclusive Nazi sympathizer) may have had something to do with his disappearance around Dark Score Lake** twenty-seven years ago. A trip to Joseph's dilapidated house leads to a tense moment, as the coot reveals that he kept Henry's police file from ‘91. When interrogated about why Desjardins has these documents in his possession, the aging barber chalks it up to personal history, and wanting to know "what they said about him." Seems the police pounding on his door, making insinuations, and confiscating a rather unusual family relic left a mark on the codger. Like Henry, he's a man troubled by how others in Castle County view him, but his final words to the lawyer ("...you know, I never touched you...") are a little tough to believe, given that child-sized wooden shack he keeps out back, with an old bowl full of rotting food on the floor.
The fourth episode of Castle Rock (appropriately titled "The Box") ends with the show's biggest shock yet, as Dennis finally snaps and goes on a shooting rampage inside Shawshank. It's a harrowing, heartbreaking sequence, all set to a track by one of King's oft-quoted favorites (Roy Orbison's "Crying"). Compounding this event is the fact that it’s partially incited by Henry's callousness, as the attorney decides to take the deal that the prison has offered his client – some quick cash and an agreement to release the boy – instead of standing tall against the system. The pressures of this small town Hell became too great for Zalewski to endure, and he takes matters into his own hands; a massacre that concludes with a SWAT Team putting a shotgun blast in his chest. Were this one of King's epic novels, it'd be a fitting first act break, as nothing will ever be the same following a tragedy that could've been avoided, had Deaver maintained some semblance of backbone. The cage became a coffin for the would-be champion of its dismantling.
*It’s tough to read the Adrian Mellon sections of IT and not recognize how dated its expression of these attitudes are (no matter how well intentioned they may be).
**Pedantic King Nerd Gripe: they keep referring to this body of water as “Castle Lake”, when in the books it was “Dark Score Lake”. Castle Lake was a neighboring town.
The Box is available to stream today on Hulu. Read our ongoing Castle Rock coverage here.