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A tense, tight Castle Rock accidentally makes a case for binge-watching

A Castle Rock cliffhanger on a Castle Rock cliff
Screenshot: Hulu
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“Let me tell you a story about starting over”

There’s a rare thrill these days in a real cliffhanger, and “The Word” has got that. For the first time all season, I cannot wait to get back to Castle Rock, and to Castle Rock.

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Annie Wilkes’ story nearly ended sixteen years ago on a bluff somewhere outside of Bakersfield, California, and Amity’s on a bluff off the cruel shore of Maine. But instead, both stories turned tide there, on the strength of a smile. “You saved me,” Annie tells Joy (Evangeline, my conscience chides me, a kidnapper doesn’t get to rename a child, but still I think of her as Joy) with wonder, remembering how her daughter (sister) saved her life then, and again just last night.

Like teenage Annie, Amity Lambert (Mathilde Dehaye) is saved by a smile, and damned by one. Cast out from their starving village by her father, Amity and her lover, the disgraced priest, are doomed to exile. But soon Amity returns with baskets and bags of food, showing her former fellows the newly fertile earth and promising much more, all this abundance brought “an angel” who smiled gently upon her and delivered a bounty, enough to save everyone.

Mathilde Dehaye
Screenshot: Hulu
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Everyone who submits.

A good story ends where it begins, Ace Merrill—really Pere Augustin in Ace’s flesh—tells the crowd at Castle Rock’s 400th anniversary celebration, and it’s exciting to see the intersections of these stories as the seasons, seemingly discrete stories unwinding over the same landscape, stop glancing at each other and instead collide at full speed. I just wish that the show’s “full speed” moved faster than a cheerful parade meandering through town.

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Chris Mulkey
Screenshot: Hulu

A good story keeps its focus, and “The Word” sticks tight to the settlers, the Satanists, who took over New Jerusalem, sacrificing or driving out all others. Only occasionally does the episode glance at Annie Wilkes and her daughter (sister), at the quiet, quick-eyed officer (Chris Mulkey, his thoughtful but quick-eyed face so different from Hank Jennings’ sharp, scheming eyes) questioning her, at the events playing out around town separate from the founders’ resurrection plans. Mulkey’s cop isn’t buying Annie’s story, by the way, no matter how flatly she tries to sell: “I did it, the end,” she tells him, and “That’s the story, soup to nuts.”

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Instead of aiming for superficial similarities to tie together Annie and Amity with some portrait-of-Dracula’s-bride resemblance, the casting relies upon each actor’s performance, and upon a remarkably similar vocabulary of expressions that suggest each could be, could be, the other’s mirror. Like Lizzy Caplan, Mathilde Dehaye can beam with just her eyes, or cut with them. Like Caplan, Dehaye can tilt her chin with winning challenge, set it in chilling wrath, or soften it in resignation. It sounds superficial, but in a story switching abruptly to subtitled French, an actor who can strongly signal every shift in tone with a glance is valuable. One who can also craft a few stolen slivers of resemblance—in feature, in expression, in temperament—to Annie Wilkes is invaluable.

Not since the ice cream scoop has Castle Rock boasted a split second as charged, as startling-but-inevitable, as that first look at the face under that deep hood. The “angel” Amity encounters, the entity for whom she killed her father, then her god, is him. The Kid (ol’ Smilin’ Bill Skarsgård).

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Bill Skarsgård
Screenshot: Hulu

As present-day characters in “The Word” mention, The Kid was discovered (in Castle Rock’s series premiere) in Block F, a forgotten chamber under Shawshank prison, where he’d been held captive by then-warden Dale Lacy. The same Daly Lacy whose old letters are bundled together in Pop Merrill’s desk drawer. The same Block F Ace Merrill visited just two days ago.

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This week, I can promise not to spoil anything else from Castle Rock’s first season; I make no promises for next week. Like the vault of graves under the new mall’s construction site, Block F runs deep under Castle Rock, deep into its ground and its history. Now those stories are intersecting underground, destabilizing the terrain, threatening (promising) to collapse both stories into one dreadful tangle.

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As the end draws near, Castle Rock’s writers are being more careful to track the passage of time. The town’s 400th anniversary is four days away, Ace is sure to mention, and then again when it’s three days off. Three days until the settlers’ resurrection, because that’s what Castle Rock is dishing out here: not just Satanists, not just Satanist bodysnatchers, not even your classic revenant Satanist bodysnatching scenario, but a woman-led colonialist Satanist death cult revenant-and-resurrection bodysnatching scenario.

Mathilde Dehaye
Screenshot: Hulu
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Castle Rock’s second season doesn’t have the meditative mourning quality of its first, and it doesn’t need to. The fast-paced potboiler action of the premiere has its own appeal, and the mystical (and occasionally mystifying) scenes of the past have a stillness that contrasts cleverly, if not always effectively, with that grim humor. The fun that the first few episodes chased is almost entirely absent in “The Word,” but it’s traded for building horror and an immersion into a new character almost as successfully drawn as Annie’s mother. And I suspect that if I had seen this episode in swift succession between other episodes—if I had watched in the newly traditional, reputedly least affecting way—the flaws would be glossed over and the strengths amplified.

At a time when streaming sites have changed the nature of watching television, Hulu unwittingly presents an argument for the approach of their most powerful competitors. Instead of releasing Castle Rock in one big swallow, ready for audiences to swig back at will, each episode is doled out like Annie’s medication, to be taken at its time.

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For the first time this season, Castle Rock has me fully in its grip, and for the first time, I’d rather keep watching than stop to write about it, or than almost anything. But we can’t.

Stray observations

  • Twenty-five years later, Tim Robbins is back at Shawshank… but just for a visit. This week.
  • John Henry Diehl (or, as genre viewers might know him better, John Diehl) has played a previous King-universe character, appearing in a 1997 The Outer Limits episode adapted from The Revelations Of ’Becka Paulson, a name you might recognize from The Tommyknockers. Even I have to admit, this feels less like a deep-cut Easter egg and more like pure coincidence, given the sheer volume of King’s adapted work and the range of Diehl’s roles over the decades.
  • Viewers of Slings & Arrows might recognize in Pere Augustin the reluctant Romeo from season two, who sheds his diffidence and learns to let his broad face glow, looking like a Renaissance prince ready for his portrait. As the pastor of New Jerusalem, David Alpay is more restrained, but just as passionate, and just as duty-bound. Both character and actor know how to stand back and let Amity lead.
  • Burning crosses are not great in a community struggling with overt racism, and I don’t think inverting them makes it better. Fun fact: Inverting a victim of bloodletting is intended to let their blood charge to their heads so they stay conscious longer into the process! I wonder if that works at all, and specifically if it works for burning, and additionally if I’ll get a polite note from our outstanding editors on the correct usage of fun fact.
  • See you, as I may have mentioned, next week!
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.