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Let the People Slay, Down at ‘Castle Rock’

Hulu’s Castle Rock creates its own compelling universe off of the backs of some of Stephen King’s greatest works. The result? An intriguing slow burn that appeals to King fans and agnostics alike.

The most important thing about Hulu’s new series Castle Rock is that you don’t have to know the Stephen King universe by heart to appreciate it. On our latest podcast, I’d described the new series as a strong main dish with added references to King lore that provided added spice. The main dish is still very good, but to those in the know, the spice provides that extra special kick. Funny thing, until I’d read a detailed analysis, even I – a Stephen King fan – didn’t realize just how deeply the creative team planted King references into the narrative and composition.

It all makes for, in my opinion, a very exciting summer series.

Free of the general nostalgia in which its thriller cousin Stranger Things luxuriates, Castle Rock thrives with strongly drawn characters and a few, delicately placed, genuine scares. The opening 15 minutes of the pilot are completely brilliant. An initially unnamed man searches for a missing boy amongst an icy tundra. Dale Lacy (Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn), warden to the famed Shawshank prison, makes a massive and surprisingly early life-altering decision. An unsuspecting prison guard makes a long, dark and terrifying journey into the abandoned bowels of Shawshank. That scene culminates in one huge jump scare, if you’re susceptible to such things. Which I completely am.

The rest of the provided four episodes don’t quite have that laser-like focus. Instead, they introduce the main characters in a deliberate and languid pace. That’s likely going to frustrate many viewers, but I appreciated it. Particularly since episodes three and four provide ample payoff for the slow build.

André Holland (The Knick) stars as Henry Deaver, a death row attorney returning to Castle Rock after leaving under shame. Holland holds our attention nicely, even if he’s saddled with the thankless role of discovery. He remembers little about the town he fled as nearly everyone around him holds some kind of secret about him. Case in point, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) is a local real estate agent who possesses the very Stephen King ability of near-telepathic sensitivity. She lived across from Deaver as a child, and inserted herself into his life in a very sinister and critical way.

Rounding out the cast are Sissy Spacek as Deaver’s adoptive mother, suffering from dementia; Scott Glenn as King regular Alan Pangborn; and Jackie Levy as the mysteriously (purposefully) named Jackie Torrence. Bill Skarsgard (IT) also stars as “The Kid,” the near-mute central mystery of this season.

The cast builds characters and suspense equally well. My personal favorites include the ever-brilliant Lynskey. She effectively conveys the panic and frustration of “hearing” others’ thoughts and emotions. Episode three, in particular, offers her an early showcase to demonstrate exactly how brilliant she can be as an actress as Molly collapses on a local cable news show. Also strong in a sort of amorphous role is Skarsgard whose childlike countenance veers interchangeably between sinister and sympathetic. His performance is easily taken for granted, but he’s a captivating central key to this story.

Overall, Castle Rock consistently earns your attention. Blink and you’ll miss the Stephen King references, but you need not worry. The cast and main story don’t rely on that window dressing. It’s just added spice after all. Instead, the creative team – including director Michael Uppendahl (American Horror Story) and writers Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason – spin a carefully wrought tale that slowly, deliberately unwinds itself.

Much like the Stephen King novels that inspire it, Castle Rock isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.

Step back and enjoy the ride.

Hulu dropped three episodes of Castle Rock today, July 25. New episodes continue on Wednesdays.