Things are getting weirder. The job of the second installment of the Stephen King-inspired Castle Rock series is to raise a lot of questions, and most of those can be summed up as: “What the hell?”
The first episode ended with an apparent massacre as The Kid (Bill Skarsgård) — the mysterious, unspeaking figure discovered caged in the bowels of Shawshank State Prison for untold years — emerged from confinement, leaving a trail of bodies in his path.
Night guard Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher) sounds the alarm and vaults into action, drawing his service pistol as he charges into the cell block.
But there’s no massacre. He almost shoots one of his fellow guards, who are in a panic — but only because of the false alarm. It’s all clear. The kid is in his cell. No one is dead. Not yet.
This episode is narrated by Warden Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who kept The Kid hidden in a burned out, unused section of the prison before his retirement — and subsequent suicide.
“People think we’re just one of those dead towns people hear about. A run of bad luck. Broken promises. It’s not luck, it’s a plan. And not God’s either,” he says.
“Remember the dog? And the strangler? Sure you do,” Lacy goes on. That’s a reference to two King books: Cujo, the rabid St. Bernard, and Frank Dodd, the cop-turned-serial-killer in The Dead Zone.
“How about all the others that didn’t make headlines?” Lacy goes on.
We get a flashback to 1961. “It was the fall after they found that boy’s body out by the train tracks,” Lacy says, a reference to King’s novella “The Body,” a.k.a. Stand By Me.
We see Lacy at a football game. While the attendees are focused on an injured player, we see a little girl looking up to the roof of the adjacent school. A figure in a mascot costume waves at her, then plunges to his death.
“Turned out I wasn’t the one people needed to worry about,” Lacy says. “My younger brother was. That was my first taste of what this town could do to someone.”
From there, we see assorted acts of murder and mayhem. “Take any house in this town. Hell take mine. Every inch is stained with someone’s sin.”
There’s a bloody body in a bathtub, around 1938, based on the Hitler “Man of the Year” cover on Time magazine.
Water cascades down stairs, and we get an apparent flash-forward. A man lies dead in an armchair while a “Smiles” cereal commercial plays on TV. The pet bird is dead too, and we see that a hose is pumping carbon monoxide under the door from the vehicle in the garage. A woman in her Sunday best is revving the motor.
It’s hard to tell, but the car looks like a Plymouth Fury — although blue instead of candy-apple red like King’s Christine.
“They say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was this place.’ And the thing is, they’re right,” Lacy says.
We see the warden as a younger man, putting a lantern from some camping gear into his car. He yells to his wife that he’ll be late with a parole board meeting.
“Let me stand athwart the doorway, I told him. But God doesn’t take requests,” he continues. “So I waited. For years. For instructions. And then, one day. One beautiful day… God answered.”
We see the warden building a cage in the cistern below the prison. All of this raises more questions than the prologue could hope to answer:
Why did his brother kill himself? Who was the body in the 1938 bathtub? Why did the woman kill the man in the armchair? By what means did this message from God arrive?
Continued on the next page:
All we know for sure is that Henry Deaver (André Holland) is back in his old town, and he’s searching for the mystery man at the prison.
First stop: the Lacy house, with its bloody history.
Henry tells the widow Martha (Frances Conroy) that he’s an attorney who has business against Northeast Correctional, the company that oversaw Shawshank.
“Far as I’m concerned, private prisons should be outlawed,” she says, welcoming him inside. “I hope you’ll take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”
“I’m actually here about a particular prisoner, an inmate your husband may have taken a special interest in,” Henry tells the blind woman.
“Dale believed in rehabilitation. Off the clock, he called it grace,” she says.
She allows him to rummage through her late husband’s office, and goes to answer the phone.
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Henry finds a drawer full of prayer calendars, which all ceased being ripped off midway through the year. The dates are all different, but the same Biblical passage is on each one: Acts: 16-33.
“Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized.”
He pieces through a folder of news clippings. “Shopkeeper missing after oddity store fire,” is a clear reference to Needful Things. “Anonymous tip led to boy’s body,” is another shoutout to “The Body.” And Cujo is referenced again in “Rabid dog tears through town.”
The blind woman returns from her phone conversation. “Are you black?” she asks.
“Last I checked,” Henry answered, somewhat bemused.
“Your’re Henry Deaver, aren’t you?” she demands.
His answer this time is more of a sigh. “Last I checked…”
“We knew your father. We were members of his congregation. After what you did… and now you take advantage of a blind woman. There’s a special place in hell for you.”
Henry notices a padlock on a cellar door. “What’s in the basement?” he asks, but agrees to leave when she threatens to call the state police.
At his father’s old church, the pastor (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton) is soliciting prayer partners for prisoners. One is a drug dealer; one is guilty of desecration of a grave, and worse.
A woman claims the latter is Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy, The Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe), whose name is very similar to unhinged dad Jack Torrance in The Shining, although no direct relation is made in the show.
Henry Deaver comes to church to ask the pastor if the warden ever confided in him about a mystery man at the prison, a man he’s not even sure really exists.
“Warden Lacy wouldn’t have confided in me. It was his church before my time. He dropped Martha off on Sundays and drove off to the woods. He considered nature his chapel.”
The minister then alludes to Henry’s own disturbing past with some bizarre passive aggressive praise for his work with death row inmates. “We work with some colorful characters in our prayer partner program here,” the reverend says. “For you to be involved in that kind of work after what you came from, your history in this town. It’s nice to see redemption in the flesh.”
Back at the prison, Zalewski picks up food from The Kid’s cell. Uneaten.
“You didn’t leave here last night, did you?” he asks. It’s almost sweet how naïve he is. “ Of course you didn’t. I’m screwed up then. I got… You know fathers get this thing called sympathetic pregnancy. Mindfog, nausea. Disrupts sleep.”
It’s probably a bad idea to tell this stranger that he has a child on the way, but Zalewski can’t seem to help but tell the truth.
At a bar in the Augusta Hilton, Warden Porter (Ann Cusack) is finishing a drink when Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) shuffles in. She doesn’t appear to know him, but he knows her.
“Shawshank, eh? Rough month,” he says, eying her security tag. “Not everyone is cut out for corrections work. I was a lawman myself. They’re naming a bridge after me – 150 tons of steel and concrete.”
He tells her the story of pulling over her predecessor, Warden Lacy, speeding through town long ago. “That night he told me he had finally figured out what was wrong with Castle Rock. He said he always thought the devil was just a metaphor, but now he knew the devil was a boy.”
So our Mystery Man was just a child when he was captured. “Old Dale said he caught him, and had locked the devil in a box. And from here on out it was blue skies and butterflies.”
“How long ago was this?” she asks.
Pangborn shakes his head. “Don’t let that f—— kid out.”
Continued on the next page:
Back in the cistern, Warden Porter is examining the evidence. If Lacy was a good man, he must have had a good reason for what he did. She finds a box full of fingernails. Clipping from The Kid’s many days in solitary confinement.
She has The Kid transferred to a cell with a man with Nazi tattoos, including swastikas on his face and 1488 across his forehead. This is not to be confused with King’s haunted hotel short story 1408. This is pure white supremacy garbage.
He puts down the book he’s reading. (William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which is where King got the name Castle Rock.) This is supposed to be The Kid’s death sentence, but as the psycho draws closer, the meek man says: “You don’t want to touch me.”
The next day, they find the white supremacist dead in the cell. The cause? Apparently natural causes. He was riddled with cancer, penetrating every major organ. The medical examiner thinks it’s a miracle he could even have walked.
This seems to be the reverse of John Coffey, the wrongly accused man with mystical healing abilities in King’s novel The Green Mile. In that story, Coffey could absorb the illnesses and pain of other people. This stranger … he seems to be able to infuse people with disease.
Back at the Deaver household, Henry and his mother (Sissy Spacek) are having a retro-birthday party for him. He laments that he’s older than his father ever got to be. As he blows out the candle, we see a flashback. Young Henry and Molly Strand, just tweens, flashing lights from their bedrooms to each other in the night.
She’s writing his name over and over again in a notebook, clearly nursing a schoolgirl crush. Later, she wakes in the night and sees Henry being summoned to a car. It drives off. We have no idea who is behind the wheel.
The next day, Molly (Melanie Lynskey) meets her sister (played by Fargo’s Allison Tollman) at the Mellow Tiger, a bar that’s one of the major settings of Needful Things.
Here we learn that Molly has some precognitive abilities. She takes her painkillers to quiet the messages she is inundated with from others.
“Right, your undiagnosed psychic affliction,” her sister says.
“There are nerves in the brain that are called mirror neurons and they’re responsible for empathy…” Molly tries to explain.
“Are you high?” her sister asks.
“I take a pill once a day just to muffle other people’s noise,” Molly says. “I called you because I’m going to be on Local Color next week to talk about revitalization of historic downtown, starting with the Yarn Mill.”
The Bachman Yarn Mill, by the way, is the name of the textile mill from the 1990 movie version of King’s monster rat story Graveyard Shift.
Molly wants to mortgage the family homestead to raise $40,000 to lease the mill and refurbish it as a new commercial center.
“You’re going to mortgage the only security you have so you can freeze up on live television and flush your entire future down the drain?” Isn’t it grand to have supportive family?
Asking permission was just a formality. “I signed your name and filed the papers this morning,” Molly says. “Thank you for lunch.”
Continued on the next page:
Later that night at the Mellow Tiger, Henry shows up looking to meet some Shawshank prison guards who might be able to tell him how to find the mystery man. He meets up with Jackie Torrance, who cheerfully trades in local gossip.
“You know kids used to dress up like you for Halloween, but somebody Instagramed a photo and it became a whole thing. Blackface,” she says.
Henry is losing interest, fast. But then she starts to talk about the rumors surrounding his disappearance.
“Beloved local preacher opens up his home and his heart to poor screw-up orphan. Weirdo kid. Gets weirder,” she says. “The 1991 mega snowstorm, Guinness book s—, you lure him out to Castle Lake, push him off the rocks. Bye-bye pastor Deaver. Wander out of the woods 11 days later and pretend you can’t remember what happened.”
“That the cover story or the real story?” Deaver asks her.
“You tell me,” she says.
Deaver manages to spot Zalewski and gets him a message.
As he leaves, he tells Jackie: “He died at home, not at the lake.”
We hear Warden Lacy’s narration again: “Give a man the keys to the dungeon. Tell him to lock up the monster. Or pin a star on his chest and call him the sheriff. Maybe he succeeds awhile, a decade or two if he’s lucky. But evil outlasts us all.”
Back at the Deaver house, Pangborn is digging in the woods. A stray dog they’d been feeding was hit and killed by a truck. Now Henry’s mother thinks the animal has come back, so Pangborn is digging up the remains to show her its still dead. (Shades of Pet Cemetary here.)
When he uncovers the suitcase they used as a coffin, he snaps a photo with his phone, and goes back to work burying it again. Henry doesn’t understand why this is necessary. His mother seemed fine earlier in the day.
“They call it sundowning. Nights are hard for your mom,” Pangborn says.
Then we get another flashback: Molly in bed, being awakened in the night by Deputy Norris Ridgewick (another major character from Needful Things).
He tells her they found the reverend “barely alive at the bottom of a cliff at Castle Lake.”
Deputy Ridgewick wants to know if Henry ever talked about hurting his father.
“It’s not his father,” Molly says.
She says she doesn’t know anything about Henry, including where he may have gone.
Continued on the next page:
Back in the present, Henry finds a carved figure in the refrigerator. More evidence of his mother’s sundowning?
He gets a call from Zalewski, who admits he’s the one who made the anonymous call that summoned Henry back to town. But he doesn’t know what became of the mysterious stranger. “Haven’t seen him since yesterday, walked him down to solitary.”
“This town, they should pave over the whole damn county,” Henry says. “I’ll file habeas in the morning. State’s attorney. We’ll make sure you have whistleblower protection.”
But Zalewski doesn’t want to testify. “I’ll lose my job, my health care. My wife is giving birth in a month. Do you think I’d be working at a prison if there was a Walmart within sixty miles of here? I did my part. I’m done.”
Henry just wants to get into the prison, but now the administration is on guard against him. There’s no way he can get close on his own.
“It would take an act of God to get you in that prison,” Zalewski says.
That’s where Henry’s father’s old church comes in. We see the lawyer boarding the bus with the other prayer leaders. He’s going to get through Shawshank’s perimeter by camouflaging himself among the churchgoers.
While Henry is on the grounds, Zalewski retrieves The Kid and shoves him out a side door into the prison yard. We hear the narration of Warden Lacy again: “Never again let him see the light of day. That’s what God told me….
“He told me where to find him. How his prison should be built. How to put an end to all the horrors we’ve seen in this town.”
Henry snaps a photo of the mystery man and yells to him: “I can be your lawyer if you want me to be. But you have to say it!”
“Henry Deaver,” The Kid says softly.
“What he didn’t tell me was how full of doubt I would be about what we did,” Warden Lacy’s voice says. “Or about where I would be in the end.”
We see the sheepdog from moments before his suicide crest a hill in the woods. The dog digs in the dirt, uncovering the warden’s severed head.
“I fear for this place,” the warden’s voice says, and we see that all this narration is from a letter written to Alan Pangborn. “I fear what’s to come Alan, but I know Castle Rock still has a defender. Even in the dead of night.”