By Anthony Breznican
July 25, 2018 at 07:45 PM EDT
Patrick Harbron/Hulu

With Castle Rock, Stephen King is opening up his toy box so others can play with his creations.

The Hulu series is based in his most famous fictional town — the setting of The Dead Zone, Cujo, Needful Things, The Dark Half, and more recently Gwendy’s Button Box — and the show draws from a handful of his existing characters and locations, entwining them with some entirely new ones.

Since this is the first episode, it’s important to lay down those ground rules. We’re not getting a strict Stephen King adaptation here. What creators Sam Shaw and Dusty Thomason are doing (with help from executive producer J.J. Abrams) is crafting a new story that exists within the margins of King’s world.

The show is also riddled with winks and nods to King’s work that might slip past the casual observer but will delight the author’s die-hard Constant Readers.

All right, take my hand. We’re crossing the town line. Castle Rock awaits. And it’s better not to go alone. (Continued on the next page: A lost boy returns…)

The first scene is a masked man in a car, parked in snowy woods, loading a handgun. It’s 1991 — which may be the first little Stephen King Easter egg. (The number 19 is a cosmic symbol in The Dark Tower books, so it’s interesting that they chose that specific year for the inverse.)

On the radio, there is talk of a missing boy, Henry Deaver. The man gets out and walks along a path, plunging a stick into the snowbanks. Eventually, it sticks in something. He uncovers the carcass of a deer. Then he keeps going.

The man’s jacket says: Pangborn. This would be Alan Pangbord, sheriff of Castle Rock and a lead character in Needful Things and The Dark Half.

Sitting at the edge of a frozen lake, he hears something inexplicable: It sounds like a roar or howl, by way of a giant stomach rumbling.

Suddenly, in the center of the ice, a young boy appears. “Henry!” Sheriff Pangborn yells, darting toward him.

Now it’s 2018, and we see overhead shots of our town, a quaint but not exactly picturesque little community. Its factories look run down. Its lawns are brown. It looks … scarred. And broken.

A man is making breakfast for his blind wife. It’s Lost star Terry O’Quinn as Dale Lacey, and Six Feet Under actress Frances Conroy as his missus Martha. He’s the warden at Shawshank State Penitentiary (I don’t need to point out that connection to King fans, do I?), and Martha says she wishes he had taken that buyout years before. “Last day, Mr. Lacey.”

As he drives, we hear the libretto “Che Soave Zeffiretto” from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. (It’s the same song Andy Dufresne plays over the prison loudspeakers in The Shawshank Redemption.)

Warden Lacey has not gone to the prison. Instead, he parks at the cliff’s edge of a lake, where he’s tied a rope around a large tree, and places the noose at the other end over his neck. He revs the engine, sees a large sheepdog crest a nearby hill, and pauses, considering it with a bemused expression. (It’s not a St. Bernard, so I don’t think this is a Cujo shout-out.)

The warden floors it.

Then we do travel to Shawshank, accompanying the new Warden Porter (Ann Cusack).

A guard offers a “bit of trivia.” Shawshank has had four wardens die while still employed by the prison. “You can still see the bullet hole where Warden Norton…” but she cuts him off before he can finish that tale. (Anyway, in the movie, the bullet went through the window.)

“If this were my office, I’d kill myself too,” Porter says.

We learn that Lacey’s head was never found. Expect that to be significant as this story unfolds.

They’re talking about boosting the population of the prison, which is now run by the for-profit private firm Northeast Correctional. More detainees means more money from the state of Maine. Most of Shawshank is already crammed, but there’s an entire wing — known as Block F — that has been sealed since a fire in the mid-’80s.

Why? No one knows. But guard Dennis Zalewski and a colleague are dispatched to explore the state of the abandoned cells, which were full when the fire tore through. “Right here is where they stacked the bodies,” one of the guards says. “Jailbird barbecue.”

They follow a trail of footprints in the ash and venture deeper down a sealed metal hatch (more shades of Lost) into a large water sistern. They find a chair, a coffee can full of old cigarette butts, and a cage with a single glaring occupant.

The man — if he is that — is played by Bill Skarsgård, best known for embodying the shapeshifting evil presence from It that calls itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The prisoner doesn’t speak, and seems timid and unaware of the world. He doesn’t seem to know what a shower is.

There’s no record of who the man is. He doesn’t seem to have any charges against him. The guards theorize he was some kind of sex slave for the warden. “If he wasn’t a psychopath before, he sure is now,” one of them says.

Until they figure out who he is, they intend to keep him in the prison.

Finally, the mystery figure says a name, but it’s not his own: “Henry Matthew Deaver.” (Continued on the next page: A cruel death …)

Henry Deaver, of course, is the missing boy who suddenly reappeared in that opening shot. As an adult, he is played by André Holland, who is working in Texas as a death row lawyer. The woman he’s representing, Leanne, is about to be executed for killing her husband, Richard Chambers.

(In King’s novella “The Body,” adapted into the film Stand By Me, Richard “Eyeball” Chambers was one of the thugs; the big brother of Chris Chambers, the character played by River Phoenix.)

Henry loses the appeal. As Leanne eats her last meal, she shares her first memory and asks him about his own. He flashes back to being rescued by the sheriff, and the song on the radio as they drove away from the woods: Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours From Tulsa.”

Despite being missing for 11 days, Henry had no frostbite. “You been inside somewhere?” the sheriff asked him.

Henry watches Leanne’s execution, but as he’s leaving the prison there’s a panic among the technicians. They botched it. She’s still alive, thrashing on the gurney. He can’t save her. Leanne dies badly, echoing the botched execution in King’s The Green Mile.

Back at Shawshank, the warden and her staff have figured out that Henry Matthew Deaver is the name of a local boy who went missing in the middle of winter decades before, and then was found. Also, we learn his father was also found, half frozen with a broken back, dying after three days.

The prison staff even know Deaver is a lawyer in Texas. But they hesitate to call him.

It’s the prison guard, Zalewski, who tracks Deaver down and places a call: We have one of your clients here. “They found a kid in a cage. No one else is going to help him.”

Intrigued, and seeking an escape, Henry decides to come home again.

At the prison, the warden and her staff hatch a plan to stash the mystery man in a cell with a “psycho who collects life sentences,” which they hope will eliminate their problem altogether.

Then we meet a woman in Ray Charles sunglasses who is described as “The MILF” by her teenage drug dealer. “You need kids, by the way, to be a MILF,” says Molly Strand (played by Melanie Lynskey, whose previous King credits include the 2002 TV miniseries Rose Red.)

She explains that she has a “condition,” she says, which necessitates the narcotics, but we don’t quite know what that is. When she sees Henry Deaver getting off a bus, she looks stricken, breathing hard. He doesn’t see her, but looks equally overwhelmed by his hometown and its many boarded-up shops and cracked streets.

There’s a white church with a paved lot that upsets him. He walks inside and lingers on a photo of a white man: Rev. M. Deaver, who was born in 1952 and died in 1991. It’s not clear what this means, except that Henry, who is black, is obviously not the man’s biological son.

We flash back to young Henry’s rescue by Alan Pangborn. “Son, do you know what happened to your father?” the sheriff asks. The boy is non responsive. In his hands, he holds a crudely carved white figure.

(Continued on the next page: They moved the bodies …)

Henry leaves the church and goes to his childhood home, where he finds a frying pan scorching on the stove. “Mom …?” he asks, and finds Ruth Deaver in the backyard in a state of apparent confusion. (She’s played by Sissy Spacek, whose past King credits include playing the title character in a little movie called Carrie.)

She’s rambling about her “white oak” trees. (A white oak is where Andy Dufresne hid the clues to his whereabouts for Red after escaping Shawshank.) The woman doesn’t seem surprised to see her son. In fact, she doesn’t even recognize him, referencing amid her rambles that she’s not a racist because she adopted a black son.

He wants to know where the nurse he arranged is, but learns that the person has long been dismissed. He discovers Alan Pangborn living in the home with his mother, now played in older age by Scott Glenn.

“Your mother and I enjoy one another’s companionship,” he says.

“And my father’s shirts, you enjoy those, too?” Henry asks.

“I don’t think he’s going to miss it,” the old man says.

Henry wants to know where his father is. That paved piece of land beside the church was a cemetery. Pangborn tells him the church had to sell that land and move the bodies to another burial ground.

“Nobody thought to pick up the phone and call me?” Henry asks. “Did she know what she was signing…? You signed it for her.”

“And I deposited the distress settlement for her, too,” Pangborn says.

Back at Shawshank, Skarsgård’s mystery man watches a mouse approach a trap and die.

Henry arrives at the visitor’s gate, asking about a client whose name he doesn’t know. The warden and her staff know just who he’s looking for, but pretend they don’t, giving Henry a binder of prisoner photos to examine to see if he recognizes anyone.

(Continued on the next page: He died where they found you …)

While perusing the mugshots, Henry casually mentions that his father used to minister to prisoners here in the 1980s — which raises the possibility that Rev. Deaver may have had some connection to that long-ago fire in Block F.

Warden Porter asks whether Henry thinks it’s possible that the anonymous call that brought him home was a prank of some sort. She notes that Maine did away with the death penalty 150 years ago, so they probably wouldn’t have a client of his at Shawshank.

“How did you know I work capital cases?” he asks. “I didn’t say I worked capital.”

“We don’t have the gallows here, but we do have cable news,” she says. “I was sorry to hear about your client.”

As Henry is leaving, he is spotted by Zalewski, who crosses his arms and says nothing.

Later, Zalewski is reading a book called The Greatest Baby Names while keeping watch over a bank of TV monitors on the prison night shift. The screens begin to flicker, and he notices the mystery man is missing from his cell. He sees him wandering through the hallway as gates open for him. Lying throughout the halls are murdered correctional guards, their bodies lying in sprays of blood.

Zalewski sounds the alarm.

Henry returns to his childhood bedroom and finds a newspaper about Warden Lacey’s suicide. He asks Pangborn if he knew him, and the former sheriff says they weren’t very close, but that the burden of “carrying the keys” probably wore on the man.

“You know where he did it?” Pangborn asks. “Castle Lake, near the bluff. Right where I found you. Damnedest thing.”

Elsewhere in town, the not-a-MILF Molly Strand sets an hourglass timer and opens a box of memorabilia, including a missing poster of Henry and a red sweatshirt. It’s not clear what this means, or why she has to limit her time with these objects.

Henry drives in the dark to the site of the previous warden’s suicide. He imagines it as the frozen wasteland he escaped, and a vision of his younger self appears behind him. But it’s just a vision, his imagination. Still, he feels an undeniable presence here.

We flash back to a time when the warden was alive, smoking cigarettes in the cistern with his caged mystery figure. “When they find you, ask for Henry Deaver,” he says. “Henry Matthew Deaver.”

From there, the episode ends, and the mysteries of Castle Rock begin.