**Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! If you haven't watched the first five episodes of Castle Rock, please do so now — and then come back.
With Castle Rock officially at the halfway point, it's safe to call the series one of the best shows of 2018.
For those who have been living in a cold, dark hole at Shawshank, Castle Rock is Hulu's new original series from the minds of J.J. Abrams and the great Stephen King. The dark psychological horror — based on characters and settings from the Stephen King multiverse (vs. one specific King novel) — centers on Henry Deaver (played by the fantastic Andre Holland) who returns to his hometown of Castle Rock, Maine after a mysterious inmate (Bill Skarsgård) asks for Henry after he's released from a cage in an abandoned cell block. What starts out as the search for the real identity of Skarsgård's character (nicknamed "The Kid"), quickly turns into something much, much darker. After all, Castle Rock is the same dreary town where Cujo the St. Bernard went on a rabid killing spree.
What makes Castle Rock a series I look forward to tuning into each week is how brilliantly it combines horror (who still can't get those masked Children of the Corn-inspired kids out of their heads?) and compelling mystery (what really happened to Henry in the eleven days he was missing?) with references that satisfy even the casual Stephen King fan (sorry, Stephen King): Warden Norton's death in The Shawshank Redemption, "The Strangler" from The Dead Zone, Nan's Luncheonette, Sissy Spacek (of Carrie fame), and Bill Skarsgård, who continues to effectively use that creepy-sexy face he's been blessed with to torture us not as Pennywise (another King creation), but as the mysterious young man forced to live in a cage — or worse.
Thankfully, Castle Rock isn't just a Stephen King reference machine. For starters, the characters are superb. It's not just Skarsgård as the uber cryptic "Kid" and Spacek, who plays Henry's complicated adoptive mother battling dementia, who shine in their roles. Melanie Lynskey, who appeared in King's Red Rose, does justice and beyond to Molly Strand. She's a pain killer-popping real estate agent with an "undiagnosed psychic" affliction, and Henry's childhood friend, who can go from deeply witty one moment to emotionally heartbroken the next with ease. Andre Holland, who I've been a huge fan of since The Knick, grounds the show as a thoughtful yet down-on-one's luck death row lawyer, whose level-headedness begins to wane as he pieces together his childhood memories. Don't even get me started on modern day scream queen Jane Levy as Jack Torrance's niece Jackie (yes, The Shining Jack Torrance), and Scott Glenn as a weathered old Alan Pangborn. They steal every scene they're in.
Castle Rock is also a series that stays true to moody and menacing horror. The spooky scenes and images stick with you long after an episode ends. I will never forget the dog in the suitcase, the figment of Henry's bandaged father terrorizing Molly Strand in her own home, and, of course, the disturbing ending of the second episode, "Habeous Corpus." It still has me shook. But that's the sinister power of Castle Rock, a town that feels like a frightful, ominous character in its own right, much like King's Overlook Hotel. "People think we’re just one of those dead towns... Remember the dog? The strangler? That boy’s body out by the train tracks?" says Dale Lacy, the ill-fated former warden of Shawshank. This town of death, murder, and secrets will make you crazy — and I'm here for the madness.
With its most recent episode, titled "Harvest," the series has set itself up for a gripping second half that is hopefully filled with many answers and surprise twists. "The Kid" is finally out of Shawshank, meaning he's free to lurk around town and unleash the true nature of his powers. Is he good or is he evil? What is he exactly? The scene where his mere presence shifts a child's birthday party from wholesome good fun to a terrifying, off-camera moment of abuse and murder could offer up some clues — could he really be Pennywise?
"The Kid" is Pennywise theory gains even more steam with the episode's final scene, in which Pangborn admits that "The King" hasn't aged one bit since he last saw him stuffed away in Dale Lacy's trunk 27 years ago. If we know anything about Stephen King's world, it’s that 27 years is a suspect number.
Ultimately, Castle Rock, is a show "haunted by its past," but that's okay. It's a creepy and satisfying watch filled with vivid characters and a gripping story that keeps me tuning in each week. Let’s hope the second half delivers.
Castle Rock airs Wednesdays on Hulu.