“It's so rare to see on TV the humanization of seniors who live with Alzheimer's disease.”
Title: Castle Rock
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Sam Shaw 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Dustin Thomason 👨🏼🇺🇸, based on the books by Stephen King 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Sam Shaw 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Dustin Thomason 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Scott Brown 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Mark Lafferty 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Vinnie Wilhelm 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (3 ♀ and 2 ♂)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I didn't have high hopes for Hulu’s Castle Rock. For starters, it's one title among a never-ending march of nostalgic adaptations, and Stephen King works haven’t traditionally stood up to the test of time—at least, not from a diversity standpoint. Last year's remake of It, which incidentally also stars Bill Skarsgård as a leading source of nightmares, scored one of the few F grades at Mediaversity. And while the King-inspired Netflix series Stranger Things fares much better, perhaps due to its more recent conception, it still falls into plenty of 90’s-style misses when it comes to overuse of the male gaze. All that said, it just means I was pleasantly surprised by Castle Rock.
We’ll dig into the inclusiveness of the show below, but from an overall standpoint, critic Noel Murray from the New York Times echoes my feelings on this supernatural thriller:
“This first season of Castle Rock was mostly good, occasionally great, with some truly horrific moments and some unsatisfying payoffs.”
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? BARELY—most of the episodes fail
While the lead protagonist of Henry Deaver (André Holland) and antagonist of The Kid (Bill Skarsgård) are both men, women play strong supporting roles in Castle Rock. Sissy Spacek, as Henry’s mother Ruth, paints an incredible portrait of an older woman dealing with Alzheimer's disease. Her role is deep and sympathetic, and in “The Queen” (Season 1, Episode 7), the entire narrative is devoted a post-modern, experimental look at the topsy-turvy town of Castle Rock, Maine, from her equally mixed-up (but no less valid) perspective. Through Ruth’s tragic storyline, viewers are treated to the show’s most affecting subplot.
Rounding out the cast of primary characters is Molly Strand, cast to perfection with the sweet-voiced Melanie Lynskey whose contrast between a local everywoman and a supernatural murderer sharpens the mental discomfort that Castle Rock achieves so well. More so than Ruth, Molly plays a distinctly subordinate role as the helper—and sometimes psychic avatar—to Henry. We get some underlying hints at Molly's own personal demons, but at least in Season 1, those threads are not yet explored with any depth.
In a third small, but marginally positive role, we see Ann Cusack play Warden Porter. I was happy to see a woman in a major position of power in early episodes, but unfortunately the show does kill her off (and ignominiously, to boot).
Meanwhile, the rest of the series is filled with men. Prison scenes are filled with male actors and extras. And while Ruth and Molly do constitute primary characters, Ruth’s ex-husband the Reverend Matthew Deaver (Adam Rothenberg), her second romantic partner Alan Pangborn (Scott Glen), Henry’s son Wendell (Chosen Jacobs), prison guard Dennis (Noel Fisher), and mysterious characters of Odin Branch (CJ Jones) and his interpreter Willie (Rory Culkin) all play integral parts of the show, demonstrating how the narrative of Castle Rock generally moves under the guidance of male characters.
Given its solitary black male lead, with no characters of color in important supporting roles, I worried that Castle Rock might blithely strip Henry Deaver of any cultural touchstones. Considering that Henry's character is adopted by white parents who live in rural Maine, early episodes unfold in this exact manner.
Luckily, beginning from “Filter” (Season 1, Episode 6), the season peels back a narrative layer and we start to see two things remark on the fact of Henry being the sole black person in a vastly white town: local law enforcement officers start to make snide comments with an undercurrent of anti-blackness, and more importantly, we meet Henry’s son Wendell. Although a minor character, the fact of having another person of color has a resounding effect in giving Henry more context. We see Wendell interact with his grandmother Ruth in warm moments as their familial love crosses the boundaries of blood relation, distance, or age; in addition, we start to explore Henry’s backstory through the glaring omissions of Wendell’s mother. Who is she, and what was that relationship like? Why are they separated now? In short, the mere inclusion of Wendell across a smattering of scenes quickly dispels the nagging isolation that surrounds Henry in the first half of the season, along with the flatness of character that accompanied it.
The only third character of color is also a black man. Odin Branch appears in just three episodes, and has a pivotal but short role to play in “Filter” before being found dead just two episodes later.
LGBTQ characters or issues aren’t even a consideration in Castle Rock, unless you count a bunch of prisoners threatening to make The Kid their bitch in a fleeting scene. 😒
But because the show only features a small handful of relationships altogether, we don't really have the sample size to flatline the show in this category. While I don't foresee any LGBTQ issues coming to light, we can always reconvene at a later season and grade down if the number of straight couples or confirmed straight characters multiply, while LGBTQ remain absent.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
I loved seeing Ruth depicted as more than a stereotypical old woman with Alzheimer's. Instead of being a prisoner in her own mind with little to no agency, Ruth is a fleshed-out character with romantic love, personal tragedies, and innate strength. It's so rare to see a show actually bother to humanize senior characters who live with Alzheimer's. The way writers describe her coping mechanism for remembering when in time she is, plus the way her disease affects her family, feels fresh and unexplored on television right now.
Bonus for Disability: +0.75
Also for Ruth’s character, dementia is usually depicted as something tragic, or even comical as low-hanging punchlines about senility. In Castle Rock, Ruth’s disorientation does retain its undertones of deep sadness, but instead of eliciting pity, writers instead empower viewers to see the world from Ruth’s eyes in the “The Queen”.
In addition, I loved seeing prominent deaf actor CJ Jones get some airtime. As mentioned, Branch doesn’t stick around for too long but it’s always a joy to see Jones onscreen.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.31/5
For a fictional town conceived of nearly 40 years ago, the story surrounding Castle Rock holds up surprisingly well, thanks to deep and nuanced portraits of a black male lead and his adopted mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The representation doesn't go much further beyond that, but it's a strong enough foundation that you won't be distracted by glaring misogyny or gross stereotypes as you try and concentrate on an eerie tale of time travel, psychic connections, and bone-chilling mystery.