Season 1, Episode 5: ‘Harvest’
Some TV series that get classified as “horror” hardly even try to be terrifying. There’s nothing inherently scary about an action-adventure or a moody drama that just happens to be populated by vampires, werewolves or zombies, unless the show is actively lingering on images and ideas meant to keep audiences tossing and turning. “Castle Rock,” despite its slow pace, has definitely been hitting its marks as a horror story. So far, it has been very much the spirit of Stephen King, who has never shied away from spooking the bejeezus out of his readers.
Up until this week’s episode, titled “Harvest,” the big scares have been limited to roughly one per hour, like the creepy masked juvenile tribunal two episodes ago, or last week’s spontaneous shooting spree. But “Harvest,” after a muted start, just keeps pouring on the nightmare-fuel in its second half. Unlike last week’s episode, which emphasized the mundane misery of Castle Rock, this latest hour suggests that the madness gripping this town is both deeply rooted and paranormal — and that, thanks to “the Kid,” the mayhem is intensifying.
The Kid is at the center of easily the creepiest scene in this whole upsetting episode. Left unattended at night, Shawshank’s newest parolee takes a stroll through downtown, where he’s drawn to the music and laughter at a family birthday party, heard through an open window. He wanders unnoticed into the house, and as he watches the party from the shadows in an adjacent room, he focuses on the sharp, gleaming knife used to cut the cake. Very quickly, the mood in the house changes. The mother and father start yelling and getting violent with each other offscreen while the children cry.
It’s unclear whether the Kid is manipulating the parents’ emotions, or just observing something that would have happened even if he wasn’t there. It is also unclear whether he is witnessing something happening in 2018 or reliving a memory from his own past. He’s drawn to the house in the first place by a recording of Shirley Temple singing “Animal Crackers in My Soup” — hardly a hep, modern tune. Also, the birthday boy is named “Gordie,” which means he could be the 1950s Castle Rock resident Gordon LaChance, from Stephen King’s novella “The Body” and its movie adaptation, “Stand By Me.” (In another reference to that story, Molly later finds the Kid standing on a rooftop overlooking the town, and with her psychic powers she picks up what’s running through his head, which includes a phrase that kicks off LaChance’s big coming-of-age adventure: “Wanna see a dead body?”)
In my earlier “Castle Rock” reviews, I didn’t write much about the choice of having Bill Skarsgard play the Kid because I had assumed that — as with Sissy Spacek’s casting as Ruth Deaver — this was just a playful wink at King fans. Skarsgard plays the demonic Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the recent film adaptation of King’s epic “It,” while in “Castle Rock” he plays a mysterious stranger with no name, whom Shawshank’s former warden Dale Lacy locked away because he was convinced the boy was evil. I figured the “Castle Rock” creative team was just teasing King-savvy viewers with the possibility that Skarsgard might be reprising his “It” role.
After this week, I’m not so sure it was a tease. At the end of “Harvest,” in another one of the episode’s scariest moments, Alan Pangborn is startled to see the Kid’s ghostly image on his phone, thanks to an app that Henry Deaver set up to help him access the security cameras at Ruth’s house. Alan tracks him to the woods, then spills a big secret: Back in his sheriff days, 27 years before, Alan saw the Kid locked in Warden Lacy’s trunk, on his way to Shawshank … looking exactly the same age that he is now.
The monster in “It” — who takes the form of Pennywise — also comes back every 27 years. “It” is set in Derry, Me., not Castle Rock, but there’s no reason this beast couldn’t pop up in different towns, in different years, kicking off another round of strange phenomena.
Or maybe the Kid has a different connection to the “It” demon. When Alan asks the young man if he’s the devil, he answers, “No,” and then adds, “I can help her,” and also, “You have no idea what’s happening here, do you?” The “her” in question is Ruth, who earlier that day, during the dedication of the new Alan Pangborn Memorial Bridge, was triggered by the sound of a Cujo-like barking dog into leaping into the water below. As for “what’s happening here?” Well, that’s left for us to ponder until next week.
The episode’s credited writer, Lila Byock, and the veteran TV director Kevin Hooks (as well as Spacek and Scott Glenn) do a fine job of establishing the casual, loving intimacy between Ruth and Alan. Their relationship adds gravitas and stakes to “Castle Rock,” making it all the more nerve-racking to see Ruth standing atop a bridge, about to end it all. Could Alan be so distraught over his lover’s mental deterioration that he would strike a deal with some unearthly entity that he believes to be malevolent?
Throughout “Harvest,” Byock and Hooks also slip in radio news bulletins about the deadly wildfires spreading through the nearby mountains. The blaze gives the sky a reddish-orange haze, unremarked upon by the locals, but present in every outdoor scene. That’s another way a horror show can effectively crank up the anxiety — not just through haunting images of danger and death, but by filling the very air with menace.
The Castle Rock Call:
• When Jackie Torrance arrives at Molly’s office in the morning (bringing Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, as New Englanders do), she finds the Kid upstairs — naked, by the way, although that is never really acknowledged — and takes him for a ride around town, where she laments that Castle Rock isn’t as crazy as it was before she was born. She also confesses to him that her real name is Diane, which she changed to Jackie to honor her ax-murdering Uncle Jack. The character’s connection to “The Shining” probably needed to be addressed eventually, but Jackie’s brief, blunt explanation of her lineage — as well as her perverse obsession with Castle Rock’s past — is unusually straightforward for this show, to the point of being prosaic. It’s one of the episode’s few bum notes.
• Henry’s hopes of quickly reburying his father at the Church of the Incarnation are complicated when the old man’s remains suffer something called “exploding casket syndrome.” It says something about the relentless bleakness of this episode that a coffin filled with human goo offers its one moment of levity.
• Actually, there is one comic rival to the exploding casket. Before the Kid can leave Shawshank, he has to suffer through a parolee orientation video, hosted by Lou Hadley, who urges ex-cons to be honest about who they are and where they’ve been if anybody asks, but in the process to try to “reframe your narrative.” There’s no “Lou Hadley” in King’s oeuvre, but Byron Hadley was the name of a mean guard in “The Shawshank Redemption.” If one of his relatives — his son, perhaps — is now giving touchy-feely advice to criminals, that’s a wonderfully arch joke.