The first three episodes of Hulu’s Castle Rock, a one-show example of what a Stephen King Extended Universe looks like on screen, did an admirable job of introducing its audience to the characters, setting, and overall spooky vibe of the eponymous and doomed Maine town.
While there was plenty of mystery to go around — who (or what) is that man in the cage? What happened to Henry when he was 11? Why is this town so overwhelmingly shitty? — the show didn’t coalesce into a unified sense of horror until “The Box,” the literally explosive fourth episode of the series.
“The Box” is a damn good episode of television unto itself. It acknowledges that the storytelling has been vague so far and it course-corrects by rapidly flipping over its cards in micro-reveals that illuminate past questions while raising a terrifying set of new ones. It confirms as much as it queries and ends with a sequence that drives home the cruel lawlessness of whatever is wrong with the entire godforsaken town of Castle Rock.
Of the questions that are (kind of) answered, Henry’s childhood disappearance and the death of his father are paramount. Henry has a vision that suggests he was once in captivity, in a suspiciously similar setup to the way the Shawshank guards found The Kid in Episode 1, but his investigation into the man who was once a suspect in his case turns up a dead perp, a creepy barber, and his own missing case file. Ex-Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who already appears to be hiding way too much, is pressured to tell Henry that his father outright said Henry was the one who tried to kill him and Pangborn covered it up — a strong answer that somehow still rings false, or at least incomplete.
The episode’s most disturbing set piece and reveal comes in its third act, which reflects the ending of Episode 1. That pilot ended with C.O. Dennis Zaleski watching on CCTV as The Kid escapes from his cell and leaves a trail of distinctive bodies in his wake. But in a truly Kingsian twist, it appears in Episode 4 that Dennis becomes possessed by whatever dark entity haunts Castle Rock (hint: it’s probably six-foot-four and currently incarcerated) and uses his duty gun to massacre his coworkers in the exact manner previously seen on the CCTV screens.
The full-circle nature of this spree in some way clears up the meaning of Dennis’s Episode 1 vision, but in what is quickly becoming Castle Rock’s trademark, the motivation behind the vision-to-massacre pipeline is obscured. It’s true that Dennis was upset about the constant abuses and human rights violations that take place at Shawshank and viewed The Kid’s upcoming case as an opportunity to change the way things are done at the prison by testifying.
When Henry decides to drop the case in favor of fleeing Castle Rock (egged on by the realization that he may have murdered his father), Dennis loses his shot to make a difference and…well, it’s possible that he snapped. But in Stephen King, it’s almost never as simple as that.
Dennis’s massacre could also be connected to two other elements of Castle Rock. It’s clear that something in the town is wrong, and Dennis says so himself when he talks to Henry about testifying on behalf of The Kid: “You know how they always say Castle Rock has some kind of luck,” Dennis says, “not really luck, though, is it?”
Hold on tight for the rest of Castle Rock. And don’t fist-bump maybe-Satan if you can help it.
The badness of Castle Rock is treated in this episode like a pervasive fact of life, one that feels indelibly connected to the existence and perhaps release of The Kid – whom the late Shawshank warden Dale Lacy trapped in a water tank because he believed The Kid was literally the devil, as shown in Episode 2.
The issue with connecting specifically Dennis’s murders to The Kid is that Dennis was possibly the only person besides Henry who was kind to The Kid. Where the other guards regard him as a freak, Dennis talks to him, brings him food, and even promises to keep him safe.
Of all the people in Castle Rock to damn with the devil’s touch (Dennis’s fist bump with The Kid in this episode is highly suspect), why choose Dennis? Is The Kid an indiscriminate evil? Does he have any control over whatever evil-inducing powers he contains?
“The Box” ends with Dennis Zaleski dying in the warden’s office, gunned down by responders to his massacre. There will be no answers coming from him. Castle Rock answered the question of “what did the CCTV vision mean” and killed off the person in the center of that mystery in the same five-minute sequence. This attitude towards important reveals may become a hallmark of the show.
At four episodes in, it’s still too early to know, but “The Box” does an outstanding job of letting audiences know what they’re in for as the season progresses. Hold on tight for the rest of Castle Rock. And don’t fist-bump maybe-Satan if you can help it.