Castle Rock just dropped its season finale, “Romans.” Did we get an explanation for every aspect of the Hulu show’s multi-layered, Stephen King-inspired mystery? Nope. We got something even better: an ending that revealed most, but not all, and somehow felt satisfying while also being completely bleak.
There’s a reason why TV shows with sustained central mysteries are so popular—and why they often have trouble sticking the landing. It’s great fun to ponder all the clues (and the inevitable misdirects) and formulate a theory as to WTF is really going on. But it’s a drag when the last episode leaves too many important questions unanswered, or worse, wraps up all the dangling threads in a contrived way, or in a way that doesn’t feel true to the characters and the story. Thank goodness, then, that the consistently enigmatic Castle Rock—executive-produced by J.J. Abrams, whose many credits include Lost, a show emblematic of “disappointing finale syndrome”—concluded on a note that felt very final, but also kept its King-inspired world wide open for further exploration. In the context of Castle Rock, that absolutely counts as a happy ending.
Last week’s episode, “Henry Deaver,” dug into the idea that the woods outside Castle Rock sometimes crack open wormholes between dimensions. At last, or so we thought, we knew how the Kid (Bill Skarsgård) came to be in Castle Rock: He’s an alt-universe Henry Deaver who somehow got sucked into the wrong time and place. We also learned what happened to the show’s main Henry Deaver (played by André Holland) when he was a kid: He slipped through the wormhole into the other Henry’s dimension and was kept in a cage by alt-universe Reverend Deaver, apparently for decades. When he returned home, however, mere weeks had passed, and alt-Henry had accidentally tagged along, soon to be stashed away in the bowels of Shawshank prison. All the violence that the Kid seemed to spark everywhere he went? Chalk it up to someone being so cosmically out of place he was able to disrupt the natural flow of life without even trying.
It made a certain amount of sense. But then, at the very end of last week’s episode, it’s revealed that “Henry Deaver” is being told entirely from the Kid’s point of view, as he shares the tale with Molly (Melanie Lynskey). “You believe me, don’t you?” is the last line of episode nine. It’s a question for Molly, but it’s also a question for us—and now, we have just one chapter left to make up our minds. Do we believe him? To say the Kid is an unreliable narrator is to put it very, very mildly. He seems vulnerable sometimes, but mostly he just exudes uncanny menace.
Since “Henry Deaver” took a detour into another reality, “Romans” has to quickly catch us up on the action that was left dangling after episode eight. But first, there’s a prologue featuring Holland’s Henry in a courtroom, presumably arguing a Death Row case before his return to Castle Rock. Any time someone on Castle Rock gives a speech or a sermon or even a sustained monologue, you can bet there will be some larger thematic meaning behind it. It’s a scriptwriting choice that might seem heavy-handed elsewhere, but often serves as a useful anchor point on a show where the narrative takes so many rabbit-hole detours. And Henry’s statement is no exception:
“How much doubt is reasonable? Well, folks. If I had to choose whether or not to take someone’s life—and that is the choice before you today, make no mistake—I don’t think any amount would seem reasonable. Now me, if I had to kill someone, I’d need it etched in gold and signed by God himself. So I ask, how much doubt are you folks comfortable with?”
We go right into what appears to be Warden Lacy’s last day with the Kid in Shawshank. (Lest we forget, by the power of Abrams, Warden Lacy is played by Terry O’Quinn, who was also on Lost.) The older man produces a gun and points it at the Kid, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He’s been waiting and waiting, he explains, for “instructions from him” (or “Him,” since he’s seemingly talking about God) about what to do with the Kid. The instructions never came, etched in gold or otherwise. And as we know, Lacy ended up killing himself instead.
We cut to a montage, set to Rev. Gary Davis’ aptly-chosen blues song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” We see the new warden reflecting on the disaster that was her very short tenure at Shawshank, which is being closed after the guard-on-guard mass shooting and the PR nightmare that a certain undocumented prisoner left in his wake. We see the bed and breakfast in Lacy’s old home that became a grisly murder scene, with its walls filled with Lacy’s moody portraits of the Kid. We see Henry’s son Wendell (Chosen Jacobs) cutting his trip back to Boston short and hopping off the bus just outside of Castle Rock, and Henry (stab wound very recently stitched up) racing off to find his mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who is once again precariously swaying atop the Alan Pangborn Bridge. Thanks to a swarm of Castle Rock’s ever-present dive-bombing birds, Henry crashes his car before he gets there. Fortunately, Molly—still reeling from her talk with the Kid—finds Ruth in time to coax her down, but not before they have a very confusing exchange, in which Ruth says:
I know that [Alan’s dead]—I’m the one who shot him. But he’s also alive, other times. It zigs and zags, forks in the river, always changing, always the same. Alan’s dead, Alan’s alive. Been here before. Be here again. You and me on the bridge.
Then Molly mentions another reality—the one the Kid told her about—where Ruth did leave her husband and ended up happily paired with Alan much earlier in her life. Ruth is surprised; she may have had a version of this conversation with Molly before, but that’s never been a part of it. Ruth is clearly struggling with dementia, but it seems possible (especially after “The Queen,” Castle Rock’s stunning seventh episode) that she’s also somehow tuned into Castle Rock’s own peculiar “forks in the river,” which confuse time and space just like her mind does. And maybe she has lived those other lives, or at least has knowledge of them—all questions that Castle Rock leaves open.
After a brief interlude where the soon-to-be-former Shawshank warden finds a soap carving in her house (clearly, the Kid made a stop on his way to what he hopes will be a meeting with Henry; as he told Molly, he wants to remind him of something), we get a flashback to the night Henry went missing and his father was terribly injured. We’ve always known Henry did it (Matthew Deaver literally told Alan that “Henry did it”), but now we know exactly what he did—he pushed his father from the cliff high above the iced-over Castle Lake. And we also know why: Matthew tells his son that he’s planning to kill Ruth after discovering her feelings for Alan. He cites a Bible verse from Romans, obviously what the episode is named after: “For the wages of sin is death.” No wonder Henry psychically guided Molly to unhook Matthew’s breathing tube all those years ago. Ruth may end up accidentally killing Alan in this timeline, but at least Matthew died relatively young, and Ruth and Alan were able to salvage a little bit of happiness later in their lives.
The Kid’s chosen meeting point is the cemetery—not the one that was dug up and paved over next to Matthew’s church, but the proper Castle Rock town cemetery. Molly, who’s come around to the Kid’s story, encourages Henry to go. “All he wants is for you to help him get home,” she insists. But Henry is skeptical, and a little later when Molly finally tells him where the Kid is, he turns him in. Before he’s handcuffed, we see exactly which grave the Kid had chosen as a rendezvous point: “Deaver Boy. Born to Heaven.” If he’s who he says he is, it’s basically his own grave.
But the two Henrys soon meet anyway. Summoned to the Castle Rock police station to collect Wendell—found wandering the woods near the “schisma” pilgrims’ RV, now a crime scene; if you’ll recall, there was a quick glimpse of the older man lying dead on the ground after Molly rescued Henry from the soundproof chamber. Henry discovers that he’s a person of interest in that case, and the cops (especially the officer who has already expressed her longstanding dislike of Henry “Bratty Kid Who Faked His Own Kidnapping” Deaver) are all too happy to lock him up. The Kid, arrested for his part in the deadly chaos at Juniper Hill, Castle Rock’s psychiatric hospital, soon joins him in the holding cell.
The Kid knows, of course, that Henry called the cops on him. But though he makes his case very earnestly (“I’m not supposed to be here”), Henry’s not interested in helping him. Unlike Molly, he doesn’t believe his story—though you can see he starts to cave a little when the Kid tries to bond over their shared experiences of being kept in a cage. And it gets really confusing when the Kid reveals that he knows Matthew was planning to kill Ruth, citing the exact same Romans passage that Matthew did.
The reason they have to share a cell stems from one of two “HOLY FUCK” moments in this episode. Here, it’s because the warden—haunted by everything but definitely suffering from whatever bad juju the Kid has sprinkled on her—steps directly in front of a Department of Corrections bus transporting prisoners out of Shawshank. (Her last words are “Warden Lacy was right. He’s the fucking Devil.”) She’s instantly killed, and so the prisoners need a place to stay while a new bus is summoned. Into the Castle Rock jail they go, where the amped-up convicts fall under the Kid’s dismissive yet calculating gaze—and it doesn’t take long before there’s a massive, violent, rather neatly choreographed jailbreak. Somehow, the keys to their cell slide neatly under the bars and come to a rest at the Kid’s feet.
As they make their way out of the police station, Henry and the Kid are confronted with the aftermath of a massacre, with bodies and blood everywhere. A badly wounded Willie—the younger schisma acolyte, played by Rory Culkin—warns Henry not to go “out there.” But the Kid has a gun. So Henry has no choice but to follow.
The second “HOLY FUCK” moment comes as the two men stumble through the woods. “You’ll see that it’s all true,” the Kid says. “I don’t want to hurt you, Henry!” In Henry’s memory, he hears his father say the same exact words. He flashes back to the day he shoved his father off a cliff to save his mother’s life, after luring him to the edge by doing some Danny Torrance-style masking of his tracks in the snow. Child Henry and adult Henry both react to the piercing noise that’s now ripping through their ears. Castle Rock is very suggestive about certain plot points, but the sound in the woods appears to be real, even if only certain people can hear it.
But while child Henry blips out of frame, presumably crossing over for his inter-dimensional adventure, adult Henry tussles with the Kid for the gun. When Henry manages to get the advantage, the defeated Kid looks up and reveals his true face—and whaaaaaaaat is that? A wizened, old, demonic visage that suddenly makes us think that maybe Warden Lacy was right, and maybe reality-challenged Matthew Deaver did stumble upon one truth after all. Is the Kid the fucking Devil? (But...but...if he is, why would he be afraid of bullets, and why didn’t he just break out of jail decades ago? Again, questions Castle Rock ain’t gonna answer for you.)
I was fully prepared for Castle Rock to end with alt-Henry slipping back into the life he’d described to Molly, or even the revelation of a third reality. This show was filled with outstanding acting performances, but you have to hand it to Bill Skarsgård (someone who automatically gives off villain vibes, thanks to It) for dialing the Kid way down and keeping the character’s intentions ambiguous. Remember, the alt-Henry that we “meet” is constructed entirely through the Kid’s storytelling—he’s a happy guy with a nice wife, and is a doctor with an important job doing groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research. He goes jogging and eats donuts and wants to be a father more than anything. The only Kid we really know is the one we met in Shawshank. Is he a well-meaning young man who fell into some bizarre circumstances and became withdrawn and weird over time? Was the fact that he caused evil to trail in his wake merely a side effect of being in the wrong dimension? Or did he come from another place...maybe a place much deeper and hotter and spookier than the Shawshank sub-basement?
The main story ends there, then we jump ahead a year for an epilogue that’s both happy (Henry’s a successful lawyer in Castle Rock, no longer working hopeless Death Row cases, and has repaired his relationship with Wendell) and melancholy (Ruth has died; a withdrawn-looking Molly has moved to Florida, taking Henry’s advice of seeking a fresh start). I groaned when it seemed like Castle Rock was going to go out with a voice-over, since Henry gets to narrate the montage that shows us what everyone’s up to. “Most of us are trapped here for a reason,” he reflects, laying flowers on Ruth and Alan’s shared grave—right next to the “Deaver Boy” headstone. And he continues:
“Everyone in this town has some sin, or regret. Some cage of his own making. And a story, a sad one, about how he got this way. ‘It wasn’t me, it was this place.’ That’s what we say. But that’s a story, too. It doesn’t change a thing. Maybe something turned you into a monster. Or maybe you were one all along. Doesn’t matter. You’re here now...this is who you are. This is where you live. This is where you’re from.”
The voice-over ends as we get a shot of Shawshank, fully shuttered. Its buildings and yard are deserted. But below the floor, in a very special cage, one very special prisoner remains: the Kid, back behind bars, where his insidious powers can inflict no more chaos. Henry is his new jailer and the Kid seems pretty calm about it. You’d think that after everything, he’d be demanding to be released. But as he eats his Christmas meal—a cheeseburger and fries—he has this to say, in measured tones: “I know you still have doubts, Henry. How long are we going to do this?” Then he quotes Warden Lacy (“After a while, you forget what side of the bars you’re on”) and imparts a warning (“Look how things turned out for him”). It’s awfully dark down there, but as Henry climbs back into the daylight, I swear the Kid cracks a creepy smile. Perhaps he really was a monster all along.
Going back to Henry’s speech at beginning of the episode, you gotta ask, how much doubt is reasonable—and how much are you comfortable with? Castle Rock left just the right amount of doubt, providing enough information to let us draw our own conclusions. And it threw some curve balls at the end, too; the Kid’s true face was jarring not just because we didn’t expect to see it, but also because the show has focused so much on slow-burn horror. (It also previously had nothing in the way of creature effects, aside from all those dead birds.) “Romans” offered such a well-crafted final note that it more or less made me forgive the show’s handful of shortcomings. The whole bed and breakfast subplot seemed unnecessary. Molly’s intuitive powers surfaced when the plot needed them, but we never really got a sense of her beyond that. I never really understood the purpose of Jackie Torrance character (though the post-credit scene would suggest her purpose was a spinoff), and to go along with that, there were a few too many obvious Stephen King winks in the early episodes...though that walking-backwards-in-the-snow Shining reference was absolutely perfect.
Castle Rock is an anthology show, so season two will take on a completely different story. And while its creators have teased that the storylines may intersect across seasons, here’s hoping the story of the Kid ends here, with our imaginations being left free to ponder exactly who or what he really was.