Castle Rock Reaction: “Romans”

Castle Rock has been a weekly Wednesday must-see this summer, with the series featuring a stellar cast enveloped by various dark mysteries. Unfortunately, the 10th episode, “Romans” (as in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death”) fails to provide a perfect payoff on viewer investment. The season finale is surprisingly slow moving, with both Henry and the Kid spending a good portion of the episode incarcerated. The most rousing action–the Kid-kindled conflagration of violence at the police station–occurs midway through, and the tension never really ratchets up in the closing minutes, leading to a lackluster climax.

The episode features another visually striking scene of Schisma-frenzied blackbirds turned into feathery kamikazes. I have to wonder, though: would there actually be birds flying above the snowy Maine landscape in the middle of wintertime?

Best line of the episode–Warden Porter’s doorstep declaration to Molly about the Kid: “Warden Lacy was right. He’s the fucking devil.” Perhaps the only thing better than the blunt delivery of this line is what happens to Porter seconds thereafter: her sudden running-over by a bus full of Shawshank prisoners. Oh the irony!

“You hear it now?” (referring to the eerie sound emanating from the Schisma portal in the woods) seemed to be a season-long refrain, and repeatedly succeeded in throwing me out of the world of Castle Rock, because of its unintentional echo of those old Verizon Wireless commercials.

Young Henry’s attempt to elude his deranged father by walking backwards through his own footprints in the snow served as an obvious hommage to the climactic chase in The ShiningThe connection becomes even more explicit in the show’s mid-credits cut-in, when the Overlooked-authoring Jackie announces her plan to make a trip out west for further research (which we can assume is going to center on a certain Colorado hotel). A clever tease, no doubt, but one that also suggests that the series will be ranging beyond the town of Castle Rock and into the broader Stephen King universe in subsequent seasons, turning the show’s title into something of a misnomer.

Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many Easter eggs this season, but an idea about Diane “Jackie” Torrance’s name struck me out of the blue. Could the fact that she is both “Jackie and Diane” be a subtle verbal echo of a song title by John Mellencamp (with whom King collaborated on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County)?

The climactic confrontation between Henry and the Kid bothered me on several levels. First, the air of menace surrounding the Kid (who could disturb without even moving or speaking) all season was dissipated by the writers’ resorting to cliche and having the character lamely pull a gun on Henry. The ensuing scuffle would hardly make for a main event at WrestleMania, but it did make me question continuity: time and again this season, we’ve seen the devastating effects of getting too close to–let alone touching–the Kid. Wouldn’t such rough intimacy here mean the imminent death of Henry? Finally, that brief glimpse of the Kid’s unmasked monstrosity felt like a cheesy rehash of Sleepwalkers. Is this supposed to be some ancient demon that Henry has encountered? If so, it would at least it would make for a nice twist: after all the speculation that Bill Skargard was playing Pennywise (in disguise) once again here on Castle Rock, he actually appears more akin to that deadly dealer in deceit, Leland Gaunt.

The “One Year Later” epilogue creates a fine sense of symmetry by returning the Kid to where we found him at the outset: as a prisoner secreted in the bowels of Shawshank. The time jump, though, causes a misstep by casting aside Ruth–after the incredible dramatic performance delivered by Sissy Spacek this season, it seemed a bit of a cheat to have her character die off-screen.

Castle Rock cannot be faulted for the ambition of its storytelling, but personally, I was not a big fan of the whole parallel-worlds plotline. The favoring of unsettling ambiguity over on-the-nose horror is a likewise admirable approach, but the show veered into obliquity and accordingly did not arrive at a satisfying resolution. Rather than positively chilled, the season finale ultimately left me feeling lukewarm.

Castle Rock Reaction: “Henry Deaver”

So it turns out, Castle Rock is located in the heart of The Twilight Zone

Episode 9 launches the long-anticipated Big Twist (and one that is not completely unexpected, since Odin Branch’s “talk” of multiple, abutting universes three weeks ago). When Bill Skarsgard’s Kid character mouthed “Henry Deaver” at the start of the series, he wasn’t simply asking for the African-American lawyer (Andre Holland) who seemed to be the show’s main protagonist, but was actually naming himself. The Kid is Henry Deaver–or more specifically, a version of Henry Deaver in a parallel reality.

This situational switcheroo is appropriately jarring. Suddenly watching Skarsgard play an eloquent, sharp-dressed urban professional–a doctor nobly working to reverse the insidious effects of Alzheimer’s disease–creates no shortage of cognitive dissonance after having grown accustomed to his season-long embodiment of a mumbling, Gollum-looking oddball.

A less appreciable jolting, though, occurs on the level of tonality, of genre. Last week’s events were the quintessence of American Gothic horror, but here Castle Rock veers towards cosmic science fiction. As I mentioned in a previous episode review, the latter genre trappings are more at home in other classic King locales–Derry or Haven, not Castle Rock. And the resort to a thinny-ish MacGuffin aligns the show too much with Stephen King’s Dark Tower multiverse, detracting from the uniqueness of his Castle Rock setting.

Nonetheless, the trippy scene inside the Schisma portal was well executed; the use of visual distortion and chaotic cross-cutting effectively establish the nature of this uncanny nexus. Those shots of a flock of black birds taking screeching flight recall the psychopomp circumstances of The Dark Half. On the negative side, the glimpses of a colonial-era version of young Molly reminded me of Sleepy Hollow (cf. the “John Doe” episode from Season 1), another series that somewhat lazily recurred to the woods as ground zero for anything weird or occult.

In the course of the episode, we finally come to understand why the Kid/Henry has such a toxic effect on those who get too close–it’s a side effect of sidewise movement, of crossing over and getting stranded in an alternate world. This “Typhoid Henry” revelation does make for an original explanation, but the resulting erasure of any conscious intent of malicious impact is a disappointment. “The Devil Made Them Do It” would have been too cliched, but “Stranger in a Strange Land” alone  proves an unsatisfactory substitute.

“Henry Deaver” not only goes a long way to clarifying the show’s story arc, but also serves to set up the direction that Castle Rock will likely take in subsequent seasons. Whereas American Horror Story can range across the country with each new season, Castle Rock is limited to the same small-town setting; now, however, the show can simply depict unlimited parallel-world Castle Rocks, and have an ensemble cast play different versions of their respective characters (this would also help maintain the suspension of disbelief, by preventing the weird shit from piling up too high in the same exact place). An ambitious gambit for sure, but I still have some doubts that this could be pulled off without disorienting/frustrating viewers.

With each season purporting to operate as a standalone, it will be interesting to see whether next week’s finale furnishes resolution or opts for further plot complication and a cliffhanging hiatus.

 

Catle Rock Reaction: “Past Perfect”

The blood hits the wall in episode eight, as Castle Rock serves up its grisliest fare so far this season (amidst all the carnage, one might almost overlook Odin’s fatal skewering through the eye).

The Castle Rock Historic Bed & Breakfast–a theme destination featuring “actual murders recreated in exquisite detail”–surely earns a five-star rating in the Macabre Republic Travel Guide. To no surprise, the first guests here are checked out early; the subsequent shots of the crime scene are gorgeously gory, with the naked, slashed corpses forming flesh-and-blood counterparts to the establishment’s mannequins.

The reference to Castle Rock as “the murder capital of 1991” arguably represents another subtle Easter egg dropped into the show–a hearkening back to the homicidal mayhem of Needful Things. Viewers needed to be very astute, too, to catch glimpse of the Salem’s Lot sign when Wendell gets off the bus.

Memo to Jackie Torrance: when you find something dripping a suspiciously crimson fluid, you probably shouldn’t dip your finger in the substance and then taste it! That’s crazier than anything your all-work-and-foul-play uncle ever did in the Overlook Hotel (ol’ Halloran-hacking Jack would have been proud, though, of your surprise axing of Gordon).

Most significant dialogue of the episode: the Kid’s admission to Henry that “I waited for 27 years. I rescued you from that basement and I didn’t ask for any of this.” His words are at once revealing and tantalizingly vague (whose basement?). They also offer further proof that the Kid is not the devilish nemesis the town has cast him as.

Still, let’s not make him out to be the second coming of John Coffey; Castle Rock is a long ways away from The Green Mile. That radio report about multiple patients at Juniper Hill lighting their mattresses on fire at the same time furnishes a perfect reminder that crossing paths with the Kid can be an excruciating experience.

Gordon and Lilith’s knife attack on Henry was American Gothic galore, one of the creepiest scenes we’ve seen to date. For a second there, I thought the show was about to go all Psycho and send its main character into early retirement.

The episode’s interiors–the former Lacy home turned murder-capitalzing inn, the Deaver domicile, Molly’s residence with its shadowed staircase–really work to reinforce a theme sounded earlier in the series: the notion that Castle Rock is a town full of haunted houses.

With “Past Perfect,” the narrative pace has definitely picked up; now it’s time for some payoff. Hopefully next week’s penultimate episode will begin to resolve the season’s different mysteries.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “The Queen”

Castle Rock’s seventh episode clocks in at a whopping 60 minutes, and bigger ultimately proves better.

“The Queen” is aptly titled, as Sissy Spacek gives a regal performance in this Ruth-centered episode. Viewers get to share the sense of existential dislocation experienced by the dementia-suffering Ruth, who glides between the present and past memories as easily as crossing a threshold inside her haunted (not necessarily supernaturally) house. Along the way we learn the import of details from previous episodes, such as the dog that was buried out in the yard but doesn’t appear quite dead to Ruth. All the narrative looping can be a bit confusing (“The Queen” no doubt warrants repeat viewing), and the first half of the episode does drag on somewhat, but there is a terrific payoff at the end, both emotionally and thematically.

Ruth’s jaunts down memory’s winding lanes affords us our clearest glimpse to date of her reverend husband Mathew–and it’s not a flattering look. Overbearing and unbalanced (abusive without ever having to raise his hand or voice), Mathew forms the creepiest clergyman this side of Cycle of the Werewolf.

Arguably the most significant line of the episode occurs when Molly comes knocking and a desperate, disoriented Ruth answers the door by asking, “When are we?” My favorite exchange, though, was Ruth’s joking inquiry to Alan as to why so many magic tricks have pornographic-sounding names, and his response that probably because virgins invented them.

“The Queen” gives a quick nod to Stephen King’s Under the Dome: in an attempt to get Wendell out of the house and away from the Kid, Ruth sends him off to the mall in Chester’s Mill. It serves as a reminder of just how close these two towns lie on King’s fictional map of Maine.

Tension certainly ratchets up when we arrive at last to the scene between Ruth and the Kid. Once again Bill Skarsgard is masterful, understated yet creating an undeniable sense of menace. His quoting of the dead reverend’s lines to Ruth is chilling, and even an act as mundane as cooking up some eggs manages to have an uncanny effect.

The episode, though, is less an example of outright horror than of romantic tragedy–Shakespeare with a senior cast (and I’m not talking about high school upperclassmen). There’s a vicious swerve: after following the imperiled Ruth for nearly a hour and fearing that this will be the end for her character, we instead witness the sudden killing off of Alan Pangborn (accidentally shot by Ruth, who thought she was targeting the Kid). Just like that, Castle Rock’s long-time, knightly defender is removed from the chess board. The twist is gut-wrenching, so much so that at first the viewer might not stop to wonder if this dire event has been diabolically orchestrated by a revenge-minded Kid.

“The Queen” is not an easy episode, but it is an appreciable one. Viewers have to stay on the alert throughout, yet the work is rewarding. Never settling for superficial scares and facile reactions, Castle Rock makes it audience think hard and feel deeply, and this might make the show the most sophisticated genre series currently streaming.

Castle Rock Reaction: “Filter”

Castle Rock‘s sixth episode, “Filter,” opens with the re-burial ceremony for Matthew Deaver. I know that within the story, relatively little time has passed, but watching this plotline gradually spool out week-by-week has made the settling of Matthew’s remains seem like quite the protracted affair (no wonder he haunts Molly as a restless revenant!).

The mysterious duo who show up at the sparsely-attended ceremony appear even more conspicuous as they station themselves outside a giant camper. That vehicle could be a nod to the RV-riding psychic vampires in Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep, and thus creates a sense of wariness about the strange black man and his young white sidekick.

Best Line of the Episode goes to Ruth Deaver, her blunt utterance, “Coulda sworn we buried your father in that suit.” Terrific ambiguity here: is this just more absent-mindedness from the addled Ruth, or is there something sinister afoot (especially considering that the cadaverous, suit-clad Kid looks like he just lurched out of Night of the Living Dead)?

As Henry attempts to understand his vaguely-recalled childhood forays with his father, the episode leads us deep into the woods. “Filter” felt like it was approaching Pet Sematary territory here, and at first I wondered if that haunting sound Henry kept hearing was somehow Wendigo-related. Turned out to be something much more bizarre, though…

Ironically, “Filter” ends up saturated with exposition–that long scene in which Odin Branch goes on (via emphatic sign language and verbal translation by his protege Willy) about the Voice of God and the Schisma. All this mystic mumbo jumbo comes off like an infodump; more disconcertingly, it steers the story in a far-out direction that is at odds with King’s down-home Castle Rock narratives (in King’s writing, places like Derry and Haven are the more familiar sites of cosmic horror).

What’s in a name? The unusualness of “Odin Branch” causes viewers to ponder the moniker’s signifance. Anyone who’s read American Gods knows this character’s surname references the tricksy Norse god. So is Odin Branch an offshoot of that towering mythological figure? Does the name point to Odin’s self-sacrifice, his hanging on the worlds-spanning tree Yggdrasil?

A blind man could see that Henry was being lured inside the titular Filter–a customized anechoic chamber within the camper–so the springing of that trap wasn’t very shocking (Odin Branch’s sudden voicing of “Not deaf, perfect” did register high on the creepiness meter, though). More intriguing is the question of what Henry will be like once he inevitably escapes from such mind-bending confinement.

A large part of the suspense mustered thus far Castle Rock has centered on the uncertainty of the Kid’s nature. Is he a misunderstood victim or a malicious villain? The pendulum appears to swing towards the latter at episode’s end (was Alan sent off on a wild goose chase so the Kid could wreak havoc on Ruth’s home?), but something tells me there’s a further swerve coming and this character won’t prove to be the embodiment of ultimate evil.

The least satisfying episode of the series to date, “Filter” plays like a placeholder, a forestalling of more significant developments next week. Perhaps the episode will be better appreciated in retrospect, after viewers find out what happened to Henry and Ruth, respectively, and learn more about Matthew Deaver’s machinations and the Kid’s apparent quest for comeuppance.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “Harvest”

Cataclysm is in the air, right from the start of this fifth episode. As wildfires rage across Black Mountain, a cloud of orange smoke encroaches on Castle Rock (a visual I found eerily reminiscent of the 2017 arrival of The Mist). This impending inferno hints at the diabolic, and creates the sense that all hell is about to break loose–perhaps not coincidentally, just as the Kid is released from Shawshank.

The lingering shot of the Kid’s New Balance sneakers as he is about to step past Shawshank’s gates and into freedom seemed at once allusive and symbolic. The capital “N” on the footwear echoes the title of Stephen King’s apocalypse-concerned novella, and a new balance–an upsetting of moral order–might be in store for Castle Rock now that the Kid is venturing into town.

The ostensible “N.” Easter egg is subtly inserted, but the same cannot be said for Jackie (birth name: Diane) Torrance’s reveal that she is the niece of Jack Torrance and adopted the name of the notorious Overlook caretaker to spite her parents. This invocation of The Shining felt forced and distractingly on-the-nose; the show arguably ranges too far afield here from King’s Castle-Rock-centered material (before we know it, we could find ourselves in the author’s Dark Tower multiverse).

Last week’s episode showed how an exhumed coffin gets shrink-wrapped prior to transportation. In “Harvest,” that same coffin (Matthew Deaver’s) is the subject of a phenomenon called “exploding casket syndrome.” No end to the morbid tidbits on Castle Rock!

The moments of intimacy between the elderly Alan and Ruth were very touching. Viewers got to watch a pair of veteran actors–Scott Glenn and Sissy Spacek–at the top of their game, creating maximum emotional impact with minimal effort.

Alan had the lion’s share of great lines in this week’s episodes. My favorite was his sardonic, hardly-thrilled reaction to Henry’s installment of home security cameras to monitor Ruth: “Why don’t you just put a chip in her like a golden retriever?”

The horror of Castle Rock again succeeds via obliquity. The scene in which a cake-cutting at a child’s birthday party turns into a deadly stabbing spree proves all the more unnerving for occurring off-screen (merely overheard as the camera focuses on the intruding Kid).

With “Harvest,” the inaugural season has reached its halfway point, and the various plot threads have started to weave together. What pattern is actually taking shape still remains a mystery, though. The Kid’s closing question–“You have no idea what is happening here, do you?”–is posed to Alan but can be extended to the audience as well. We still don’t know where exactly the show is headed, but there appears to be little reason to doubt that the Weird Shit is about to hit Castle Rock’s fan.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “The Box”

Some random thoughts on this week’s episode of Castle Rock:

As Andy Dusfrene no doubt would attest, Shawshank was never a model correctional facility. But, man, based on the glimpses of the prison provided thus far by Castle Rock, an inmate might be better off serving his time in the jail in Midnight Express.

The disgruntled Dennis Zalewski offers some strong insight into the character of Castle Rock when he grouses to Henry about the town: “Bad shit happens here because bad people know they’re safe here. How many times can one fucking town look the other way?”

Best quote of the episode, though, belongs to Molly Strand. While trying to sell Warden Lacy’s house, she assures the potential buyers that Lacy didn’t commit suicide on the premises, and then enthusiastically offers: “A serial strangler died in my house, and I like sleep like a baby.” It’s nice to see that actress Melanie Lynskey hasn’t lost her comedic touch since her stint on Two and a Half Men.

The venerable Scott Glenn makes for one crusty and salty Alan Pangborn. Surely this isn’t the sheriff that Constant Readers remember. Then again, this current depiction of the character might be a natural extrapolation: makes sense that he would end up so grizzled and gruff after all the bad shit he had to deal with in this town over the years.

Once again, the series exhibits a deft handling of Stephen King Easter Eggs. Viewers who recall that Vince Desjardins was one of the bullying hooligans who ran with Ace Merrill in “The Body” will have a deeper appreciation of the adult character referenced in this week’s episode. Anyone missing the call back to that minor figure from King’s novella, however, won’t be left befuddled by the storyline.

One of the strongest aspects of Castle Rock thus far has been its casting, and “The Box” demonstrates that even a weekly guest star can give an incredible performance. David Selby is awesomely unsettling as creepy barber/hoarder Josef Desjardins. Selby also proves an inspired choice in this sense that he once starred in a show featuring the most American Gothic town (prior to King putting Castle Rock on the map) in the Maine region of our Macabre Republic: Collinsport in Dark Shadows.

Once Dennis Zalewski decided to turn whistleblower on Shawshank shadiness, he seemed doomed for an early exit from the series. Nevertheless, his demise came in a shockingly unexpected form. The climactic massacre scene was quite haunting (and expertly filmed, with Dennis’s rampage playing out on a bank of monitors). Looks like that well-intentioned fist-bump with the Kid (the last guy to touch the mysterious inmate ended up with fantastically-metastatic cancer) ultimately bumped off poor Dennis.

Through most of four episodes, Castle Rock has been a slow burn, which made the sudden violent fireworks in the conclusion of “The Box” that much more arresting. I am eager to see next week’s episode, to find out the fallout from the terrible shootout.

 

Castle Mania

To be perfectly honest, I approached the new Hulu series Castle Rock (set in the afflicted fictional town that Stephen King put on the American Gothic map) with no shortage of trepidation. I had to wonder if the show would prove another loosely-based deviation deep into left field (such as CBS’s Under the Dome), moving from the canonical to the ridiculous. Also, there was the natural concern that Easter eggs could be dropped like hand grenades (cf. the intrusive, illogical insertions in the The Dark Tower film), jolting the audience out of the story. Having just watched the first three episodes of the season’s ten-part arc, I can now happily write that my fears have been allayed.

Rather than merely (or wildly) riffing on familiar King hits, Castle Rock incorporates them as the backbeat for an original track. Thus far the show plays less as outright horror (the screen is not splashed with the same graphic grotesquerie as in American Horror Story) than as a weird mystery. Intriguing questions abound: why does Warden Dale Lacy kill himself via a fiendish garroting in the opening scene? And why has he kept a young man secretly caged in a subbasement of Shawshank State Prison? Does this strange figure’s victim status mask an ultimate supernatural menace? Why does the prisoner ask for former town resident Henry Deaver, the hardly-favorite son of Castle Rock who was implicated as an 11-year-old adopted child in the death of his (white) pastor father?

Castle Rock assembles a stellar cast: Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Frances Conroy, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Skarsgard (uncannily understated here, coming off his antics as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s It). The title town itself arguably forms the drama’s main character, and it is brought here to impressive (half-)life–economically depressed, with countless burnt-out and boarded-up buildings, and neighborhood streets lined with decrepit, looming Gothic homes.

The show does a fine job of unspooling its plotlines, as it flashes back and forth between 1991 and 2018 (a 27-year period whose numerological significance won’t be lost on Constant Readers of King). Looking ahead, I hope the series’ mysteries don’t end with the trite explanation that the town (much like Derry, Maine) is historically bedeviled by a resident evil. Three episodes in, though, I am thoroughly hooked, and can’t wait to revisit Castle Rock next Wednesday.

 

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 18-22

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

 

Episode 18: “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”

At the start of this episode (which never aired during the show’s original run), Deputy Ben’s date Cindy teases him about being a “dark secret type.” There’s significance to the comment, though; Cindy subsequently morphs into Merlyn Temple, who proceeds to break her own neck (just as Ben witnessed Sheriff Lucas Buck do to her in the show’s first episode).

An ever-versatile ghost, Merlyn repeatedly appears (demonstrating the nonsensical turns to which Americna Gothic was sometimes prone) to Ben by taking over the bodies of flesh-and-blood women he encounters throughout the episode. Encouraging Ben, in grave terms, to grab a shovel and start digging up the truth, Merlyn leads the deputy to a Gothic ruin in the Goat Town section of Trinity–an abandoned and now decrepit former home for children (a rat-stuffed teddy bear is included in the detritus strewn about the place). Ben detects the foul smell of a festering body here (at one point he’s accosted by a moldering-corpse version of Merlyn), and the building is haunted (by a somber ensemble of kid spirits–who were doomed to early deaths after the proprietor was no longer around to take them in), but no one literally died there. Merlyn, though–who reveals that her mother Judith was the woman who operated the home–is trying to bring a murder to light: she wants Ben to realize that her mother’s suicidal plunge from a hospital window actually occurred at Lucas’s tossing hands.

Perhaps the most notable element of the episode is its confirmation of what has been suspected throughout the series: Lucas (who raped and impregnated Judith, in the hopes of creating a sinister scion) is the biological father of Caleb Temple. In an appropriate subplot, we see Caleb starting to develop into his father’s son. Tutored in cruelty and vengeance by Lucas, Caleb plays a vicious prank on a school bully, Tina.

Overall, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, and marred by muddy character motivation (Caleb’s cousin Gail seems to vacillate between the successfully-seduced lover of Lucas and the determined journalist hellbent on exposing the sheriff’s history of evil misdeed). A measure of redemption, though, is achieved in the closing moments, as the meaning of the episode’s curious title is clarified. Ben and Merlyn (here possessing the bartender Allison) slow-dance to the atmospheric–and thematically resonant–Mel Torme torch song, “The House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye).”

 

Episode 19: “Triangle”

This episode of American Gothic could just have easily been titled (with a nod to Ira Levin) “Gail Emory’s Baby.” When Gail moves to end her affair with Lucas Buck, and threatens to leave town with her cousin Caleb in tow, the sheriff gives her a supernatural nudge that lands her in the hospital. There she learns that she is pregnant with Lucas’s child. The subsequent ultrasound furnishes one of the series’ creepiest scenes, as the grotesque fetus in the sonogram opens its eyes, turns toward Gail and flashes a demonic grin.

The expectant mother continues to experience disturbing visions concerning the monstrous thing growing inside her. These could be dismissed as nightmares or hallucinations brought on by Gail’s own terror, but mid-episode the viewer learns that Miss Emory isn’t just imagining things. A fiendish conspiracy is in place: the nurse who denies that there is anything abnormal about the fetus pictured in the sonogram is actually lying on Lucas’s behalf (the sheriff blackmails her into playing along by threatening to expose her “extracurricular research in the narcotics supply room”).

Gail, though, isn’t about to take the news of her pregnancy lying down. She attempts to flee Trinity, but is stymied by the sudden appearance of Lucas on the roadway. “There’s no running from me, you know that,” the modern Gothic hero-villain reminds the frightened maiden.

For all of Lucas’s entanglement with Gail, he’s also hung up on his ex-lover Selena. And small-town romance begets big-time intrigue when Lucas chafes at Selena and Dr. Billy Peele’s relationship. He gives ominous warnings to both individuals to cease and desist, and when the defiant lovers continue to carry on carnally, Lucas gives Selena a real reason to feel hot and bothered: while in bed with Billy, she is overcome by a 108-degree fever. Lucas casts the incendiary spell with a strike of a match and a proclamation of “Burn, baby, burn”–words that work not just as a sardonic echo of the Trammps’ disco-era classic but as an invocation of the American history of anarchic violence.

In this episode, American Gothic once again demonstrates its cleverness through the use of background details. When Gail ponders a suicidal leap from the roof of the local bank, the institution’s name shines suggestively behind her: “Trinity Trust,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, in this town presided over by a devilish sheriff and riddled with dirty secrets and unholy bargains.

 

Episode 20: “Strangler”

“Strangler,” another episode that was never aired during American Gothic‘s single-season run, opens with a scene set in an autumnal cemetery (as Caleb visits Gage Temple’s grave) and gets progressively darker from there.

Determined to rid himself once and for all of Merlyn and her meddling ways, Sheriff Lucas Buck summons the ghostly figure of legendary serial killer Albert DeSalvo (a.k.a The Boston Strangler). Albert might no longer be haunting Beantown, but he has no problem living up to the latter part of his notorious moniker. He warms up for his eventual assault on Merlyn by fatally throttling a pair of pretty nurses from Trinity hospital and by nearly dispatching Lucas’s paramour, Gail Emory.

The eponymous Strangler is a chilling bogeyman, and a quintessentially Gothic figure rife with duplicity. Handsome Albert oozes spurious charm; “politeness gets you in anywhere,” he confides to Lucas during their initial meeting. Accordingly, he conducts his grim business by posing as a friendly refrigerator repairman, a deliveryman, and a handyman. Postmortem existence also makes the Strangler that much more dangerous, since he no longer needs to work his way past locked doors in order to get at his victims. The scene in which Albert attacks Gail is especially frightening, as the back-from-the-dead predator keeps pouncing on the distressed damsel from different angles no matter how many times she tries to throw him off and flee.

This episode, I must admit, is marred by some stilted dialogue (Lucas down on his knees in the cemetery chanting “Send forth the One!”) and hokey actions (Merlyn–who has somehow evolved into a supernaturally-empowered angel–shooting pulses of light at Albert). But its climax broaches a bit of dark irony that also shines a light on a central conflict. When Merlyn is about to sacrifice herself to the Strangler in order to protect Caleb, the boy uses his nascent powers (his infernal inheritance form Lucas) to immolate Albert. Such intervention, though, makes for a more ominous than joyous ending: sure, Merlyn acknowledges, Caleb has saved her soul, but only by drawing on the force that is bound to destroy his own.

 

Episode 21: “The Buck Stops Here”

Pillow talk takes a dark turn at the start of this penultimate episode of American Gothic, as Selena and Billy fantasize out loud about various ways of killing Lucas Buck (Billy just seems to be playing along, but Selena is serious about offing her sinister ex-lover). What makes the scene even more transgressive is that it occurs in Lucas’s own bed. Recognizing the signs of an illicit dalliance, Lucas later confronts Selena and voices perhaps his most graphic threat to date: “If you ever soil my house again, I’ll cut out your heart and use it for a chamois.”

“The Buck Stops Here” strikes another gross note as Gail prepares an afternoon meal. Lucas’s pregnant paramour makes a misnomer of roast as she bastes and then suddenly gorges upon a bloody, undercooked hunk of meat. Gail’s strange craving erases any doubt that the child growing inside her is a normal one.

The central focus of the episode, though, is the “murder” of Lucas. In a scene that sounds strong echoes of Psycho, a shadowy figure hiding in the sheriff’s Gothic home jumps out and stabs Lucas in the forehead with a trocar. Billy, who just happened to be at the scene of the crime, is arrested, but the two characters the audience really suspects are Selena and Trinity pharmacist Yancy Lydon (who has a grudge against Lucas because he failed to help Yancy’s comatose wife).

Lingering in a hospital bed, Lucas summons his son Caleb, and whispers a request in the boy’s ear. Some nefarious scheme seems to be forming, and a transfer of power transpiring (underscored by the father and son’s joint recitation of the phrase “An Old Order of the Ages Is Born Anew”). Lucas then promptly has a seizure and expires, yet the viewer can’t help but believe that Buck will be back for the conclusion of the series.

Now in full Damien mode, Caleb tracks down Yancy, telling the man that “My daddy sent me.” Caleb also ominously promises to give the pharmacist (presumably Lucas’s attacker) a taste of his own medicine. Shortly thereafter, a terrified Yancy is discovered (by Billy and Deputy Ben) lying choking on a brimming mouthful of pills.

American Gothicism arguably hits its peak during Lucas’s funeral. The scene plays out like a macabre variation on the Seinfeld finale, as an assortment of characters from earlier episodes are brought back for brief appearances. Some of these figures approaching the coffin are genuinely saddened by Lucas’s passing and express appreciation of him, but the sheriff’s corpse is also spit upon by one Trinity citizen and nearly disfigured by the disgruntled, hook-handed Waylon (the current husband of Ben’s ex-wife). This dramatic airing of allegiances and grievances serves as a fitting testimony to the work Sheriff Buck has done as a Gothic hero-villain for the constituents of his sleepy South Carolina town.

And–as his eyes pop open inside the coffin at episode’s end–it looks like Buck’s work is not yet done.

 

Episode 22: “Requiem”

Somewhat fittingly, the series finale of American Gothic begins with a graveyard scene, as funeral services are held for the seemingly departed Lucas Buck. Afterwards, Deputy Ben reminds a disrespectful gravedigger that the sheriff helped a lot of people in Trinity, a statement that prompts a bit of mordant wit from the cemetery man: “Yeah, he sure threw a lot of business my way.”

The best line of the episode (if not the entire series), though, is delivered by the prematurely-buried Buck himself, when Ben and Dr. Billy dig up his grave and throw open his coffin: “Well, if it ain’t the Hardy Boys.” Such sardonic comment (referencing the famous Young Adult series of Gothic-tinged mysteries) is quintessential Buck, and a perfect example of what makes this hero-villain figure so endearing to viewers.

In terms of its plot, “Requiem” centers on the evil evolution of Caleb, who is suddenly suffused with demonic power when Lucas suffers his almost-fatal demise. Caleb transforms into a pint-sized tyrant, and after the funeral, packs up his belongings and moves to occupy his father’s house. Upon arrival, he finds Selena waiting there for him; the sultry seductress proposes joining forces and hints at joining bodies (what would the Gothic be without the whiff of illicit sexuality?). Still seething over Buck’s spurning her for Gail, Selena informs Caleb of his cousin’s pregnancy and warns him that the child Gail is carrying is a threat to him as heir of the sheriff’s powers. Caleb, who doesn’t need much convincing on the point, tells Selena to deliver Gail to him, a sinister request that leads Selena to reply (sounding the theme of evil inheritance), “You’re your father’s son, all right.”

When Gail is subsequently lured to Buck’s house, she makes a disturbing discovery in one of the rooms. Symbolizing Caleb’s petulant protest of Gail’s pregnancy, a bloodied doll has been left lying in a shrouded bassinet. Emerging to confront Gail, Caleb tells her she must get rid of her unborn baby, but apparently the boy doesn’t have the patience to wait. He proceeds, in a scene that perhaps represents the apex of American Gothic‘s Gothicism, to chase Gail through Buck’s gloomy, stuffed-raven-and-grinning-skull-furnished mansion while wielding a fireplace poker.

Lucas, transformed into the role of heroic rescuer, bursts through the front door, only to see Gail sent tumbling down the staircase. He carries her off to safety, but the fall causes her to suffer a miscarriage.

The resurrected sheriff has some unfinished business to attend to before returning to deal with his upstart son. Knowing that Dr. Narone deliberately sentenced him to an erroneous internment, Lucas acts to take vengeance. He forces the good doctor to hang himself with his own granddaughter’s jump rope (Lucas promises to spare the girl Ashley from his wrath if Narone carries out the suicide). Ironically, Ashley is the one to discover Narone’s body, and innocently informs the hospital staff that her “Grandpa is sleeping on the ceiling.”

With that score settled, Lucas (with the ghostly help of Merlyn) confronts his bastard son. Amidst the climactic battle, Lucas hoists Caleb overhead, preparing to toss him off the second floor landing. Merlyn pleads with Lucas to spare Caleb, but he insists there’s no other way. Caleb is sent flying, but Merlyn’s “body” breaks his fall. She winks out in the process, her essence filtering into Caleb and counteracting his nascent malice. Still, there might be more to this turn of events than meets the eye. When the recovered Caleb realizes that Merlyn is gone and wonders what he is going to do now, Lucas assures him (in the final line of the series), “I think we’ll get by.” As the screen fades to black, the viewer is left wondering if Lucas hasn’t just pulled off another one of his Machiavellian schemes, using the confrontation with Caleb as a means of getting rid of the perennially-interfering Merlyn once and for all.

At times during its single-season run, American Gothic suffered from a lack of continuity in its plotting and inconsistency in characterization (to me, the failure to ever clearly define the extent of Lucas’s powers was also a miscalculation). This show might not always have been sure where it was going, but for 22 episodes it did provide a fun ride for fans of the macabre. Week after week, American Gothic justified its show title, which is perhaps a large part of the reason the short-lived series remains such a cult favorite over two decades after its original broadcast.