Locke & Key: Netflix Series: Season 1 Review

Locke & Key is a Netflix adaption of the American comic book series written by Joe Hill.

Premise:

Rendell Locke is murdered at the hands of former student Sam Lesser, so his wife Nina is forced to move with her three children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode from Seattle to Matheson, Massachusetts and take residence in Rendell’s family home, the Keyhouse. The children soon discover a number of mysterious keys throughout the house that can be used to unlock various doors in magical ways. However, they become aware of a demonic entity that is also searching for the keys for its own malevolent purposes.

The music in the series is not as effective sadly.

It’s an enjoyable, mild, adventure and seems to focus more on the fantastical aspects of the story than the horrific making it the inverse of the comic’s version of events. Certainly aspects of the original get toned down such as how scarred Sam Lesser’s face is.

The first season covers, more or less, the first 3 collected volumes of the comic series. It’s not scary but for a younger audience may be unnerving.

Is it faithful to the comics?:

For fans of the comic I would say it’s best to see this as a reinterpretation of the core concept, i.e. ‘a family moves into their ancestral home and discover a mystery involving magical keys’, than hope for a faithful adaption. There is more of a sense of wonder and charm here than impending threat. Some characters are amalgamated, others lost and a few incidents and keys work in a different way to the comics.

Is this like a Stephen King mini series?:

If you come to this with the mindset that because Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son you’re going to be getting a King like story… well I can’t say it’s a million miles away from his father’s work but there is a very distinct difference. Joe focuses on individuals and their interactions thus builds his characters up far more than his father. That is to say we spend more time seeing the effect of events on them personally, both in their past and present, than the development of a plot where people become pieces in the greater narrative with their past merely serving as a shorthand to indicate their archetype (e.g. King’s infamous favourite of a ‘divorced, drunkard, writer’ where we see no aspect of those affect the current narrative when faced with some supernatural threat). Joe is more focused on the inter-social impact of things than his father although you could argue Stephen King initially had a similar style, in his earlier works such as Carrie, before moving towards a more plot driven style of writing.

Is Joe Hill’s Locke & Key like Stephen King’s IT?:

To make a direct comparison, which is no doubt obvious, we have elements in Locke and Key which echo King’s novel IT and it’s adaptions. The ‘Keepers of the Keys’ (a.k.a. The ‘Tamers of the Tempest’ in the comics) come across like a ‘what if’ scenario of the youth parts of IT featuring the ‘Loser’s Club’. Dodge plays a similar role to IT albeit the intentions are somewhat different as one seeks to unleash demons into the world while the other is a predatory entity using the town as a feeding ground. At one point Dodge speaks to Sam via a mounted illustration print as IT did to the Loser’s Club children at one point via ones in a book. There is also the Downing cave which is easily comparable to IT’s inner sanctum in the sewers of Derry, as a pivotal location of confrontation, albeit with a few differences… and yet some similarities too really. Sam Lesser is clearly a parallel to Henry Bowers albeit slightly more tragic ultimately.

Locke and Key does address one aspect people often cite as an issue with IT and its adaptions – audiences enjoy the childhood losers club side of the story but less enamoured when we see how embittered they’ve become in adulthood so we have a much harder time identifying with that part of the story. In Locke and Key it is a multi-generational story instead.

The younger characters, discovering this world for the first time alongside the audience, allow us to enjoy the escapist aspects as they enjoy their adventure with discovery of the keys and their abilities, suffer some turmoil (both socially and plot driven) and eventually overcoming the villain. Meanwhile the adults, who have gone down this route previously but with a bad result barely surviving, are allowed to have more naturally drifted apart (without King’s ‘magic amnesia’ as often criticised in IT between the two parts and it’s ending) and in some cases become such damaged individuals it ultimately leads to setting in place all the circumstances required to lure the next generation of the Locke family back to their ancestral home.

The adults in Locke and Key hide some dark stories and repressed memories from their history and we see the consequences of it on the Locke children. However there is a greater sense of hope for the future in Hill’s story than his father’s which, despite his best efforts, ends on a somewhat more muted tone intentionally or not.

On a side note both King and Hill have an odd attitude towards depictions of mentally ill or neuroatypical/neurodivergent characters such as Rufus where there is no way for them to be ‘normal’ in what the media portrays as ‘normal’. It is never defined what his condition is, no doubt for fear of causing offence to real world individuals with such conditions, thus ironically making them ‘magical’ in tone as Rufus (at least in the comics though not yet shown on the show if they ever do address it) being immune to the effects of the ‘head key’ as if his undefined mental condition is something even magic cannot surpass. As for King there are multiple characters across his works, both depicted positively and negatively, who have undefined yet clearly presented mental conditions. You see this with characters in other series of course so it’s not just King and Hill who are guilty of it. For example Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory where he is ‘off’ due to his manner of social interaction and clearly there is an issue but it’s never honestly addressed by the people making the show even when directly asked about it as that makes writing it as a source of comedy more difficult (though you might compare Sheldon to the lead character in Netflix’s series Atypical which is a ‘coming-of-age comedy-drama’). The fact they chose, in the adaption, for the only person Rufus to be able to speak on equal terms with is the six year old Bode (via soldier terminology) creates a certain stereotype about his mental age. In the adaption he is clearly well into his later teens but was much younger in the comics making his interactions with Bode seem more natural. Why they chose to increase his age I’m not sure unless they had trouble finding a suitable actor of a younger age. Again it unintentionally delivers a certain message of normalising prejudice, about his ability to function effectively in society intentionally or not, to audiences regarding people who are not neurotypical. In truth it’s an essay all on it’s own. It doesn’t have much impact on the first season of Locke & Key but may come up next time…

What is the series like besides the similarities?:

Episode 5 certainly comes across as a ‘breather episode’ where the powers of one key is used to play pranks at school before the season arcing story line finally begins to come into the forefront with the end of episode six leading into episode seven which is primarily a flashback dominated where we learn why the Locke’s returned to their ancestral home is revealed. I am going to say that there are some scenes in episode one which you will have to accept at face value regarding the father being killed than only now will be given any real context so I partially feel maybe they should have omitted those scenes and left it until now to fully explain the reason for the move to the house so it was more coherent.

Steven Williams as Joe Ridgeway steals every scene he is in. Most, if not all, the young actors do very well with special note towards Jackson Robert Scott as Bode Locke for not coming across as overly precocious nor just rattling his lines off with no authenticity (and extra bonus Hill/King connection points as he played Georgie in the recent duology film adaption of IT). Patrice Jones, though he performs his role well, feels particularly misplaced due to his British accent unless I am missing something.

Dodge I feel is not well acted by Laysla de Oliveira but I don’t know if that’s the actor’s choices or how she was directed. She comes off more as a teen drama ‘queen bitch’ antagonist. For most of the series she only appears occasionally to bully six year old Bode (at least until the end of the sixth episode) rather than a demonic entity with malicious intentions. In a way it’s bizarrely comical. Even at the end of episode eight she comes across like she should be in a teen drama due to how she behaves now she finally comes to confront the Locke children face to face with what she is finally fully revealed. That stereotypical ‘teen drama antagonist’ interpretation is established early on with events of her going on an international shopping spree and generally only interacting with little boys for the majority of the first six episodes (though there is a twist I’m not addressing yet as it’s quite a big one if you’re unfamiliar with the comics which comes into play towards the end) which really undermines what a threat Dodge is supposed to be for nearly the entire first season.

Sam is introduced very early on but only really becomes relevant by the end of episode six and playing an active role in the narrative during episode seven in which his entire backstory is also told at the same time with everything regarding him wrapped up neatly by the end of that episode (including Tyler absolving himself of his guilt regarding Sam killing his father – at which point he also aggressively rejects Sam’s friendship too which felt spiteful but realistic for a teenager probably). The role is performed well but the writing doesn’t do the character justice although there is a potential way for him to return in season two’s events as a ghost so maybe there will be some interaction with Tyler there.

Overall tl;dr opinion?:

I would recommend checking it out if the premise sounds appealing. There is some teen drama in there but it’s relatively well done and doesn’t distract from the greater ‘find the keys, find out what happened with the adults and stop Dodge’ season long arc. The assumption that adults can’t see magic being subverted was good and seems a more developed version of a similar attitude in IT which in the connected universe of King’s works didn’t make much sense beyond some vague insistence that ‘what happens in Derry stays in Derry’.

My only real gripes with the series are relatively minor otherwise. The generic soundtrack is relatively forgettable with little impact on the scenes where it is used and they use licensed music at certain points which seems common right now for Netflix series aimed at a younger audience – if you’ve seen Suicide Squad it’s as jarring and as on the nose here as it was there. There’s a distinct chord played when Lucas appears which is a bit on the nose once you know the Dodge twist. Comic readers will already know it so it’s not that much of a give away but once you notice it it seems a bit of a poor choice to scream out to the unfamiliar that there’s something dodgy about Lucas. The role is very well performed when you consider the context of the role and how it had to gel distinctly with Dodge’s actress and interact with Ellie. It’ll sort of odd he carries the callous yet manipulative tone of the Dodge role off very well after the reveal but the main actress for the role couldn’t…

I would hope for a bit more intensity in the presentation of the antagonistic elements in the story. There is a lot of what people would deem teen drama padding which really slows the plot development between episodes 3 through to the end of 6. All you really learn in those episodes is some of the key abilities so in theory you could skip those episodes and as long as you had an idea of what each of the keys does and the consequences you wouldn’t lose anything in regards to the core ‘stopping Dodge’ storyline. I still enjoyed them though as individual mini adventures towards the great goal and they were good for character development but it does make the series as a whole feel poorly balanced overall.

The ‘echo’ key’s ability doesn’t really make sense in terms of what it does. Why it brings back who it does instead of the intended person? You assume it brings back the dead person completely not who was in the body of said person. That’s probably the one flaw that is inherent in the story which can’t be explained as it’s bringing the spirit back not the flesh presumably. Namely how ‘demon Dodge’ returns with the body and not Lucas Dodge as himself implying possession equates destruction of the soul but it’s never clarified. Also why did Dodge change back to their female form? Probably to be recognised by the children to intimidate them… but then they also got a dress when other times the key only seemed to change the face? I mean there are a lot of questions the end of episode 9 and start of episode 10 throw up to an audience really implying some keys have more extensive powers than are ever portrayed. The ‘ghost’ CGI is… cartoonish but I’m not sure if that’s intentionally stylised or not as it’s so obvious.

In hindsight maybe the season could have been a few episodes shorter to be honest. The pace doesn’t really pick up until episode six but the prior episodes help develop the characters and ease you into understanding the use of the keys.

Check it out as it’s stronger than many adaptions of Stephen King’s works and has some nice twists in episode 8. It’s not as tightly paced as Stranger Things but you’re getting a lot of similar aspects present in this production. If you are unfamiliar with the comics it is easy to get into and an enjoyable story. If you are familiar with them it’s an interesting take on the story with a few of the keys changed to produce different resulting powers.

Conclusion (a.k.a the real tl;dr):

It’s worth checking out but the middle few episodes might seem to go nowhere though they help develop the main and side characters a bit. If you want an IT like story it’ll scratch your itch. If you want an adventure series with a mystery you’ll be given snippets in each episode to deduce it yourself before it’s laid out plainly at the end of the season. There’s also a good twist at the end which will leave you waiting in anticipation for season 2 – and if you don’t want more it can be read as a downer ending befitting a horror series.

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MrHearne

Russian or Welsh poetry uploaded every Sunday. Reviews of literature, films, theatre, food and drink. Any support or engagement is appreciated.

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