Locke & Key: Season 1 Review

Written by Stuart D. Monroe

Premiered on Netflix

locke and key season 01 poster large

Directed by Michael Morris (Ep. 1 & 2), Tim Southam (Ep. 3 & 4), Mark Tonderai (Ep. 5 & 6), Dawn Wilkinson (Ep. 7 & 8), Vincenzo Natali (Ep. 9 & 10)
Written by Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill, and Aron Eli Coleite. Based on the story and comics by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
2020, Episodes run between 40-56 minutes, Not Rated
Premiered on Netflix on February 7th, 2020

Darby Stanchfield as Nina Locke
Bill Heck as Rendell Locke
Connor Jessup as Tyler Locke
Emilia Jones as Kinsey Locke
Jackson Robert Scott as Bode Locke
Laysla De Oliveira as Dodge
Sherri Saum as Ellie Whedon
Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon
Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Sam Lesser
Felix Mallard as Lucas Caravaggio

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In the world of comics, I’m something of a “heavy dabbler”. I grew up on superheroes like virtually everyone my age (forty, for the record), but I’ve always had a taste for the darker stuff. I like ‘em graphic, bloody, fantastic, emotionally stirring, challenging, and complex. I couldn’t find a lot of that stuff growing up aside from some small Predator runs and Hellraiser.

Luckily, there’s a lot more out there for people like me nowadays than just superheroes saving the world. In that realm, no series grabbed and sank its teeth into me quite like Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key. When it hit in early 2008, I immediately put it on my pull list and voraciously devoured every issue. The shit is like crack – unique art, compelling story arcs, quirky characters, layered mythology, and writers who knew how to stick the knife in. I wasn’t the only one, either. IDW had a monster on their hands that rivaled the critical popularity of The Walking Dead, but every time you’d hear about a cinematic adaptation (be it big or small screen) it turned out to be just smoke and mirrors. It’s a challenging tale to adapt, so we waited…and waited…and waited. It was announced as a project after one issue of the comic. It was going to be a three-picture film series. A full pilot was filmed in 2011. Tons of names were attached. Ultimately everything fell short until the TV gods finally smiled on us, may They be praised.

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Locke & Key centers on the Locke family – matriarch Nina (Darby Stanchfield; Mad Men); oldest son Tyler (Connor Jessup; Closet Monster); damaged daughter Kinsey (Emilia Jones; Brimstone); and precocious young son Bode (Jackson Robert Scott; It and It Chapter Two) – a tight-knit group trying to heal after the tragic murder of their patriarch, Rendell Locke (Bill Heck; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). He’s a guidance counselor who’s murdered by a mentally disturbed student named Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet; Wayne). They pick up the pieces and move into their late father’s ancestral home in the sleepy seaside town of Matheson, Massachusetts; a sprawling old mansion named Keyhouse. They discover the house holds many secrets and a set of magical keys that do amazing and dangerous things. On the property is a well that contains a demon that desperately needs the keys to escape, and that demon is so hungry.

Before you even dig into the ten-episode first season, just take a gander at the folks behind the scenes. The story comes from the minds of Joe Hill (NOS4A2) and Gabriel Rodriguez. Hill is the bestselling author of books such as Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and The Fireman. Gabriel Rodriguez is a multiple-time Eisner nominee and a highly respected artist and creator in the comic world. If that’s not enough, it’s written for the screen and showran by Carlton Cuse (LOST, Bates Motel), Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House), and Aron Eli Coleite (Heroes). By God, that’s a metric fuckton of heavyweight TV credentials.

So…does it live up to the hype? Perhaps even more telling: Does it live up to the standards of an admitted mark such as me?

The answer is a resounding yes. Locke and Key finds a sweet spot between fantasy, family drama, mystery, and horror that has the same combination of emotional punch and visceral horror of The Haunting of Hill House while maintaining an aesthetic and flavor of Stranger Things. Still, it’s neither of those. There’s magic in it that echoes the childlike fantasy of Stephen Spielberg’s best and makes you smile right before sending an icy shiver down your back that’ll have you yelling at the screen, “It’s a trap!”

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The first season takes the major plot points and elements from each of the first three comic arcs (Locke & Key, Locke & Key: Head Games, and Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows). As is always the case with adaptations of this nature, there are things omitted. Locke & Key arrives at the same destination, though the details of how the Locke family and those connected to them get there vary. Wonderfully enough, not once did I find myself asking why they left out X or changed Y. The heart and the intent is always clear and you’re committed on multiple levels. It’s a true testament to the power of the creative minds behind it all and a stellar ensemble cast, most of whom aren’t big names yet (but will be after this).

The physical casting of Jackson Robert Scott as Bode Locke and Emilia Jones as Kinsey Locke is some of the most picture perfect that I’ve ever seen. They ARE Bode and Kinsey made flesh. They sound the way you hear them when you read the comics. They move the way you see it. Even those characters who take a more noticeable change from their ink and pen counterparts, like Connor Jessup as Tyler Locke, still deliver in a big way. Laysla De Oliveira may be the most alluringly dangerous siren ever put to screen; I say that without a trace of hyperbole. One of the biggest things you can say for Locke & Key is that it showcases the importance of casting in entertainment. It’s an astonishing achievement.

Then there’s the visual translation. I lost track of the number of wonderfully framed shots ripped straight from the page faithfully and lovingly. Everything they did with the Head Key is solid gold…period. It’s just so much fun and sends your mind reeling with possibilities, almost as if you can see Joe Hill grinning from ear to ear. Keyhouse itself is the proverbial character made of wood and stone, a marvel of set design. And those titular keys? Let’s just say there’s going to be some money made off collector’s edition replicas. Where’s my wallet?

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If I had to find a gripe (because nothing is perfect, right?), it’s the bit of drag you hit in the middle episodes. There’s nothing surprising there as far as TV goes, and even the slower episodes showcase some fun side moments while it wanders a bit and rediscovers its footing. Episode 7 (“Dissection”) picks the pace back up with some insane personal drama, and it’s off to the races for the finish line while subverting your expectations of character arc. Episode 8 (“Ray of Fucking Sunshine”) is the award winner for the season – it’s heartbreaking and utterly raw. You don’t invest fully in a show like this if it can’t bring a tear to your eye, and I used up some tissue on this one. It literally hurt a couple of times. Bravo!

There are so many surprises, big and small, in Locke & Key that I can’t tell you about. Normally that bothers me a bit, but I don’t want you to know in this case. The best stories are a true gift, and I don’t want to ruin any of this. So, pick a key…any key. Anywhere Key? Ghost Key? Head Key? Matchstick Key? Identity Key? Echo Key? Omega Key? You really can’t lose with any of them. They’re all going to take you somewhere flat-out incredible.

On second thought, don’t mess with that Omega Key. It’s bad business.

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Episode: 4.5 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US
Buy from Amazon UK

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Stuart D. Monroe
Staff Reviewer
Stuart D. Monroe is a man of many faces – father, husband, movie reviewer, published author of short horror, unsuccessful screenwriter (for now), rabid Clemson Tiger, Southern gentleman, and one hell of a model American who goes by the handle "Big Daddy Stu" or "Sir". He's also highly disturbed and wears that fact like a badge of honor. He is a lover of all things horror with a particular taste for the fare of the Italians and the British. He sometimes gets aroused watching the hardcore stuff, but doesn't bother worrying about whether he was a serial killer in a past life as worrying is for the weak. He was raised in the video stores of the '80s and '90s. The movie theater is his cathedral. He worships H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. When he writes, he listens obsessively to either classical music or the works of Goblin to stimulate the neural pathways. His favorite movie is Dawn of the Dead. His favorite book is IT. His favorite TV show is LOST.
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