Locke and Key Falls Short of Its Goal

Hello again friends and welcome back! This week, I’m reviewing “Locke and Key,” a supernatural horror series streaming on Netflix. Season one of “Locke and Key” was released on Feb. 7, 2021, and season 2 will come out Saturday, Oct. 22. 

“Locke and Key” is a TV show based on the comic book series of the same name written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodríguez. Upon the death of Rendell Locke, his wife Nina Locke moves their three children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, from Seattle to Key House in Massachusetts for a fresh start at the Locke ancestral family home. (Insert Ransom from “Knives Out” screaming here.) The children soon find out that Key House has plenty of secrets — and the more they explore the house, the more they learn about their father. “Locke and Key” was developed by Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill, and Aron Eli Coleite and stars Darby Stanchfield, Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, Jackson Robert Scott, Laysla De Oliveira, Petrice Jones, and Griffin Gluck. It was nominated for two Golden Reel Awards and one Saturn Award. The show was renewed for a second and third season.

Dani’s Thoughts (Spoilers Ahead):

First of all, a slightly more spoiler-y synopsis: Upon the traumatic shooting of Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) by a high school student, the Locke family moves out to rural Massachusetts to Rendell’s childhood home to escape the traumatic memories of Rendell’s death. Nina (Darby Stanchfield), a home renovator, sets out to bring Key House back up to snuff and the children reluctantly begin to explore the new home, unhappy at the thought of leaving all their friends behind in Seattle. When the youngest, Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), hears a strange female voice in a well, he learns that there are magical keys hidden throughout Key House and begins to find them and discover their powers. But Bode and his siblings quickly find out that the “lady in the well” (Laysla de Oliveira, Felix Mallard, Griffin Gluck) is no friend of theirs. In the meantime, Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) both struggle to adapt to the social life at a new school in the wake of their father’s death. Their protectiveness towards their younger brother leads them to follow Bode in his quest to find and protect the magic keys. Eventually, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode discover the history of Key House and how Rendell and his friends chose to do battle with a demon. They take on the mantle of the “keepers of the keys,” protecting them from the evil that hides behind a mysterious door in a cave. The season ends with the reveal that the “Well Lady,” who takes several different identities throughout the show, has also been posing as Kinsey’s boyfriend Gabe.

All righty then, let’s get into it.

I was pretty impressed with the first four episodes of “Locke and Key.” The concept was interesting and the characters were engaging. I especially liked the use of flashbacks to slowly explain Rendell Locke’s death to the audience and to set up character arcs for Tyler and Kinsey. Tyler’s character stood out to me in particular, both because of Connor Jessup’s acting and because of the way his character was written. He is described by his family as a popular hockey-playing kid. Yet the depth and range of emotion given to his character, including a powerful representation of survivor’s guilt and trauma, was refreshing. I was glad that the showrunners chose to dig beyond the tired high school jock stereotype. I also liked that Rendell was introduced as the organized parent who always signed the school forms and kept the schedule running while Nina was the more forgetful parent (not to mention the breadwinner). It reversed the classic put-together mom versus confused-but-fun dad trope and I liked it. But at around episode five, the pacing started to feel sluggish. Episodes one through four had wildly climactic moments (Bode being trapped in fire, Nina stuck in the mirror dimension, Kinsey murdering her fear, Rendell’s killer returning, the school counselor found mysteriously dead after calling Nina). The back half of the season couldn’t live up to the excitement of these moments. In retrospect, some of those early scenes felt completely unnecessary — they were simply there for show.

The first few episodes opened a lot of narrative opportunities. When you have magic keys that can open any door, change your appearance, set things on fire, turn you into a ghost, lock you in a mirror, and even allow people into your brain, suddenly a lot of things become possible. My biggest criticism of the show is that it failed to take advantage of the majority of these possibilities. Why would the teenagers go out of the way to put the bad guy through a magic door, risking their own lives several times over, when they could have used the Mirror Key to trap said bad guy in another dimension? Why would Kinsey have to lead Rendell Locke’s mentally unstable killer into the woods with a weapon when she had possession of a key that could make anyone obey her orders? The only character who consistently takes advantage of the keys throughout the show is Bode (incidentally he’s also the only character with more than half a brain cell). I was so excited for the big confrontation in the final episode, expecting that the kids would weaponize the magic they had against their opponent in creative ways. No such luck. This left me wondering, why introduce the power if it was going to be of little use to the plot?

Then there’s the Well Lady, also known as Lucas/Dodge/Gabe. The villain of “Locke and Key” is a demon or an “Echo” of unclear origin, name, and gender. (I’ll be referring to this character by they/them pronouns because it’s unclear what their pronouns are.) The show leans into this ambiguity: When one of Kinsey’s friends shows up to fight the demon, his response to Dodge is: “Her… Him? Not sure what its pronouns are. Demon non-binary?”) In the comics, the demon calls themselves “The Legion.” In the series, they’re introduced by Bode as the Well Lady, played by Laysla de Oliveira. Then we meet the echo of Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio (Felix Mallard), a variant of the Well Lady who looks like Rendell’s deceased friend from high school. And of course, the twist ending reveals that Kinsey’s boyfriend Gabe (Griffin Gluck) is also Dodge in disguise. Dodge is actually a cool villain, but I wish the first season had given the audience at least a little hint of their motivation. Why do they want all the keys and the power of the Omega Key? To take over the world? To kill the Locke family? To return to other possible demons? Revenge? Pure unadulterated evil? They spend the entire show angrily concocting plans to take the keys from the house, murdering and threatening and acting gloriously malicious and violent along the way, but the lack of reasoning behind all of it makes their competence as an antagonist (spoiler alert: they come out of season one on top) a lot less fun. 

All in all, I think that “Locke and Key” set out to do something similar to “Stranger Things” and sort of lost its way. The pacing fell off after a few episodes, the character development stagnated, and really interesting dilemmas and problems were brought up only to be hastily patched together for a less than satisfying conclusion. There were several clear examples of lazy writing; for example, a character who has been nonverbal for years manages to speak with no explanation and for no reason other than to solve a mystery for the young protagonists. These aren’t damning mistakes — most of these problems might have been easily solved with better pacing or another round of edits in the writers’ room. And at the end of the day, the show was interesting from beginning to end and the performances of Laysla de Oliveira and Jackson Robert Scott were 11/10. Season two may very well give the people what the first season failed to deliver.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

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