‘Locke & Key’ Review: A Fun Dark Fantasy That Doesn’t Unlock Its Full Potential

     February 7, 2020

Locke & Key is, by every definition, a Netflix show. Yes, it’s adapted from the gory, gorgeous graphic novels by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez. But this show screams “Netflix!” like a pyramid scheme screams “Quibi!” It’s annoying as hell to hear TV executives talk about making ten-hour-movies but that’s essentially what Netflix does; the streamer’s shows are all about forward momentum, plot-plot-plot, designed to get you from episode to episode and maximize the pop culture conversation at that very moment. This design is more of a burden than blessing for Locke & Key. It’s got one hell of a supernatural hook and gorgeous production design, all populated by an ultra-charming cast of characters. But they’re shuffled along clumsily toward a too-twisty end by creators Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House), proving that some doors should stay locked in the audience’s minds just a bit longer than the 15 seconds it takes to hit “Play Next Episode”.

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Image via Netflix

Locke & Key‘s whimsical hand-drawn opening credits disguise the fact that it kicks off with a gruesome murder. Guidance counselor Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) is shot in the chest by a troubled student, Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet), who yells “You’re gonna tell me what I need to know about Key House” before pulling the trigger. Rendell’s wife, Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield), packs up the Locke children—high schoolers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and the youngest, Bode (Jackson Robert Scott)—and move to the aforementioned Key House, the sprawling Matheson, Massachusetts manse where Rendell grew up. The house soon reveals secrets, namely a set of magic keys that unlock unique abilities; one to transport, another to control people, another to literally climb inside your own head, etc, etc. But the house also hides a demon, Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), who has ties to Rendell’s tragic past and a deadly desire to collect the keys for herself.

Visually, Locke & Key—and, specifically, the production design on Key House—is a wonder to behold. Between this, Haunting of Hill House, and The Umbrella Academy, Netflix has become the go-to place for spooky Gothic mansions with hallways and staircases to spare. We’re introduced to Matheson in the premiere through shots that fly over perfectly straight freeways ringed by vast wilderness, successfully making rural Massachusetts feel like the most impenetrable, walled-off labyrinth in America, Key House at its center. Once inside, cinematographers Tico Poulakakis and Colin Hoult like to float around the house’s many right-angle hallways, turning the audience into its own kind of ghost.

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Image via Netflix

If only the story itself floated through the house so gracefully. A lot of that falls on an antagonist problem. De Oliveira does great, slinky work as Dodge, but in the interest of building mystery the show does a poor job defining who the character is, what she wants, or why she does anything. There’s a moment five entire episodes into the season of pure, unintentional comedy in which Kinsey very confidently assures her brother they’re safe from Dodge, to which Tyler responds: “You don’t know that. We don’t actually know anything.” It’s funny because it’s true for the audience too, and the result is a villain that just sort of pops in and out, demanding keys, not getting keys, and then leaving like “ah, well, nevertheless.”

That lack of palpable stakes bleeds into the rest of the story, which is more interested in withholding information than building a solid foundation. From episode to episode, characters are occasionally mad at each other, but then they’re…not. A lot of narrative choices come off as writing conveniences, like the fact the magic keys sometimes call to Bode, Kinsey, or Tyler, ensuring that they’re found exactly when the plot needs them. Adults, for reasons unexplained, can’t remember experiencing magic—except the few that do—another tidy guideline to keep things moving. A show about wild, dark magic shouldn’t feel so convenient.

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Image via Netflix

It’s in moments where the plot gets wonky that this fantastic cast has to carry the load, and they usually rise to the occasion. All of the Lockes are great at embodying trauma in unique ways, especially Jessup and Jones, whose performances are largely internal simmers that only occasionally boil over; when Tyler or Kinsey make a drastic character choice you buy it, because these actors do such an effective job selling the idea they are Really Going Through It. Cuse and Averil also filled out the show with endearing supporting characters you can’t help but want more of, notably Genevieve Kang as Tyler’s no-bullshit love interest Jackie and Petrice Jones as Scot, genial leader of The Savinis, a group of Matheson horror nerds who worship the work of VFX God Tom Savini. (A sample of my notes from episode 10: “Scot is the ONLY PERSON who deserves to not die in this situation.” Hyperbole, but only barely!)

I also would’ve loved if Locke & Key made more use of Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Sam Lesser, a much more layered monster compared to Dodge. Barnet’s portrayal is terrifying in the way it’s so utterly un-terrifying. He plays the character like an extremely troubled kid, desperate for affection and in way over his head, who only holds power because he also happens to be holding a gun.

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Image via Netflix

But Locke & Key often doesn’t go through its most interesting doors. Which is frustrating, because it is asking really intriguing questions. Some on a micro level, like how exactly a family re-forms after an unimaginable tragedy. And some on an extremely macro level, thanks to the Head Key, which offers a person the chance to literally pull an unwanted emotion out of their brain. (The Head Key is also responsible for the show’s trippiest, most Black Mirror-like visuals, and I respect it for that.)

But the show isn’t as interested in exploring these concepts as it is in using them as a step toward the next Big Plot Point. That, again, is the Netflix effect, and I can’t help but imagine a Locke & Key that’s released weekly, giving an audience some time to chew through its meatier ideas under a lens where its inconsistencies aren’t so glaring. As is, it’s a perfectly fun, flighty dark fantasy that hasn’t quite unlocked its full potential.

Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism

All 10 episodes of Locke & Key debut on Netflix Friday, February 7. 

Television