‘Locke & Key’ Masters the Netflix Recipe—for Better or Worse

Moving is always an upheaval, but imagine unpacking a U-Haul and settling into an eerie mansion where the laws of normal reality no longer apply. Key House, the setting of Netflix’s newest fantasy-horror offering, Locke & Key, is a place where magical keys produce breathy murmurs only children can hear, and, once found, open things far stranger than doors. They unlock portals to anywhere, including the world of the dead. They can set anything they touch alight. They can crack open your skull and let people walk inside. For the three children of the Locke family, they open a world of trouble—and also demons. When they’re not fighting for their lives, the kids are delighted.

Locke & Key joins the Lockes as they attempt to heal (or escape) from a family tragedy: the sudden, violent death of their father. The remaining parent, Nina Locke, decides to move her children—Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode—across the country to her husband’s ancestral home, Key House, which he notoriously hated. Once inside, the youngest, Bode (played by Jackson Robert Scott, who It fans may recognize as the unfortunate Georgie) sets off a chain of alternately wondrous and terrifying magical events. With no adult supervision even possible, Key House becomes a sort of risky, professor-less DIY Hogwarts as the Locke siblings try to battle the menacing villain, Well Lady, back into her cage. It’s woolly and uneven, smart, and a little unbelievable. In other words, it’s completely Netflix.

It almost wasn’t, though. People have been waiting for Locke & Key for a long time. A full decade, in fact. The show is based on a popular comic book series of the same name by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. In 2010, only two years after the first comic’s release, Fox announced it was adapting it for television. After that show fell through, the story almost became a trilogy of low-budget horror movies at Universal in 2014. When that didn’t work out either, it landed at Hulu in 2017, which passed on the pilot despite initially praising it. Locke & Key languished for a few further months before being picked up by Netflix in 2018. The streaming service recast all the characters except for Jackson Robert Scott’s Bode and added Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House) as a showrunner, presumably because she has a good track record with shows about children with grim family histories living in otherworldly homes.

Frankly, none of this troubled development history should be all that surprising. Locke & Key is weird. Really weird, even. When’s the last time you saw a 10-year-old drop (temporarily) dead on camera, or have a keyhole open on the nape of his neck? Unless you saw the Locke & Key trailer, we’d bet the answer is never. Its wildness is the best thing about it, and the primary joy of the source material. Magic in the hands of children should be a dangerous delight, and with Locke & Key, you don’t even have to wait until the end of a witchy semester to get to the hazardous part. Its tone manages to toggle between the Dangerous and Delightful poles at least once an episode. When Laysla De Oliveira’s Well Lady is on screen, it’s even more often. Her performance swings from flirty to sinister to fun to terrifying without ever seeming confused, making her the show’s standout.

Other aspects of Locke & Key do feel befuddled, though. It’s a show that’s clearly meant to be binged in a sitting or two. Many episodes lack clear stakes, and suffer for it: Bode’s demonic Home Alone dynamic with Well Lady is enjoyable, but can only raise the tension so far. A few major plot points happen so quickly and randomly that I thought they must be flashbacks that would be explained later. The original Locke & Key is a horror comic. The Netflix show is more of an occasionally scary fantasy story. The shift must’ve been intentional, but it does create a disjuncture between the characters and the viewer that can’t entirely be explained away by their age. The kids should be much more afraid of these keys and of Well Lady. Their father spent their whole lives telling them how horrible this house is. They’ve nearly died there. Caution shouldn’t be thrown to the wind. But no; instead Kinsey takes a dude on a first date inside her brain. The Locke kids are a lot of things, but often it’s hard to differentiate if they’re incredibly brave or grievously stupid.

At many points throughout Locke & Key, you can feel Netflix trying to tweak the story to suit its successful show recipe: a hefty pinch of The Haunting of Hill House in its setting and family dysfunction, a dash of Stranger Things for whole-family appeal, a heaping tablespoon of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for supernatural teenage drama. (High school tropes are much less prominent in the original Locke & Key, but apparently schoolyard scuffles and romance are mandatory ingredients in Netflix genre television. If the show inspires you to do anything, it might be to go on a teen angst cleanse.) Still, the story is peculiar and appealing and the actors are competentant, and all that seasoning doesn’t drown out the show’s flavor. The only Netflixine choice that really leaves it claggy doesn’t happen until the finale, which is undercut entirely by a setup for the streaming world’s greatest ambition: season 2.

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