Locke & Key, for the longest time, was the Uncharted of graphic novel adaptations. Its immediate success back in 2008 made it ripe for transmedia development, which is what happened. And then it kept happening, fans enduring over a decade of the Peanuts football gag but with their favorite story about locks and keys.
Such a protracted road tends to push the result to an extreme: either it’s wildly good to the point where everyone says it was well worth the wait, or it’s a rush job and everyone demands that they take it back. This Carlton Cuse-led development is one of those rare adaptations, then, that somehow does neither. It is a perfectly fine, messy, and sometimes incredible show that instead will probably leave people asking why did they even bother adapting it at all.
The series holds pretty close to the source material. It follows the Locke family as they move into the Keyhouse, their large, daunting, vacant ancestral mansion in the fictional Matheson, Massachusetts. Nina (Darby Stanchfield) is attempting to help her three children (and herself) overcome the recent tragic death of their father by moving them away from Seattle and into a fresh start. And it’d at least be going the normal amount of terrible if the Locke family history wasn’t hiding a dark, supernatural secret.
The problem comes in with the fact that Cuse and coproducers Meredith Averill and Aron Eli Coleite chose to lean any other direction than the horror flavor. That’d be fine if the rest of the show went along for the change and could agree on that direction. Instead, we’re left with exceptional moments that choose one or the other and every beat in between simply stagnates and vacillates between them all.
They’ve neutered the deliberate and poignant shock of the original story. All the gore and viscerally nightmarish images served a purpose to break down the barriers of the reader but have been gutted here. A good amount of it still works, but the emotional punch is lacking due to the disconnect between the visual and the reason.
The striking part about the bits that work, though, is that they rarely come from the source material. The early Mirror Key sequence is genuinely unsettling, rife with visuals that creep and gnaw at you without relying on shock and blood. And then the fallout of the kids dealing with this revelation about their house without the remote possibility of adult aide plays directly into the themes of childhood trauma and tragedy.
But then we’re thrown right back into the genericized drama of familial infighting and high school politics. And this bouncing back and forth never stops. The show never reaches a consistency—a holistic thesis on its story. The children, for instance, have all been boiled down to bland archetypes from their bold origins. Kinsey (Emilia Jones), in a moment of raw survival instincts during her father’s death, comes up against the Final Girl trope in her own existence.
That is a fascinating setup to that grand question of what you would actually do in a dire situation. But her time at the academy and the Keyhouse fails to explore that in any meaningful way. The establishment of her traumatic throughline feels like a fuse that gets lit and then burns away into nothing. As the show hops from genre to genre, it forgets where it was headed when it started. (Kinsey’s big clash with, um, herself is perhaps most indicative of this forgetful sort of storytelling.) Does she even care what’s happening?
This applies broadly to Tyler (Connor Jessup) as well, a hockey-attuned, emotionally unavailable teen who mostly stays a hockey-attuned, emotionally unavailable teen. The threads with his fellow sports bros and his love interest just sort of happen to him like a checklist getting ticked off for characters in a school setting. (It’s especially remarkable since Netflix already has a smart and effective teen comedy series that attacks these sorts of tropes with Sex Education.)
You’ll get unfortunately accustomed to this schizophrenic composition. The thrill of the anticipation of the show clink clanking its way up the roller coaster track is often taut with cool ideas and spooky atmosphere, but just as you think you’re about to crest the top, it suddenly goes higher and you never get that sweet release. It takes until the last two episodes that you get anywhere close to a proper resolution.
And that resolution is a good one! It is the proper blend of answering questions, throwing away others, and asking new ones. It’s propulsive and daring and wow if only the whole season was like this. We get glints of it, yes, especially when the Lockes are confined to the Keyhouse and, essentially, their own minds. Fear, anger, responsibility, sobriety. The pot boils a lot more often with that added pressure from proximity.
As it stands, though, you have to push through quite a bit of that uneven wavering to get through to the good stuff. The carrot was enough for me to accept the tired, largely rote stick, but that may not be the case for a lot of people, especially those expecting a comprehensive adaption of the graphic novels. In fact, the less you’re familiar with them, the more you’ll enjoy the show. Which goes back around to the original question: why did they even bother adapting this to begin with?
Final Score: 7 out of 10