“Locke & Key” is a dark, fantastical and bingeable hit

Follow the story of the three Locke children as they discover that their ancestral home Key House has everything: grand bedrooms, stunning views – oh, and magical keys and a demonic entity that resides in the well hellbent on securing them for their own devices.

Starring Darby Stanchfield, Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, Jackson Robert Scott, Petrice Jones, Laysla De Oliveira, and Griffin Gluck

The Locke kids: Kinsey (Emilia Jones), Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) and Tyler (Connor Jessup).

Life isn’t exactly going swimmingly for the Locke family. Following the death of father Rendell (Bill Heck) at the hands of one of his students (Thomas Mitchell Barnet), Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) takes her three children, teenagers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones), along with the younger Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) to the mysterious ancestral home Key House in Massachusetts. Surrounded by picturesque vistas and boasting an impressive number of grand rooms, it seems like the perfect place for a broken family to rebuild.

Well, if it weren’t for the fact that everybody in the town already knows of their traumatic past. Oh, and also the mysterious whispering that fills the house, leading to Bode discovering an odd-looking key that turns out to have fantastical powers, allowing him to transport himself to any given location. Throwing himself headlong into the search, he starts to discover other keys, such as a “Head Key” that allows the user to step inside their own mind, or the “Ghost Key” which removes your soul from your body. Unfortunately, Bode, and soon the other Locke children, are not the only ones searching for the keys. A sinister demon, Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), who resides in the well at Key House also desires the keys, and will go to drastic lengths to gain control of them.

The Locke kids: Kinsey (Emilia Jones), Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott).

Watching “Locke & Key”, it’s easy to see how it fits in with Netflix’s existing materials. It’s got a gorgeous, vaguely sinister location, like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or The Haunting of Hill House and a group of plucky children (A Series of Unfortunate Events) who band together to fight off incredibly powerful supernatural threats (Stranger Things). Tonally, it’s an easy to watch teenage drama, with dark fantasy elements.

This may come as somewhat of a surprise to fans of the comic series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, which firmly cemented itself as much more horror driven than the Netflix adaptation can commit to. While the show does lean into the more mature and tense moments, the predominant tone is one of whimsical fantasy, doubtless owing to the school setting and the teenager-led plot. Not to mention that, as a series, it needs to find its widest audience independent to that of the fans of the comics that may be tuning in. While exploring some of these darker themes may have been more welcome, it may also have proved alienating to the casual viewer.

Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) hide while their family is in danger.

What “Locke & Key” is festooned with, however, are nuanced, likeable characters which the audience easily root for and identify with. In Tyler, we have the popular kid at school, who is conflicted as it requires him to be less caring than he truly wants to be, while he grapples with his immense feelings of guilt over his father’s death. Kinsey demonstrates her own troubles, as she recedes into herself, overcome with her own internal trauma that she found herself unable to help in a time of dire crisis. This becomes a massive obstacle between her and her new friends that she tries to make. Meanwhile, Bode throws himself into his search for the keys with a dogmatic, childish obsession. Within all of them, we see the elements of their grief and trauma crop up, especially when they start exploring their own minds, and imagine the possibility of whether these keys would allow for the return of their father. On top of this, is mother Nina, who is struggling with carrying on her life without her husband, raising her three kids and battling her own personal historical alcoholism. These problems only become worse for her, as the events at Key House are erased from her memory, as adults are unable to remember magic.

The affection that the audience feels towards these characters are, frankly, enough to support the series alone, but this is nicely complemented with an engaging and intriguing plot, which is structured quite nicely. While it does follow the typical Netflix format of presenting a tantalising twist at the end of each instalment, it makes the ten-episode season fly by with ease.

The impressive Key House, an example of the stunning visuals the show possesses.

On top of this, the visuals that the show employs makes it a veritable aesthetic treat to behold. The frosty New England backdrop, in combination with the grand, gothic nature both of Key House and Matheson Academy are highly evocative. The conceptualisation of Bode and Kinsey’s minds are also wonderfully done; Bode’s as a colourful arcade and Kinsey’s as an Escher-inspired shopping mall with carefully compartmentalised areas and zones. The lighting throughout, similarly, successfully conveys the tone and mood of the different scenes.

Having said this, sometimes it feels as if “Locke & Key” doesn’t trust its audience enough to go further with some of these concepts. It feels at times as if it is caught between its desire to be approachable and full of childish whimsy, and yet serious, impactful horror. There’s conflicting ideas of a coming-of-age story, compared to it being light-hearted fantasy, to then tackling ideas of grief and trauma, meaning that it doesn’t really fully fulfil any of those ideas. Lots of these ideas are genuinely compelling. The ideas of horror-tinged fantasy, and the ideas of the reality behind the more real, harsh and macabre aspects of this usually bright and mystical genre is quite a successful and intriguing idea.

Kinsey (Emilia Jones) explores her own mind with friend Scot (Petrice Jones).

Furthermore, the grief and the trauma experienced by all of the Lockes could really elevate this material into something that is more gritty and nuanced. The moments that serve to unlock and explore those ideas are really quite fascinating and intriguing, and it’s a detriment of the streaming model that the show really can’t explore these concepts in any more detail. Kinsey’s journey, in particular, is brilliant and captivating. The decisions that she makes when she enters her own psyche, bringing a physical to the metaphorical, is hugely moving and a massive turning point for her character. Tyler, in particular, who is clearly massively affected by the death of his dad and the role that he played, could have been focussed upon much more, and hopefully the show doesn’t abandon these feelings and ideas as it enters its second season.

On top of this, while navigating these strange jumps and dynamics, “Locke & Key” also struggles to fully flesh out its villain. While there’s no denying that Dodge is chilling, it’s still uncertain throughout the series as to what exactly she wants to achieve. The sense of high stakes never really quite translates when you can’t quite explain why Dodge gaining all of the keys is actually that terrible an idea.

Leaving out some of these elements is a bit of an underestimation of the intelligence of its audience. Some of the plot points are played out with far too much exposition that gives the viewer very little credit for being able to follow along. The finale, in particular, suffers from being exposition heavy and leading the audience along to the dramatic final moments. While the cliffhanger ending certainly makes the audience hooked for the second season, it could have been far more subtle and chilling through suggestion instead of all-out hand holding.

Ultimately, “Locke & Key” seems to be slightly confused as to who it is for. The protagonists being predominantly teenagers would suggest it’s trying to attract a younger adult audience, and its tone definitely suggests that it isn’t gearing itself towards children, but through its duality of the more whimsical compared to the more mature and chilling aspects, it never really settles upon who it should be appealing to. Hopefully, with its second season (already confirmed by Netflix) being able to break free from content in the comics, it should have a stronger sense of identity and confidence.

“Locke & Key” is a thoroughly engaging and intriguing show. The multiple plot twists and the strength of the premise, coupled with its gorgeous locations and talented cast make for compelling viewing. Its second season is thoroughly well deserved.

You can watch Locke & Key on Netflix now.

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