Recap and Review: Locke & Key: Pilot (2011)

By Heather S. Vina

Directed by: Mark Romanek
Written by: Josh Friedman, teleplay; Joe Hill, graphic novels; Alex Kurtzman, teleplay; Roberto Orci, teleplay.

[spoilers ahoy]

Recap: (Just a note on the recap: I only saw this episode once at Comic-Con 2011, and I am doing my best to remember all of it, but there is a possibility that the order might not be exact, or I might have missed a detail.)

The episode opens with an happy little family having a nice day at their lakeside house. The kids are on the docks (teenagers Tyler and Kinsey, and six-year-old Body); the parents are in the house. Mom (Nina Locke, played by Miranda Otto) and Dad (Rendell Locke played by Mark Pellegrino) are cuddling, Dad using a knock-knock joke to tell her that he loves her, and Mom returning the sentiments.

But this idlliyc day is going to be shattered by the arrival of a teenager named Sam Lesser (Harrison Thomas), who pulls up to their driveway with a dead body in the back of his pickup truck. He asks to see Rendell, who turns out to be his high school guidance counselor, and an unsuspecting Nina lets him into the house.

Flashforward to three months later and the not-as-happy Locke family are driving to their new home, sans Rendell. Rendell was murdered by Sam that day and the family is moving back to the old Locke family home, a pastoral country estate in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where Rendell’s younger brother, Duncan (Nick Stahl), is currently living. He seems to have a good relationship with Nina and the kids, but there’s something a bit off about Duncan. It’s hinted later on, in a conversation with Nina, that he doesn’t remember much about his childhood, but Rendell did, and that’s been a bit of a sore spot for Duncan. When Nina tells Duncan about this date that she and Rendell always had on their anniversary, of swinging on a tree swing, because it reminded him of the one that he had when he was a kid, Duncan informs her that they never had a tree swing.

The kids are having difficult times with dealing with their father’s murder. Kinsey, the daughter (Sarah Bolger) is chafing at her mother wanting to drive them to their new school and Tyler (Jesse McCartney) always has his headphones on, blocking out the world.

Six-year-old Bode (Skylar Gaertner) seems to be handling the upheaval a little bit better. As soon as they arrive at the Key house, he runs off to explore. He finds a sword over the mantelpiece, and when he takes it down to play with it, he finds a key at the end. He runs around the house, trying to find the lock it belongs to. When he does, it’s to one of the outside doors. He opens it and, as soon as he steps outside, his body collapses and his spirit rises outside of it. Almost immediately, he goes back into his body. He tries it again and the same thing happens. This time, he plays with it and finds that he can fly around the estate and see what other people are doing, yet they can’t see him.

Excited, Bode goes to try and tell his mom, but she’s preoccupied and doesn’t quite hear what he has to say. It’s not until she and Duncan discover a mural that Bode drew on his wall of his adventures, where he talks about how he “died” and became a “ghost” and looked for his father, but couldn’t find him, that she starts to really worry about her youngest. She goes to talk to him and asks him about missing his dad. She tells him that he can talk to her about anything and does her best not to let him see her cry.

Tyler and Kinsey, who both seem to be in the same school and around the same age, attend their first day at school and feel like everyone is looking at them like they’re freaks because their dad was murdered by their classmate. They sit down together at lunch, but Tyler has a meltdown when he gets ketchup on his shirt and flashes back to the day their dad was murdered. As soon as Sam had fired the first shot (He shot Nina in the arm or shoulder, first), Tyler had run up to the house. Through the window, he watched as Sam murdered their father. He turned to run away and Sam came after him. Tyler stopped Sam by throwing something at him and knocking him out.

Kinsey finally gets Tyler’s attention and Tyler flips out at everyone staring at them. He gets up on one of the tables and screams about how, yes, they’re the ones whose dad was murdered by a classmate. Mortified, Kinsey runs out and then yells at her brother for having embarrassed them like that. He shouts back at her that she doesn’t understand the relationship he had with his dad.

Bode is still exploring the house and is drawn to a small building in the yard. He breaks in and finds a well in the middle of the room. The voice of a young girl answers him when he calls out. She tells him she’s his echo and he runs away, freaked out. The camera pans down and there’s a young girl in the well (played by Ksenia Solo), with greyish skin and stringy dark hair, in a simple, dark dress.

Later, Bode uses the ghost key to turn himself into a ghost to investigate the girl in the well, who senses that he’s there and tells him that she won’t hurt him. He comes back and talks to her. She tells him that she’s trapped in the well, and that she needs a specific key to get out. The “anywhere”, key which will take the user anywhere they want to go. She begs him to find it, but he doesn’t know where it is. She asks him for something else, instead, and he gives her the items that she asked him for: a pair of scissors and a mirror.

Sam – the kid who murdered Rendell – is in prison, and is trying to summon a mysterious person for help. He contacts her through the water in his sink. It’s Echo. She tells him that it’s time for her to break him out. She gives him the items that Bode gave her and Sam manages to break himself out of prison. Free, he heads off on his next mission from Echo: the Keyhouse and the Locke family.

Tyler finds Kinsey at the school pool. He remarks that their mom said that she was swimming again, but the truth is, she hasn’t been able to since their dad was murdered. She still has the bracelet that he gave her.

Flashbacks to the day that Rendell was murdered. Sam was coming for his appointment with Rendell, his guidance counselor, when he overheard Tyler and Rendell arguing, before Tyler stormed out. Tyler wanted the keys to the car so that he could go eat lunch off campus, but Rendell wouldn’t give them to him. Sam tries to talk to Rendell about a recommendation he was hoping Rendell would give him, but Rendell gently tries to explain that he has some concerns about Sam’s state of mind and the fact that Sam has gotten into several fights recently. Sam is distracted by a drawing on Rendell’s wall of the well house, and he starts hearing whispering. As he stares at it, Echo’s face suddenly appears in one of the windows.

Still the same day, Sam approaches Tyler, who is still mad at his dad, and tentatively tries to reach out to the other boy. He mentions frustration with his own father, and talks about how he sometimes wishes he could just kill him. Tyler, not picking up on Sam’s creepiness because of his own anger, tells Sam that if he does, do him a favour and take out his dad too. This explains Tyler’s extra guilt over his father’s death: He feels like he helped cause it by what he said to Sam.

Back in the present, a police officer informs the family that Sam has escaped from prison, terrifying them all.

Bode has a dream about his dad. Or is it? Rendell comes to visit him and tells him a knock-knock joke. Only, the punchline is that Bode needs to watch his door. Bode wakes up and takes this warning as something to do with Echo.

The next day, Bode goes back to the well house and quizzes Echo on why she doesn’t echo him like a real echo would do. She tries to tell him that she was his dad’s echo, too, but he’s suspicious now. He’s distracted by something outside, and Echo climbs out of the well and grabs him. She warns him that Sam has arrived, that he will kill Bode’s family unless Bode helps her get the Anywhere key. She’s the only one who can stop Sam. When Bode tells her he has no idea where the key is, she says that all he has to do is become his ghost self, then think hard on where the key is, and it will take him to it.

Sam arrives and locks Nina and Duncan in the wine cellar, freaking Nina out when she hears who is on the other side of the door. Sam attacks Kinsey and knocks her out, her bracelet falling off of her wrist.

Bode runs off to use the Ghost Key. When he concentrates on the Anywhere key, it takes him to Kinsey’s bracelet. He brings it back to Echo who looks at it and the Anywhere key pops up out of it. She uses it to open a door and walks into the house. Bode rushes after her, but when he opens the door, it just leads to the well house closet.

Tyler arrives home and is attacked by Sam, who knocks him out. Tyler falls across the threshold of the doorway with the Ghost Key in it, that Bode had left open. He floats out of his body and realizes that Bode’s tale of ghosts and keys was true. He sees what is going on with Sam, Kinsey, his mother and uncle, and he remembers what Bode said about going back to your body and waking up.

Meanwhile, Sam has been threatening Nina with hurting Kinsey, demanding the keys. Nina tries to bluff him, but Sam doesn’t believe her. He goes to cut off one of Kinsey’s fingers, when Tyler attacks him. They fight and struggle, and Sam gets the better of Tyler and is about to brain him, when Kinsey picks up Sam’s gun and shoots him several times. Sam crawls out of the room and collapses in the hallway. Echo finds him and whispers to him that she still needs him, before breaking his neck and killing him.

The final scene has the family having a happy moment setting up a tree swing outside, while Echo and Ghost Sam watch. Tyler tells Bode that he knows about the keys, but that he thinks that they should keep it to themselves for now. Duncan is the one putting the tree swing rope around the branch, where he sees that there is an old rope mark on it like a tree swing had been there before. But he still doesn’t remember it. The swing is set up and Nina is the first one to swing on it. She takes Rendell’s ashes in their urn with her and swings.

The camera pans out from this happy moment, to focus on a hole in the tree. It travels into the hole until it reaches the center of the tree, where there is a bunch of jars, with people in them, screaming. One of them appears to be Nina, who is screaming Rendell’s name.

Review: Watching this pilot, I’m really kind of surprised that Fox would have picked this up, or even ordered it in the first place, as it doesn’t feel like their type of show. It’s fairly low-key and a bit slow, and even though it’s spooky and has a murder and a fight to the death, it’s not action-packed. It feels like a show that would have been better placed on FX. So, watching it, it doesn’t quite surprise me that Fox didn’t pick it up. It’s a shame, because it’s a show with potential, but it doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve never read the comics, so after I watched this, I caught up with the details on Wikipedia’s Locke & Key page and it actually seems pretty faithful to the bare bones of the first story arc, “Welcome to Lovecraft”. Reading some reviews, it seems that there were some things left out (Kinsey’s emotional arc is dropped, Sam’s accomplice is dropped, Nina isn’t raped in the original assault), and one very major thing added: the jars of screaming people in the end scene. Ironically, that scene actually ended up being my favourite thing, and made me more interested in where they would have gone from there, than the key story did.

Were those the memories that Rendell had taken from people? Why was Nina in there? Was Duncan, with his swiss-cheese childhood memories, in there, too? Why had Rendell taken all of those memories, especially from people he had loved? That mystery, as well as who Echo was, intrigued me the most. I could see them building on that, but honestly, I have a hard time seeing how they could have built on the whole key thing every week, which is what Joe Hill said they would have done if they had gotten picked up.

The characters were decent, as was the acting. There wasn’t much there for the females of the show, which was a bit disappointing. I think my biggest complaint with the pilot was how little there was for Kinsey to do but be sad over her dad’s death. I understand that this was more focused on the kids, thus why Mom was kept out. And if they were going to have it be a Locke family thing, then it makes sense that Nina wasn’t included. But Kinsey is a Locke, and it bothered me that the only girl of the family was the only child that was excluded from the adventures and finding out about their family history. I hope that would have changed down the road, but it was an exclusion that bothered me when I got to the end of the episode.

Bode was a sweet child, but I had to remind myself several times of his young age because some of his more idiotic actions (continuing to talk to Echo, continuing to use the key) bugged me. Tyler and Kinsey bordered on the “Teenagers With VERY BIG ISSUES” trope, but since their issues were actually big (seeing their father murdered in front of them by a classmate) and not just artificially big, as with some shows, I was willing to cut them some slack. And they weren’t actually that bad. I frankly didn’t find Jesse McCartney all that compelling, but he wasn’t as bad as some of the younger actors on TV these days.

I quite liked Miranda Otto as Nina, but she still didn’t have much to do. Her scene with Bode, where she was trying to reach out to him and yet not let him see her cry, was very well done. I believed her and Mark Pellegrino as a loving couple, for the short scene that they had together.

Speaking of Pellegrino, I find it interesting that they cast a guy, who plays mysterious and creepy characters (Lost, Supernatural), as an ostensibly “good guy”, until you get to the end of the episode and see that maybe he’s not quite a good guy after all. Would he have been back in future flashbacks? I hope so, because I really want to know what Rendell was up to.

Harrison Thomas and Ksenia Solo were both excellent as the villains of the episode. Thomas managed to pull off the confused psychopath teenager role very well and Solo frankly freaked me out as Echo. The scenes where she is in the well, and then she crawls out of it, are very much like the scenes of Samara in The Ring, which are some of the scariest horror movie scenes to me. These were familiar, as the creepy overtones of danger in the form of a harmless-seeming young girl.

I think the most interesting character for me was actually Uncle Duncan, played by Nick Stahl. I’m not sure if it was the character or the actor or both, but it definitely felt like there was more to Duncan than just the kindly uncle, taking in his dead brother’s family. Not to say that I felt as if he was villainous or a danger, but the hints of how he doesn’t remember his childhood, but Rendell did, really intrigued me.

The mansion scenes were filmed at Hartwood Acres, and in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, and they were beautifully shot. They gave off the right aura of old-country-manor-style and spooky atmosphere. It looks like a beautiful estate.

All in all, it was a good first episode. Yes, it was a bit slow, but it never felt plodding, and there was a story there and fairly sympathetic characters, played by decent-to-good actors. I still have a hard time seeing the show being able to sustain the story for a full-length series, but it is a shame that it didn’t get picked up so that we could see if they would have been able to pull it off. From all accounts, they’ve given up on the possibility of shopping it to another network. But at least they brought it to Comic-Con so that some people could see what they had planned.

You can check out part one of Heather’s Comic-Con report here.

About Heather S. Vina

Heather's been a fan of science fiction since she was five years old and developed a crush on Captain Kirk, while watching reruns of Star Trek: The Original Series. A huge Anglophile, she loves reading and watching (and mocking!) TV, but hasn't figured out a way to make a living doing either, yet. But she lives in hope!

Heather S. VinaRecap and Review: Locke & Key: Pilot (2011)