The Performances Are More Magical Than the Fantasy in Netflix’s ‘Locke and Key’

Netflix’s “Locke and Key” combines human drama with fantasy in a way where one side curiously cancels out the other. It’s an efficiently produced series, full of visual atmosphere and a wonderful score. Taken from a graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, it features convincing young characters, so convincing that the magic has trouble keeping up with them.

The Locke family is composed of mom Nina (Darby Stanchfield), teenage siblings Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and youngest Bode (Jackson Robert Scott). Following the tragic murder of Rendell (Bill Heck), Nina’s husband and father of the kids, the four move back to Matheson, Massachusetts, to Rendell’s boyhood home Keyhouse. The vast estate has many shadowy corridors and possible hidden secrets. Tyler and Kinsey attempt to adjust to life at their new high school where all the students know about their shared trauma. Meanwhile Bode goes around exploring and finds a well with a mysterious woman claiming to be his echo emitting messages from down below. She tells Bode of a series of secret keys hidden around Keyhouse (of course), which have the power to unlock secret passageways, change identities and even transport him to other places. Once Bode finds the first key he unlocks a door capable of taking him into other areas of the town, but when he introduces the key to his mother and siblings it threatens to trap them in other realms. 

The most engaging aspect of “Locke and Key” has little to do with its fantasy elements and more with the human ones. The characters are finely sketched and evoke real pain, loss and fear of adjusting to a new reality. While Bode is talking to “Echo” aka Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), we get more absorbing moments with Tyler and Kinsey in their high school. Jessup and Jones are excellent actors who underplay their roles skillfully, generating empathy and not feeling like the same recycled depictions of teen angst. Tyler’s fellow hockey team members will boast that he can get laid now because girls “dig trauma,” but we can see in his face that the pain is real. When a girl does proposition him at a party he can barely enjoy the moment because of flashbacks to the horrific murder of his father. Kinsey makes friends with a more accepting, nerdy bunch led by film buff Scot (Petrice Jones), but can’t handle watching a slasher film with his group because of latent PTSD. None of these moments are written with corny traps, instead they ring true to the experience of processing terrible experiences. Among the writing team are Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill whose credits include “Bates Motel” and Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” respectively. The latter title also combined the supernatural with more human backstories that threatened to make the ghostly happenings irrelevant. 

Once “Locke and Key” gets more magical it loses a bit of its edge. It never becomes a truly engrossing tale of fantastical adventure. Instead the keys become mere plot tools to keep the narrative going. Even the main villain, Dodge, doesn’t have much drive or exposition aside from wanting to attain all the keys for her own nefarious reasons. There are some convenient touches like adults never being able to remember that they went through the doors unlocked by the magic keys. The visual effects themselves are kept rather low key. It’s not to say none of this is ever entertaining, there are some moments of decent thrills and one truly haunting scene has Kinsey entering her own, tormented psyche. It is when the magic combines with emotional depths of the story that it has a better effect, as when we learn about the “Head Key,” which lets you get rid of a disturbing emotion.

The best reason to see “Locke and Key” is its performances and their emotional pull. The cast all around deliver moments that stay in the memory because of their sorrow and longing. They go to the heart of why some graphic novels strike a real chord with readers. It is as a human story that this show works best, the magic is just fun filler.

Locke and Key” season one begins streaming Feb. 7 on Netflix.