Author’s note: SPOILERS for the seventh episode of Castle Rock, “The Queen.”
“It doesn’t matter what we call it. These things move in one direction.”
The words of the doctor during a visit from Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Alan (Scott Glenn) are hollow and far away, just like their meaning. For Ruth, there is no one direction, no simple way of going. She is in all directions, all times, and in this episode, we’re along for the ride.
“The Queen,” the seventh episode of Castle Rock’s first season, is a series best and certainly in the running for one of the best episodes of television in quite some time. Focusing in on Sissy Spacek, a terrific actress who has had an incredible career, we are given a deeply personal and affecting hour where we travel through time not by science, but by mind. The episode is a window into Ruth’s life. It’s a harrowing journey, one where we learn of the marital and personal demons that pick at her every waking moment.
The way the episode plays out is fascinating. Each viking chess piece placed about her house is a totem to bring Ruth back, a gateway that pulls her back to the present. She reaches for them, and they snap her back. It’s a clever technique; each ties into previous scenes from the season where she appeared dazed or unaware of her current situation, with every scene given new meaning. Each scene morphs into the one before it, becoming a long-form piece of important times in Ruth’s life.
Ruth and Alan’s (Scott Glenn) time together in “The Queen” is full of love and tenderness, whether it’s Alan teaching her a magic trick (a reference to Alan Pangborn in the Stephen King novels), his patience over the confusion of dogs, or touching the side of her face in one of their final scenes. Scott Glenn spent most of the season as a hard and weathered man, but in this episode he is kind and caring to Ruth, showing a side only she has seen. Glenn does amazing work in this episode.
It’s in the disintegration of Ruth and Matthew’s marriage, told in quick and effective scenes involving a younger version of André Holland’s Henry, where we see the seeds that led to disintegration of their family. Matthew (played by Adam Rothenberg) suffers from an ailment that makes him see and hear what isn’t there. It was supposedly cured, but has returned, bringing fear into their home; he brings guns to picnic lunches and goes on trips into the woods at night with Henry in search of the voice of God. In the present day, Henry appears to have the same affliction, even though he is adopted, making it difficult to determine if this is a product of the evil in the town or something else.
The Kid (Bill Skarsgard) proves to be a mounting presence in Ruth’s present, his motives unclear. Is he trying to help her in echoing her late husband, or is he mocking her, making it difficult to know what’s now and what was then? Her escape from the Kid comes through a memory of Matthew’s wake, with Ruth desperately fighting her way through those there to grieve for her. But the memory soon turns sinister, with laughter and screeching strings and Frank Sinatra, all warbling together in another fantastic use of sound design.
Ruth is visited by Molly (Melanie Lynskey) as she deals with the Kid. Molly is worried about Henry. Ruth knows what Molly did to her husband Matthew (she pulled the tubes from his life support several decades before, as a child), even saying that she did the right thing. Something about the way Spacek says that her husband’s death “didn’t take” caught me by surprise. For Ruth, there is horror in knowing the dead never truly die for her.
The writing in this episode is wonderful. Sam Shaw, one of the show’s creators, never treats Ruth’s ailment as frustrating or disturbing, as some depictions sometimes do. It is treated with care, owing more to her character and the moments of her past than what afflicts her. Tying together the magic trick, the various dogs (including the one in the suitcase buried out back), and keeping all of the non-linear storytelling in check is a feat in and of itself, but to tell it in a way that is so central to the character elevates the episode into one that means a lot to me.
The most shocking moment comes when she finally finds the bullets that she spends most of her present looking for. She runs to the old garage, ready for the Kid. The door opens, and she unloads on the figure in the doorway. Then Ruth’s face changes into a mask of absolute pain. The body she crawls to isn’t the Kid’s; it’s Alan’s. He dies in front of her, echoing the reason he had come there in the first place some time before: the sounds of gunfire out in Ruth’s garage.
In the end, Max Richter’s beautiful “On the Nature of Daylight” plays as Ruth exits the garage, washes herself clean, and answers the door to find Alan, years before, there to help. She holds him close and tells him not to leave. In her mind, he may never leave. He is there, just as the past is her present. And while before it may be horrific to know the dead do not truly die for Ruth, here it is a comfort, something she can hold on to.
When Castle Rock focuses on its characters, the show is impeccable. When Castle Rock focuses on a performer like Sissy Spacek, it can be magical. “The Queen” is a heartbreaking episode of television, one that actually brought me to tears. It takes a lot for something to affect me like that, but in this beautiful, carefully made hour, it was more than enough. Ruth was given the time she deserved, and Castle Rock gave us an episode that will be talked about for a long time.
Castle Rock is streaming on Hulu. New episodes premiere every Wednesday. It has been renewed for a second season.