Television doesn’t get much more heartbreaking than “The Queen,” a showcase for the legendary Sissy Spacek and one of the best hours of television this year. Even if you think that Castle Rock has been a bit dramatically bumpy so far, often feeling like it has relied on crutches from the Stephen King universe instead of creating its own, it was all building to this incredible moment. This is the episode that will distinguish the series from both other current shows and the beloved books that inspired it. It’s an emotionally devastating view of dementia, using the relatable, human condition of a deteriorating mind to tell a story that’s both terrifying and tragic.
The daring creative move of “The Queen” is never to really leave Ruth Deaver’s side, forcing us into her perspective of a crumbling reality. It allows us to feel her confusion and fear, to experience her diminishing grip on reality along with her. It’s a fluid, beautifully edited hour of television, weaving in and out of Ruth’s past with scenes from the first six episodes, visually dramatizing what Ruth told her grandson last week about not being sure “when” she is in any given moment. The action of “The Queen” only pushes the series’s narrative forward mere minutes, but it fills in the background of Ruth Deaver — her abusive husband, her attempts to leave, her battles with dementia, her true love in Alan Pangborn — and ends with the greatest tragedy of her life.
Given how much “The Queen” moves back and forward in time, it’s a somewhat difficult episode to recap. It opens at a point relatively close to the end of the last episode, as Ruth hides in the storage shed with a loaded gun. We then see some highlights of her relationship with Alan Pangborn — and one of the episode’s truly brilliant masterstrokes becomes clear in that Spacek plays herself in memory (whereas other characters are played by younger actors). It’s a decision that underlines how much her dementia is confusing her temporally, making memories feel like present day. We see the day that Alan bought her the chess set that she would use like Hansel and Gretel used pebbles to mark their way home. We see the stray dog hit out front, and then time really fractures.
The editing moves from the far past to events we’ve seen — such as Henry’s arrival home and a recent trip to the doctor with Alan. She’s lost. It’s ironic that the doctor says that Ruth’s condition “moves in one direction” because it’s clear that her perception of memory and reality do not. She walks through memories, placing chess pieces in rooms of her home, smiling at some of the good ones. She enjoys seeing herself read to Henry, watching Alan teach her magic. And it’s so brilliant of the show’s writers to ground her memories in events that they have already presented — revealing how lost she was even in those interactions, often coming out of the past to join them.
The episode gets meatier as it gets into memories about Matthew Deaver, revealing more about his religious insanity. In one crucial scene, he’s giving a sermon about immortality, repeating the “I will tell you a mystery” line that the show has used before, and Matthew spots a young Alan making eyes at Ruth. Not long after, Matthew takes Ruth and Henry to the woods, placing a gun on the picnic blanket and telling her a horrifying story about how he tried to kill himself. His life now belongs to God because he believes he heard God’s voice at the moment he was about to take his life.
This interaction is countered with a more recent memory of Ruth speaking to her grandson, who calls her a “timewalker.” Wendell introduces her to an AR game and plants the seed in Ruth’s mind that she can stop the chaos if she can only kill her nemesis, who she comes to believe is her resurrected husband, now in the form of the Kid. When the Kid came home last week, Ruth saw her maniac of a husband coming back from the dead, almost as he promised he would. She must kill him to be free.
The tension of “The Queen” rises like a tea kettle under low heat as the episode moves back and forth between Ruth’s memories and the current dynamic with the Kid, whom we know has set a fire at Juniper Hill that killed 14. What does he want with Ruth? He plays mental games with her, telling her things he shouldn’t know (like the combo of the safe), only adding to her confusion. She plays along with him, dancing to “Blue Moon” and offering to make him something to eat. She sends Wendell away.
In a sense, she’s trying to protect Wendell just as she wanted to protect Henry. Matthew was taking Henry to the woods, trying to make him hear the voice of God, and Ruth was ready to leave. She had her suitcase packed. And Alan was encouraging her to go. The parallel between trying to escape then and trying to survive whatever the Kid has planned now adds tension in a brilliant, unexpected way. The Kid tries to give Ruth a sedative and draws a bath, but Ruth doesn’t take her pill. She has other plans.
After hiding in the tub, she stabs the Kid, running outside, pushing through the crowds of the visitation for her dead husband from years ago. Through the haze of memory that feels present, she remembers that the bullets she needs are in the suitcase, buried in the backyard with the dead dog. She unearths them and runs to the shed. In a moment of panic, she shoots as the door opens, and we know even before Ruth. We know before the show even reveals it. We know that she didn’t shoot the Kid. She didn’t shoot the ghost of her dead husband. She shot the man who always loved her most, Alan Pangborn.
She puts her head on Alan’s chest, and a memory unfolds. Or is it a dream? Or is it heaven? Whatever and wherever it is, Alan is played by Scott Glenn, not the younger actor, which adds to the beautiful poignancy of an incredible moment. It’s kind of that day that Alan came to Ruth; it’s kind of not. It’s somewhere in between reality and dream. Ruth cleans up after the shooting and answers the door to see an emotional Alan. Someone heard gunshots. Does she need help? She hugs him and says only two, heartbreaking words: “Don’t leave.”
Four Past Midnight
• The final music cue after Ruth shoots Alan probably sounded familiar. It’s Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” used memorably in Arrival. Two other interesting music cues: “Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley (a.k.a. the King, as in Stephen?) and the thematically relevant “Time” by Nancy Sinatra.
• This was the longest episode of the season by far, running longer than an hour. It never once feels too long.
• It’s no coincidence that the book we hear Ruth read a young Henry in one of the flashbacks is Hansel and Gretel, another story of someone who uses something to guide their way home. It was pebbles for them, chess pieces for Ruth.
• Matthew Deaver asks people to stand and sing a hymn at the end of Ruth’s church memory called “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It’s incredibly thematically important, especially this stanza:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.