CASTLE ROCK Review: “The Queen”

Sissy Spacek delivers a brilliant performance in the Stephen King series' finest episode yet.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Castle Rock.

"Ruth, it's because of you. That's why I came back." 

For the majority of Castle Rock's runtime, a question has continued to pester this particular Constant Reader: why cast Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver? Sure, the obvious cutesy Easter Egg answer is right there in front of our faces – as Spacek fronted Brian De Palma's seminal cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's debut novel, Carrie – but that seemed like an easy way to waste one of our finest screen performers for the sake of a silly in-joke. Up to this point, Ruth has been confined to her creaky New England home, dealing with the return of her adopted son, Henry (André Holland), who may have murdered her pastor husband, Matt (Adam Rothenberg), before disappearing into the snowy woods twenty-seven years ago. Ruth’s relationship with former Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) – the lawman who also rescued Henry from a frozen Dark Score Lake in '91 – has been touching and provided the series a much needed beating heart. Yet Ruth hadn't been gifted her stand out "moment" as of yet, justifying the enlistment of Spacek's near immeasurable talents.

Thankfully, this week's aptly titled seventh hour, "The Queen", is that moment. Only instead of simply cribbing from King, series creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason seem to be borrowing structural elements from one of the all-time great works of science fiction: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Billy Pilgrim, we follow Ruth as she navigates her own history, weaving in and out of past and present, until they become indecipherable from one another. While Henry and his abusive, zealous father pop in and out, the one constant that continues to try and ground her in everyday reality is Alan (who even performs a little magic, calling back to the Horror Master's Needful Things). "The Queen" is devastatingly sad, mostly due to Spacek’s beautifully nuanced turn, where she tries to keep following her bread crumbs – chess pieces gifted to her from Pangborn – back to the "now". Yet by the time we reach the overwhelmingly melancholy installment’s final moments (which are set to Max Richter's superb piece "On the Nature of Daylight") it becomes clear that Ruth Deaver may be lost to time forever. 

There's a dog: the neighborhood stray Alan buried out back in an old suitcase. Ruth knows that's not Henry's old pup – who used to leave dead squirrels on her pillow like mints – who got hit by that truck, and is instead the wandering bitch she left daily snacks for out on the stoop. Nevertheless, that wayward animal meant something to Ruth, because it connected her back to her boy, who left for Texas and rarely called, allowing his poor mother to rot away in a house he knew she'd never leave. As Ruth told her grandson Wendell (Chosen Jacobs) in last week's "Filter""Life used to go in one direction: forward, like one of those people movers at the airport. Somehow, I got off it." Yet perhaps this is the way existence's circle continues for all human beings, where they realize that one event is really no different than the last, and that we're doomed to repeat all that came before, until we drift away into dust. 

Beyond Spacek, what's most remarkable about "The Queen" is how director Greg Yaitanes never loses sight of how terrifying these sudden shifts must be for Ruth. A stolen glance across her husband's chapel with Alan can abruptly give way to a family picnic in the woods, where Matt pulls a pistol and narrates the time God steered him from suicide. Even on a smaller, less specific scale, the whiplash between emotions is enough to exhaust anyone – let alone a little old woman who's already been put through life's wringer – and make them want to give up. Yet the strength Ruth displays while trying to hold onto any semblance of sanity (let alone happiness) becomes an example for us to follow. Though the episode may be named after a royal figure, the hour practically becomes a canonization by its finale, as Spacek assures us all – against her better judgment – that we’ll be OK, as long we continue to navigate time and follow our own paths out of "the woods" and into the arms of those who adore us, despite our difficulties and flaws.

Lurking on the peripheral for most of "The Queen" is the Kid (Bill Skarsgård), who's returned to her house after setting Juniper Hill – the mental asylum from Stephen King's IT – ablaze. Wearing Ruth’s dead husband’s suit and playing their favorite records, his presence becomes even more disorienting for this poor woman, as she comes to believe that the Kid is Matt, back from the dead. Ruth even confesses to a frantic Molly (Melanie Lynskey) that she knew the psychic pulled the plug on her dying spouse's life support all those years ago. "But it didn't take," she ominously whispers, continuing a search for bullets to load into Matt’s gun and protect herself from this "zombie". Unexpectedly, it's more than time that becomes Ruth Deaver's enemy, as this evil force has labored to distort her reality, as well. 

The music in Castle Rock – courtesy of composer Chris Westlake – has been nothing short of exemplary throughout the entire series, but in "The Queen" is practically becomes a character unto itself. Isolated, depressive strings give way to sharp stabs, jolting us from one period to the next so that we share the same jumbled headspace as Ruth. Working in tandem with these tones is fantastic sound design and editing, transitioning locations and scenes in a snap, never allowing us to gain our bearings in one place. While it'd be easy to simply laud this hour of television for its deft grasp on pathos and storytelling, it's also a technical marvel, bringing these design elements together to create a cohesive, unique moment in the medium’s history (its closest companion being Lost's "The Constant"). 

Perhaps what's most heartbreaking about "The Queen" is how it continually offers up hope for escape for Ruth Deaver, and then whisks it away from her in the same scene. Alan urges her to open an atlas and simply point where she wants to go, and he’ll make that life happen. She can leave Matt and Henry behind, but the wife and mother steadfastly believes her duty is to her family, and that she can't just run away. So she stays, and Pangborn – even after trying to abscond to New Hampshire – cannot help but keep showing up on Ruth's porch, telling her he loves her, and that he’ll always be there for her. The tragedy is that Alan's caretaking ends up being his undoing, as all he ever wanted was to hear two words on the lips of the woman he loves: "don't leave." Two shots later, and he's lying in her arms for eternity. 

The Queen is available now on Hulu. Read our ongoing Castle Rock coverage here.

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