Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the episode yet and don’t want to know what happens, go watch it before reading this.
I said a few weeks ago that episode five was the best of the series so far, but I’ve changed my mind: episode seven is the best. In fact, it’s one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen so far this year, right up there with the “Westworld” episode “Kiksuya” and “The Good Twin” from “GLOW.”
“The Queen” is in some ways a standalone episode, seen from the perspective of Ruth Deaver, Henry’s mother. In an alternately heartbreaking and unnerving hour, Sissy Spacek turns in a truly stunning performance, capturing the experience of a woman suffering from dementia. Countless viewers — and showrunner Sam Shaw, who wrote the episode from a deeply personal place — will be able to sympathize with Ruth’s plight.
If indeed Ruth does have dementia, as her grandson Wendell points out early on in the episode, perhaps Ruth isn’t losing track of time — perhaps she’s actually traveling through time, like the “time-walkers” featured in his video game (or like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five”).
The episode switches back and forth between scenes from the past, and scenes in the present. In the past, Ruth finds herself all over the place in her life — from her own childhood, to her wedding day to Matthew, to a quiet night reading fairy tales to a very young Henry, to her first encounters with her true love, Alan Pangborn.
Played with humanity, intelligence and good old-fashioned Mainer practicality by the luminous Spacek, Ruth watches the events from her past unfold. Occasionally, she attempts to intervene, as when she watches herself tell Matthew she was going to leave him. Matthew’s increasingly malevolent presence on the show comes out full bore on this episode, with it now becoming clear that he wasn’t a good guy — or at least, he was in the control of evil forces. Or he’s just a religious nutjob. Whatever it was: it wasn’t good.
Every time Ruth thinks the past is becoming reality, however, she finds the breadcrumbs she left for herself in the present: the wooden chess pieces, from the set Alan gave her. The chess pieces serve as a reminder to Ruth (and the audience) that while the past may seem real to her, it’s over. The past is past.
Which brings us to Ruth’s terrifying present. The Kid has arrived at Ruth’s house, after presumably setting fire to the mental hospital where Henry ditched him on the previous episode, killing a whole bunch of patients there. It’s become clear that The Kid is possessed in some capacity by Ruth’s dead husband Matthew — if not his entire spirit, then by his memories. How else to explain how The Kid knows how Ruth likes her eggs?
Anyway, this totally creepy encounter lasts throughout the episode. It’s a cat-and-mouse situation, or more appropriately, a chess game. Every time The Kid makes a move (trying to get her to take a sedative), Ruth counters (palming the pill, in a magic trick taught to her by Alan that we see in a flashback). When The Kid draws her a bath, she runs upstairs to find the gun that’s in the house — though she doesn’t have the bullets, which are locked in a safe.
The Kid comes to find her, however, and, escaping him again, she hides in the overflowing bathtub, clutching a chef’s knife, hiding behind the shower curtain in a kind of reverse shower scene from “Psycho.” She stabs The Kid and runs back upstairs, and with the safe combination she got out of him earlier, she loads the gun and runs outside, into the barn.
There, she hides out, waiting for The Kid to come and get her. Terrified, she shoots at the first thing she sees.
It’s not The Kid. It’s Alan, who dies in her arms.
In a devastating denouement for the episode, Ruth calmly goes inside, showers Alan’s blood off herself, and has a flashback to the day Alan returned to her, after so many years apart after Matthew’s death. It’ll probably make you cry. It made me cry. Good job, “Castle Rock.”
References to other books/movies:
— “The Queen” is a reference to Ruth’s chess pieces. But it can’t be a coincidence that Sissy Spacek played Carrie White in the original film adaptation of King’s “Carrie,” and Carrie was eventually (cruelly) voted prom queen. Of course that’s a reference. Right?
— My bad for missing this last week, but Juniper Hill Asylum, the mental hospital that The Kid presumably torches before heading back to Castle Rock, is a facility featured in many other King works, from “It” (Henry Bowers is housed there) to “11/22/63”. Well, it’s gone now! And so is the heroic Alan Pangborn.
— There’s a pretty in-depth discussion going on on Twitter about supposed references in the show to The Dark Tower series — like the fact that Ruth’s chess set is red (crimson!) and white, not black and white, and that the “music of the spheres” mentioned in the previous episode could be a reference to Merlyn’s Rainbow.
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