Photo: Sissy Spacek, Bill Skarsgård (Dana Starbard/Hulu)

“The Queen” is the most affecting, effective episode of Castle Rock’s first season so far, and a potent antidote to the missteps of “Filter.” Where “Filter” plunges into exposition and a would-be harrowing sequence of previously unimagined terror in Odin’s anechoic chamber, “The Queen” does something simpler, and far more complex. It walks us through scenes and conversations we’ve already seen… but shows them as Ruth Deaver experiences them, not as they unfold for everyone else.

That makes the most routine activities fraught with confusion, even peril, because Ruth’s explanation to Wendell is the exact truth. She has been snatched from the predictable path of time, misled into other days and other years. When she described her Lewis chess pieces as the breadcrumbs that can lead her out of the woods, she wasn’t speaking in metaphors. Ruth, who buried her husband in 1991, can walk into a room and suddenly find herself following him down a path into Castle Rock’s deepest woods. But when she travels to these times and places, so do her chess men, and if she can spot them, they anchor her back in the present.

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There’s something bittersweet (again) in Castle Rock’s presentation of Ruth’s meanderings in time. As unsettling as they must be, she finds joy in them, too. She smiles to see herself sitting with Henry, barely seven years old, as she reads him Hansel and Gretel. Entering her bedroom, she sees the night of pillow talk when Alan taught her to palm a coin (or, when necessary, a pill). She even revisits her own youth, where the child Ruth was plays on the floor of her parents’ house.

Photo: Sissy Spacek, Dayshaun Moore, Sissy Spacek (Screenshot/Hulu)

“The Queen” shows a few flashes of a younger Ruth, but most of the Ruths wandering the past are played by present-day Sissy Spacek, with her rose-petal wrinkles and graying hair. It’s a savvy choice and a sensible one. Spacek’s quiet, gripping performance carries this episode, and her constant presence means these scenes never read like memories or glimpses into the past. This is Ruth Deaver, the Ruth of today, wandering her past as a lost guest might wander the halls of the Overlook Hotel, trying and failing to find the right room, or even the right wing. Ruth’s neurologist describes her symptoms as “confusion with time and space,” but Dr. Vargas (Zabryna Guevara) doesn’t know how true that is.

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Photo: Sissy Spacek (Screenshot/Hulu)

As the only constant in her own history, Ruth is the center of a strange world, and the camera emphasizes that. Take the first scene in the linen closet, where she spies a gun on the top shelf, and where as the door closes, squeezing out the light from the hallway, her gleaming face is the only thing visible. In one Gondry-esque piece of staging, Ruth walks directly from Henry’s childhood into the office of young Alan Pangborn, then back to her kitchen, while barely crossing a threshold.

All this sounds stylized, even graceful, and “The Queen” is both of those. It’s also spooky as hell, because watching a well-established, sympathetic character muddling through sometimes sweet, often traumatic, always unpredictable encounters in her own history is strange and sad and frightening. Unlike the incoherent tumult of “Filter”’s climax, the incoherence of Ruth’s existence is constant and emotionally resonant, in part because it’s apparently never-ending. Sissy Spacek’s face brightening with a forced smile as she tries to bluff her way through another confusing conversation is the stuff of real, concrete fear, so much scarier than all the laboriously explained horror of the schisma and the anechoic chamber.

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Matthew, whose malevolence has grown from the first uncertain inklings in the first episodes, reveals the worst of Ruth’s predicament Though there are joys and peaceful moments to be found in Ruth’s history, she isn’t just wandering the past. She’s tangled in the knowing past, a past that is the accretion of all her choices and actions and from which she cannot divert her path… and that knows her as well as she knows it. Watching as she packs a suitcase for herself and Henry, Ruth pleads quietly with her former self “Leave him. Please leave him.” But she doesn’t, because she didn’t, and Matthew taunts her with this knowledge: “You can’t leave because you didn’t.”

Photo: Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn (Screenshot/Hulu)

Watching Ruth Deaver navigate the confusing spaces and temporal shifts of her daily life, and watching Sissy Spacek perform that delicate balance of confusion and coping, is more effective than any lecture about quantum probabilities could ever be. It is not just a frightening metaphor for the loss of coherence; it’s an ouroboros of love and loss, with Alan called back to Ruth’s side by the very gunshots that will kill him, with Ruth carefully washing her true love’s blood from her hands and body, then opening the door to welcome him back to her arms. And all the while, she knows that she’ll live through these moments again and again, in every possible order.

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Stray observations

  • Dayshaun Moore, who plays Henry at 7, has mastered the wary reserve and the cautious glances that André Holland uses to devastating effect as the adult Henry.
  • Wendell to Ruth: “What makes it so hard is that no one stays dead when you kill ‘em—unless you’re a Timewalker.” A kid explaining away the terrors of his grandmother’s supposed dementia through his favorite game sounds like classic Stephen King, though the easy familiarity with ARGs doesn’t. (I’m still reeling from a recent short story in which King describes a freelancer’s hot-take obits as having a 48-hour turn-around. The digital life is as foreign to him as the Barony of Mejis would be to me.)
  • Also reminiscent of King is Alan’s line, and Ruth’s logic, that “burying one dog pays the debt on the other.” Oddly enough, the line I immediately thought of was Sarah in The Dead Zone, telling Johnny that “once will have to put paid to everything.”
  • Spoiler for The Dark Half: Matthew Deaver’s diagnosis of glioma is not the same as the absorbed-twin-turned-tumor Thad Beaumont had excised as a child. But there are similar concepts of twinning in Castle Rock, especially as both Ruth and The Kid tacitly accept his possession of Matthew’s memories—Matthew and Ruth’s wedding song, the combination to his safe, how Ruth likes her eggs.
  • This is the second time we’ve heard Dr. Vargas talk about Ruth’s recall test, and the second time we haven’t been allowed to hear the words. We know Henry’s and The Kid’s, and they both include church and family.
  • I can’t pin down the significance of the repeated close-ups on the Deaver home’s newel post, unless it’s an allusion to It’s A Wonderful Life.
  • Alan to Ruth: “Set up those chess men. I’ll let you slaughter me after dinner.”

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