[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Castle Rock” Season 1, Episode 7, “The Queen.”]
Anyone who thought casting the star of “Carrie” in a Stephen King-inspired series was nothing more than a stunt, well, welcome to Wrongville. As a widow and mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Sissy Spacek has been turning in subtle, moving, and inquisitive work throughout “Castle Rock,” but she’s given the opportunity to level-up in Episode 7, “The Queen” — and she blows the roof off the place.
Taking place entirely in Ruth’s home, the latest episode of Hulu’s mystery is penned by co-creator Sam Shaw, who wrote it shortly after his mother passed away. It’s a personal piece to be admired for its heartfelt depiction of a heartbreaking disease, and the basic narrative construction is a wonder unto itself; how Shaw (along with co-creator Dustin Thomason and episode director Greg Yaitanes) pulled off a thoroughly compelling story with so much movement is enough to make the hour among 2018’s finest.
But along with its raw emotional power and Spacek’s impeccable turn comes notable variations on two popular TV templates. “The Queen” takes apart and reconfigures a bottle episode and a standalone arc, qualifying as both yet playfully advancing their forms. It’s a fascinating piece of television, along with a purely engaging one, and deserves to be flagged as a significant moment in TV culture.
Things pick up right where the previous episode left off — with Ruth (Spacek) hiding in her house, holding a loaded gun and facing an unknown threat — before flashing back to see how she got there. Throughout the episode, Ruth is torn between the past and present. Her disease sends her spiraling into her memories, no matter how pressing the current situation. But Ruth is savvy; she’s come up with a system to get herself back on track using chess pieces.
She places the pieces “carved out of walrus ivory” in various rooms of the house so when she sees them in her memories, she can pull her mind back to the present. Shaw uses these as a signifier throughout the episode. Ruth gets them as a gift to start the episode, finds them in various locations (be it the top of a doorway or lurking in a pile of leaves) throughout the hour, and the final shot is a brilliant juxtaposition of time, which also helps explain the show’s title, “The Queen.”
Ruth has been a supporting character up to this point; she pops in and out of the episodes as an important figure to her son, Henry (Andre Holland) and her live-in partner, Alan (Scott Glenn), who gave her the chess pieces to help with her memory. She’s been a fragile figure who refuses to be defined as such; Ruth adamantly opposes leaving Castle Rock, let alone her partner, Alan, even though her memory has gotten to the point where she doesn’t remember her own son when he comes home.
Then in Episode 7, viewers get to see the intellect and savvy Alan insists Ruth still possesses. Not only is her use of the chess pieces a brilliant means to work around her disease, but how she responds to danger is exciting; Ruth uses her perceived fragility to ask The Kid for a sandwich, feigning weakness in order to get away from him. She uses her own memories of an abusive husband to locate the bullets she lost years ago in order to protect herself today. She learns from her grandson, loves without any misunderstanding, and genuinely, realistically fills out as a character.
Spacek, meanwhile, excels at every turn. So much of Ruth’s passion, fear, and courage can be seen in her big, expressive eyes. Spacek doesn’t just cry on cue; she fills her furtive glances and pleading stares with carefully measured levels of liquid, as if she carries around little vials of tears labeled for specific scenes — “OK, I need vial No. 4 for this scene because Ruth is scared, but fighting it, and then I need vial No. 17 for the last scene because her heart is just shattered.” It’s this level of precision that adds the necessary depth to Ruth’s pain; she may not remember everything clearly, but she feels a lot of it all at once. Spacek conveys those churning emotions without betraying the belief Ruth has in the moment she thinks she’s living. It’s a remarkable turn and one that can’t be overstated.
If Spacek wasn’t enough on her own, the preface makes clear that this is her hour, and “The Queen” certainly qualifies as a standalone episode of television (a la “Fish Out of Water” on “BoJack Horseman” or many of “Lost’s” character-based episodes). There are other characters — most notably Ruth’s adversary, The Kid (played by Bill Skarsgard) — but Episode 7 is told entirely from her perspective and tells a complete story within the larger “Castle Rock” universe.
Yet it’s not just another standalone episode because “The Queen” breaks a few rules along the way. It connects the series’ ongoing story in a significant way; one that rewards anyone who’s been watching all season. Some scenes are longer, with more information than before — like Alan and Ruth coming home after seeing the doctor — and they alter our perception of those events. (Watching the scene where Ruth walks in on her son and partner discussing who’s taking care of her will never be the same.) Others explain why strange things happened earlier in the season, like why there’s a dead dog buried in a box nearby. These tie-ins are crucial for appreciating the bigger picture, including what’s happened in the past and where things are headed in the future. Standalone episodes typically add plenty of context, but this is a taller order. This episode is critical to the season and for the season.
But it’s when looked at as a bottle episode where typical structures really start to shatter. Technically, “The Queen” takes place entirely within Ruth’s house. In the previous hour, Alan comes home to find The Kid with blood on his hands and a smoke alarm going off in the house. Ruth is missing, and the new hour shows where she is and what happens to her. But even though the current narrative takes place in the house, Ruth’s fractured mind sends her to a multitude of places. She remembers a trip to the doctor’s office where she’s told about her condition. She remembers going to the sheriff’s station to try to report her husband’s suspicious activities. Ruth even remembers a picnic with her son and ex-husband.
She remembers events within the house, as well, like her torturous wedding reception and plenty of scenes from earlier in this season of “Castle Rock.” So even though the whole story takes place in the house, the audience is taken on a trip through the town, past and present. It’s an immensely clever storytelling technique and one befitting the subject; more than anything, the way Shaw structures this hour speaks to his empathy for Ruth and her condition. The shifts in time and place replicate her experience so the viewers can better understand what she’s going through, and without such an ambitious structure, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact.
Ruth’s story will go on, along with the remaining episodes of Season 1. The series feels noticeably different now, not only because of who’s lost in “The Queen,” but because there’s a deeper understanding of a pivotal character. But to only judge Episode 7 in relation to “Castle Rock” would be a disservice. “The Queen” is an exceptional piece of television that illustrates what’s possible when boundaries are pushed for the right reasons. There’s so much worth discussing about this one hour — Spacek, bottle episodes, lighting, Scott Glenn, the chess pieces, living with Alzheimer’s — it feels like that conversation could shoot off in a million different directions. “The Queen” deserves its title.
“Castle Rock” releases new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.