Castle Rock’s seventh episode clocks in at a whopping 60 minutes, and bigger ultimately proves better.
“The Queen” is aptly titled, as Sissy Spacek gives a regal performance in this Ruth-centered episode. Viewers get to share the sense of existential dislocation experienced by the dementia-suffering Ruth, who glides between the present and past memories as easily as crossing a threshold inside her haunted (not necessarily supernaturally) house. Along the way we learn the import of details from previous episodes, such as the dog that was buried out in the yard but doesn’t appear quite dead to Ruth. All the narrative looping can be a bit confusing (“The Queen” no doubt warrants repeat viewing), and the first half of the episode does drag on somewhat, but there is a terrific payoff at the end, both emotionally and thematically.
Ruth’s jaunts down memory’s winding lanes affords us our clearest glimpse to date of her reverend husband Mathew–and it’s not a flattering look. Overbearing and unbalanced (abusive without ever having to raise his hand or voice), Mathew forms the creepiest clergyman this side of Cycle of the Werewolf.
Arguably the most significant line of the episode occurs when Molly comes knocking and a desperate, disoriented Ruth answers the door by asking, “When are we?” My favorite exchange, though, was Ruth’s joking inquiry to Alan as to why so many magic tricks have pornographic-sounding names, and his response that probably because virgins invented them.
“The Queen” gives a quick nod to Stephen King’s Under the Dome: in an attempt to get Wendell out of the house and away from the Kid, Ruth sends him off to the mall in Chester’s Mill. It serves as a reminder of just how close these two towns lie on King’s fictional map of Maine.
Tension certainly ratchets up when we arrive at last to the scene between Ruth and the Kid. Once again Bill Skarsgard is masterful, understated yet creating an undeniable sense of menace. His quoting of the dead reverend’s lines to Ruth is chilling, and even an act as mundane as cooking up some eggs manages to have an uncanny effect.
The episode, though, is less an example of outright horror than of romantic tragedy–Shakespeare with a senior cast (and I’m not talking about high school upperclassmen). There’s a vicious swerve: after following the imperiled Ruth for nearly a hour and fearing that this will be the end for her character, we instead witness the sudden killing off of Alan Pangborn (accidentally shot by Ruth, who thought she was targeting the Kid). Just like that, Castle Rock’s long-time, knightly defender is removed from the chess board. The twist is gut-wrenching, so much so that at first the viewer might not stop to wonder if this dire event has been diabolically orchestrated by a revenge-minded Kid.
“The Queen” is not an easy episode, but it is an appreciable one. Viewers have to stay on the alert throughout, yet the work is rewarding. Never settling for superficial scares and facile reactions, Castle Rock makes it audience think hard and feel deeply, and this might make the show the most sophisticated genre series currently streaming.