Castle Rock has thus far mostly followed the story of Henry Deaver, a man forced to confront a past he neither understands nor fully remembers when he returns to his Maine hometown. “The Queen,” the show’s most daring episode yet, shifts the show’s focus to another character: Henry’s mother, Ruth.
While Henry’s memory loss is tied to a specific and mysterious childhood trauma that ended up causing the death of his father, Ruth’s cloudy mind is instead due to what seems to be early-onset dementia. She has trouble with faces—when Henry shows up after a long period away, she doesn’t recognize him at first—but her main issue is confusion over time and sometimes space. As she explains to her grandson, Wendell, her life used to move in one direction, like it should, but somehow she’s strayed off the track. At the advice of her doctor, she devises a system of stashing chess pieces around the house. “These are my breadcrumbs,” she tells Wendell, using a fairy-tale analogy that’s an eerily perfect fit here. “If I find a chess piece in the icebox, I know it’s now, not then, and I can find my way out of the woods.”
The groundwork for “The Queen”—a stunning showcase for Stephen King’s original big-screen Carrie, Sissy Spacek—has been forming since Castle Rock’s first week, both in terms of plot foreshadowing and quite literally, since the episode replays certain scenes from previous episodes. Cleverly, it tilts those scenes so that they’re now from Ruth’s particular perspective, adding bits of dialogue and context that we didn’t get the first time around. We also get flashbacks to earlier moments in Ruth’s life—they burst forth like spontaneous, uncontrollable blips in her mind—in which she spies on herself in both younger and contemporary versions. Occasionally, Past Ruth will make eye contact with Present Ruth, breaking the wall and letting us know these are no ordinary jaunts down memory lane.
After last week’s “Filter,” which was full of alarm bells and ended on a spooky cliffhanger, we’re primed for something awful to happen. The opening scene, which shows us a frantic Ruth scrambling around the Deaver family storage shed with a gun clutched in her hand, gives us a very clear idea of where we’re headed. Getting there, though, is like watching a puzzle slowly come together...and then not quite understanding the image even when it’s completed. (There are still three episodes of Castle Rock left after “The Queen,” so that’s to be expected.)
Some of the pieces of Ruth’s puzzle, aside from those carved chess pieces, are that gun and its elusive bullets, which are hidden somewhere in the house; Henry’s dog, Puck, and the lookalike German Shepherd that Ruth takes care of years after Puck’s sudden disappearance; and Ruth’s suitcase, used as a coffin for the second dog after it’s hit by a car—but also a key symbol of her unfulfilled desire to pack up and leave her husband, Matthew. And truthfully, objects aside, it’s people who are the most complicated and loaded parts of Ruth’s constant struggle to get “out of the woods:” Henry, especially Henry as a child, and his present-day stand-in, Wendell; Alan Pangborn, in both his younger and older incarnations; and Matthew, who appears in her memories but also seems to be back on Earth in the form of the Kid, who wears his clothing, adopts his mannerisms, and knows things about Ruth that only her late husband would know.
There are two texts referenced in “The Queen” that offer insight into its elliptical narrative, as well as Castle Rock’s larger themes. First, there’s the Bible verses used in Matthew’s funeral program—technically, his third burial, after Henry insists his father (who’s already been dug up and moved once before) should have a grave close to his former church in Castle Rock. Wendell reads them aloud and the recitation bleeds into a memory of Matthew, in full Reverend Deaver mode, using it as part of a sermon. The verses in question are from Corinthians, a chapter that reflects on Christ’s resurrection, and they specifically discuss raising the dead and the possibility of immortality, ending with the phrase “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Matthew’s dead, but events in “The Queen” suggest that the Kid is either possessed by him or has somehow resurrected his consciousness.
The other text, or “text,” is Wendell’s AR video game, whose fantasy/horror premise dovetails awfully neatly with Ruth’s dilemma—something her grandson picks up on when she explains how she’s using chess pieces to stay tethered to the present. Most teens wouldn’t know what to make of that reveal, but not Wendell. “You’re a Timewalker,” he exclaims, and goes on the explain the game like any kid excited to indoctrinate Grandma into what’s cool: “Timewalkers are the most powerful. They can actually kill the dead...but you gotta stay sharp because they can change their skin and sometimes look like your allies. What makes it so hard is that no one stays dead when you kill them, unless you’re a Timewalker. Theoretically, you could just kill your nemesis and fix the whole timeline.”
The mention of timelines calls back, of course, to the deaf man in “Filter,” who shares Matthew’s theory of the “schisma” with an incredulous Henry: “All possible pasts, all possible presents. Schisma is the sound of the universe trying to reconcile them.” In “The Queen,” we witness the first time Matthew—who, news flash, once had a brain tumor that made him see and hear strange things; it was removed soon before he and Ruth adopted Henry—tells his family about hearing the voice of God. At that point, it seems he didn’t have his schisma idea worked out yet; he literally believed God was telling him not to take his own life, even as he held a gun to his ear specially purchased (at Wal-Mart) for that purpose. This is, presumably, where his obsession with “hearing it,” and encouraging Henry to hear it, begins, along with the dreaded father-son hikes that would eventually lead to Matthew being horribly injured and Henry’s disappearance. (We still don’t know exactly what transpired that fateful night, of course. Three episodes to go, right?)
The most bedeviling part of “The Queen” is also its most tragic. In an earlier episode, Alan tells Henry he knocked on Ruth’s door after years of not seeing her—even though he was pining away for her—because a neighbor reported hearing gunshots coming from her property. When Alan arrived, he recalls, Ruth opened the door, hugged him, and begged him never to leave. Obviously, those shots came from Matthew’s gun. But Matthew would have been long dead by that point. Plus, the gun has apparently been stored unloaded since that fateful day God first spoke to him. The bullets, which Ruth spends an agonizing amount of “The Queen” trying to find so she can take down the Kid (who she believes is Matthew back from the dead), finally appear at the end of the episode. They’re buried in the suitcase with the dead dog, right where she packed them decades before when trying to get up the courage to leave her husband. As the circle of time winds in its own peculiar direction, Ruth loads the gun, hides in the shed, and shoots...Alan, when he comes to check on her after finding the Kid sitting on her front steps and chaos inside her house. Are those the gunshots her neighbor heard, and if so, how?
More importantly, does Alan die? We don’t really know, because after she realizes what she’s done, Ruth gets up, goes into the house, and very calmly gets herself together (as Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” aka “that song from Arrival”—a very peculiar stylistic choice considering the whole non-linear time thing—plays on the soundtrack). Suddenly there’s a knock on the door, and it’s Alan, saying he stopped by because someone reported gunshots coming from her property; as we expect, given his earlier conversation with Henry, she hugs him and asks him to never leave. But as the camera pulls back, we see two chess pieces in the foreground. Chess pieces that, it’s worth noting, are from a set that Alan himself gifts to Ruth after he’s been back in her life for a while. Are we just seeing another of Ruth’s memories play out, with the chess pieces waiting to yank her back into the terrible, terrible present?
- Some of Ruth’s “memories” aren’t really memories—they’re completely imagined. Castle Rock makes this very clear when she’s talking to Matthew in what appears to be a flashback, until he reminds her that she can’t leave him because she didn’t leave him back then. He also calls her out for being “a woman arguing with her dead husband” and says the reason he can’t tell her where the bullets are is “I’m not me, I’m you—and you can’t remember.”
- “The Queen” happens concurrently with Henry’s journey into the woods in “Filter,” which ends with him being locked in the deaf man’s soundproof chamber. Molly stops by the Deaver house looking for him, sensing (in her very tuned-in way) that he’s in danger, but Ruth has her own, more pressing concerns to deal with. We learn here that Ruth knows that Molly disconnected Matthew’s breathing tube all those years ago, and also that Ruth was glad she did it: “You did right, but it didn’t take. He’s back, in the present, not the past, but I’m gonna fix it.”
- How much of “The Queen” can be chalked up to Ruth’s illness playing with her mind—and how much is due to the Kid’s sinister powers? We see Ruth slipping through time before the Kid shows up at her house, so he doesn’t necessarily spark that. But her fugues take on a more threatening vibe once he’s around—and the Kid’s weird, Matthew-echoing actions are definitely real. Wendell sees him dancing with Ruth to “Blue Moon,” a song that the Kid points out was played at Ruth and Matthew’s wedding.
- What does the Kid ultimately want? Is he specifically tied to Matthew Deaver, or is he part of the “schisma” and there just to spread chaos and tragedy?
- Sissy Spacek rules. That is all.
There are just three more episodes to bust open this Mystery Box, folks. Castle Rock streams every Wednesday on Hulu.