Castle Rock: ‘Castle Rock’ Season 1, Episode 7: Checkmate

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Season 1, Episode 7: ‘The Queen’

One of Stephen King’s best-known 1970s short stories is “Sometimes They Come Back,” which spawned a 1991 TV movie and two straight-to-video sequels. The story’s title alone is so evocative, so creepy … so Stephen King. Much of what the author has written in the past 40-odd years could carry that same name. From “Pet Sematary” to “It” to “The Dark Half,” if there’s one idea King keeps returning to, it’s that nothing stays buried forever.

The outstanding seventh episode of this “Castle Rock” season offers a particularly jazzy variation on that theme. In “The Queen,” we see the world through the eyes of Ruth Deaver, who recently told her grandson Wendell that she no longer experiences time in a straight line, moving in one direction. Sometimes, for example, she wakes up to find her dead dog Puck in her bed, having just deposited a squirrel’s remains on her pillow. And sometimes she walks into her kitchen and sees her late husband Matthew … a man she never really wanted to talk to again. Because Ruth can’t distinguish between memory and reality any more, for her, the dead are no longer staying dead.

“The Queen” picks up roughly where last week’s episode left off: “The Kid” has just escaped a mental institution and returned to the Deaver homestead, where he’s vaguely threatening Ruth. The previous episode ended with Alan Pangborn walking into a house that had been completely trashed. This week fills in some of what happened in the interim, between the moment when the Kid found Ruth kneeling on the floor surrounded by spilled medication, and Alan’s arrival.

Trying to pin down exactly where in the timeline this episode begins and ends isn’t easy. “The Queen” is a thrilling experiment in nonlinear narrative, slipping as casually between the past and present as Ruth does. It’s designed to make the audience feel as mixed-up as she does — not about what’s happening, but when.

While the episode plays fast and loose with chronology, it’s not hard to follow the story. The bulk of the hour looks back at the last days of the Rev. Matthew Deaver, and explains how the pastor almost committed suicide when he began to suspect his wife’s affair with Sheriff Pangborn, but instead channeled his heartbreak into a tireless pursuit of “the voice of God.”

Sissy Spacek’s performance as Ruth keeps these fragmented moments within a sturdy frame. Ruth’s not just witnessing her own past, or passively reliving it. She’s actively engaged, questioning the choices she made in her marriage and the warning signs she missed about Matthew, and feeling frustrated that her mind keeps wandering just when she’s trying the hardest to stay focused.

The director Greg Yaitanes — working from a script credited to the “Castle Rock” co-creator Sam Shaw — helps bring a cinematic richness to the look of “The Queen.” There’s a luminous haze throughout the episode, both inside the Deaver house and in the woods. During one long sequence, flashing back to the day when Rev. Matthew took Ruth and Henry into the forest to explain his newly enhanced hearing, nearly every sun-dappled shot of Spacek makes it look like she’s surrounded by a heavenly aura.

Yaitanes also delivers important information through images alone. Ruth leaves carved chess-pieces in all the places she frequents, so that when she disappears into her own memories, she can find her way back to the present. If she spies a chess-piece lying around, she knows seeing the ghosts of yesterday, overlaid onto today. This is helpful for viewers too, because while some of these scenes are clearly from long ago (like anything involving Matthew or young Henry), others are more recent, including some that we’ve seen earlier this season.

I’ve written about how “Castle Rock” presents two interpretations for this town’s misery: one supernatural, and one more of a mundane, “Hey, that’s life.” Ruth’s flashbacks reflect that duality. When the Kid returns, she sees him as Matthew, and her fluctuation between her memories of her late husband and her anxious encounters with this mystery man could be read as paranormal, or just as a symptom of her deteriorating mental faculties.

Either way, the effect’s the same: Whether it’s Matthew or the Kid who’s lurking about, Ruth has someone in her home who makes her uncomfortable, and she’s trying to stay sharp enough to come up with a way to get rid of him. She recalls where Matthew stashed his gun. Can she search through her memories and come up with the location of his bullets?

“The Queen” has a devastating ending. The ghostly version of Matthew mocks Ruth by reminding her that she can’t change the past. “You can’t leave, because you didn’t,” he gloats, as she’s flashing back to the time 27 years ago when she’d packed her suitcase, planning to leave with Alan. Then she remembers the bullets were in that same suitcase, so she pulls them out and fires Matthew’s gun at what she assumes is the Kid — … but it’s actually Alan, coming upstairs to check on her. She shoots the man she loves, as the Kid undoubtedly intended her to do.

Can Alan come back, just like Matthew? Perhaps only in the mind of a woman who can literally see into the past. In the episode’s final scene, Ruth puts herself back into the day when Alan first returned to her life — brought to the house by reports of gunshots, ironically.

We see a chess-piece in the foreground, so we know that is a memory, not reality. But it may make no difference to Ruth. Every mistake she’s every made, and every happy moment, are all coexisting inside her house. She just needs to keep her wits about her, so she find her way to the right room, at the right time.

The Castle Rock Call

• It’s pretty strongly implied that Ruth’s shooting of Alan was in fact the source of the “gunshots” that were reported to him years earlier, thus setting their late-in-life romance in motion. But the time-bending nature of all that is hard to untangle, which is why I didn’t mention it above.

• Thomas Newman’s score is extra-lush in “The Queen,” especially during the montage of Ruth planting the chess pieces. It’s another way this episode feels like a movie.

• While Sissy Spacek deserves all the praise (and perhaps awards) that she’s going to get for this episode, I don’t want to undervalue how good Scott Glenn is. Alan Pangborn hasn’t really been that well-defined as a character, outside of his two enduring traits: He likes magic (just as Sheriff Pangborn does in Stephen King’s novels), and he loves Ruth. But boy does Glenn sell the latter. Even in a brief scene of Alan and Ruth in bed together, the genuine affection and playfulness between the two actors establishes the depth of that relationship in seconds — and sets up the tragedy to come.

• I’ve been impressed with how thought-through just about every aspect of this show seems to be. Last week when Wendell arrived in Castle Rock he was distracted by a smartphone game. This week we find out that his augmented reality app has eerie echoes of Grandma Ruth’s life, in that “it never ends” and “no one stays dead when you kill them.”

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