Sissy Spacek has come unstuck in time.
The actor who once played Carrie, the Stephen King creation who could kill with a thought, is now Ruth Deaver — an Alzheimer’s patient hopelessly trapped inside the maze of her own mind. This week’s episode — “The Queen” — is a fascinating portrayal of a uniquely painful illness. It’s also a tense cat-and-mouse thriller in the vein of Wait Until Dark or Misery, and undoubtedly Castle Rock‘s most ambitious and emotional episode to date.
Let’s try to spell out the plot as straightforwardly as possible. Ruth has been holding the fractured timeline of her life together by leaving hand-carved chess pieces around her property; that’s how she knows she’s in the present rather than the past. Then, thanks in part to a video game that her grandson Wendell has been playing, she becomes convinced that if she can kill her “nemesis,” she can repair everything. That archenemy? The Kid, whose face is all over the television in connection with the arson happening at a local psychiatric facility. Our menacing mystery man had also begun play-acting as her late husband in order to mess with her.
The good reverend, we learn, suffered from a mental condition that caused him to see and hear things — including the “Voice of God.” Ruth tried to leave him for her current beau, Alan Pangborn, several times; she wound up not only seeing Molly Strand kill the man, but actually approving of it. Unfortunately, while she escapes the lethal attentions of her tormentor, the ex-sheriff is not so lucky: The episode ends with him dying at his beloved’s hand when she mistakes him for her stalker and empties a revolver into him.
But all of this is secondary to central conceit of “The Queen.” Scene to scene, room to room, moment to moment, Ruth leaps from one point of her life to another. Sometimes she’s a witness to her own past self; other times she relives events first-hand; still other times the present starts to warp her memories, or vice versa. Though we catch a couple of glimpses of her as a younger woman (played by Spacek’s real-life daughter Schulyer Fisk), she’s always shown at her current age no matter what’s happening — a passenger taking a wild ride through the highs and lows of her life. Disorienting repetition, out-of-sync sound and callbacks to previous plot points (dead dogs galore!) add to the sense of spiraling chaos.
The most striking thing about the performance is, well, that it isn’t that striking at all. Eschewing straight-up tear-down-the-sky “tour-de-force” emoting, the veteran actor keeps Ruth’s reactions well within the range of normal human experience. When she’s sad, she cries rather than wails. When she’s angry, she yells rather than screams. When she’s frightened, she’s furtive and trembling rather than panicked and flailing.
It’s a rewarding approach. By rooting her performance in recognizable everyday reactions and emotions, Spacek avoids playing Ruth’s dementia as a source of horror itself. What’s happening to her brain isn’t treated as somehow creepy or gross, the way mental illness often comes across in projects like these. She is still a “normal” person, just one who’s no longer in control of how her mind processes space and time. Sure, it’s a frightening condition to suffer from. But both series co-creator Sam Shaw’s writing and the acting emphasize that it’s mainly emotionally exhausting.
And in the episode’s most harrowing sequence, Ruth stabs her supernatural stalker and makes a break for it. Only her passage through the house to safety blocked by crowds of people — first from her husband’s funeral years ago, then from their wedding even farther back in the past. Her brain is quite literally turning her own memories against her.
So she winds up firing those bullets into Alan, who’s come to help her, and the Kid lives to skulk another day. But one final twist in her mental space-time continuum gives even this tragic ending a bit of bittersweet uplift. The morning after the shooting, she hears someone at the door. It’s Alan, but from a few years ago, when he first returned to town after leaving for greener pastures. Someone in the neighborhood reported gunshots (deja vu!). Then he admits that he only came back to town in hopes of finally being able to make a life together with her.
Gratefully, Ruth embraces him. “Please don’t leave,” she says, smiling and crying at once. We know from an earlier scene that this is, indeed, what she said to him in that moment when it first occurred. But now that we’re seeing it from her perspective after she killed him, it takes on new meaning. She’s wishing for the impossible, and perhaps surrendering to her dementia completely in order to make that wish come true.
It’s a beautiful, and beautifully sad, moment. So are many other points in this episode. But are any of them particularly scary? No, not really — which is a problem if you’re seven episodes deep into your 10-episode Stephen King riff. Castle Rock has yet to produce any of the genuine scares that recent horror-centric series from Twin Peaks to The Terror; even The Assassination of Gianni Versace had doled out in huge chunks at this stage of their respective runs. Still, for an hour, we get to watch Spacek give a genuine lion-in-winter turn as a woman locked in a losing battle with her own brain. It’s an hour to remember.
Previously: Signal to Noise