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Castle Rock showrunner Sam Shaw explains the series’ best episode yet

“The Queen” is a showcase for Sissy Spacek, and a profoundly affecting hour of TV.

Sissy Spacek in Castle Rock.
Seacia Pavao/Hulu

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 19 through 25 is “The Queen,” the seventh episode of Hulu’s Castle Rock.

“It could have been just a spectacular fucking disaster,” says Sam Shaw, as we discuss the seventh episode of Castle Rock. “It wouldn’t have just been a ‘gentleman’s B.’ This could have been a catastrophe.”

Even the most cursory look at the episode makes it clear what Shaw, who co-created the series with Dustin Thomason, is talking about. “The Queen,” which Shaw also wrote, is the keystone of the entire season: It provides further context for what’s happened in the six episodes preceding it, as well as laying out a groundwork for what’s to come. And, in what seems like the ultimate gamble, it’s presented through the eyes of Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek), whose struggle with dementia sends the story flitting between the past and the present.

But the operative phrase here is “could have been.” In the days since the episode’s airing, it’s been hailed as the series’ best episode, as well as one of the best hours of television this year, with Spacek’s performance drawing praise as a “tour de force.”

And rightly so. “The Queen,” beautifully directed by Greg Yaitanes, is a wonderful, devastating hour of TV, and impressive on every level. That it holds a certain personal significance for Shaw only adds to the weight that it carries.

Building “The Queen” meant finding a balance between exploring the Deaver family’s past and fulfilling narrative function

Ruth with her grandson, Wendell (Chosen Jacobs).
Maura Connolly Longueil/Hulu

Thus far, we’ve been witnesses to the effects of Ruth’s dementia; “The Queen” makes us active participants. The moments earlier in the season in which she’d lost focus become moments of clarity as they’re revisited through memories, with Ruth’s perspective on scenes that we’ve already seen pulling back the curtain on the Deaver family past.

It’s a feat of what Shaw calls “advance planning and strategy, and then serendipity, instinct, and luck.” A Deaver-centric episode was always in the cards, given the way Henry (Andre Holland), Ruth’s son, is positioned as the show’s point of entry into the world of Stephen King, but the exact nature of it developed as the family was fleshed out.

“This is a story about a protagonist who is missing time from his childhood, whose own memories are somewhat problematic, who’s kind of estranged from his own story, and has had a story imposed on him by this town,” Shaw explains. “To put a character who is losing her bearings and losing her memory at the center of that story in the form of Ruth, and tell a story about a character who actually, ironically, becomes the important custodian of a whole lot of backstory and a whole lot of the dramatic information that pushes the story forward — to have that person be someone who is losing her memories felt like an interesting irony to write about.”

To keep that in everyone’s heads, a notecard labeled “Ruth, dementia” kept moving about the writers’ room as the show took shape. In Shaw’s words, the writers set the table, making sure that the reckonings to be addressed in Ruth’s episode had all been set up before diving in.

“At a really practical level, there were some things that the episode just had to accomplish,” Shaw says. “There were two stories it had to tell.”

The first was filling in the blanks regarding Matthew Deaver (Adam Rothenberg), Ruth’s late husband, revealing the darker, abusive side of the preacher as well as establishing that Ruth had once had the option of taking Henry and running away with the lovelorn Alan Pangborn (played as a young man by Jeffrey Pierce, and by Scott Glenn in the present day). The second was the back-and-forth between Ruth and the Kid (Bill Skarsgård) — for which Shaw cites the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark as inspiration — culminating in Pangborn’s accidental death by Ruth’s hand.

Though those aspects of the story were worked out in the writers’ room, the task of actually committing the episode to writing fell to Shaw.

“I think we were in the writers’ room one day and [writer] Tom Spezialy just casually said, ‘Let’s just skip to the next one,’ because I had sort of decided that I would write this episode, and Tom just had this instinct that, given the nature of the episode, and given the year I’d had and some personal stuff that had gone on for me, and my own interest in the subject matter of the episode, I think he felt like it lent itself better to a kind of solo mission.”

The episode’s portrayal of dementia is unlike anything else — and key to why “The Queen” is so affecting

“The Queen” sees Ruth square off against the Kid (Bill Skarsgård).
Dana Starbard/Hulu

Though loss and heartbreak figure prominently in “The Queen,” the episode ends on a note of tenderness. Battling through memories of Matthew as the Kid stalks her through her own house, Ruth finally finds the bullets for her late husband’s gun. When a figure appears in the doorway, she shoots, not realizing that it’s Alan until it’s too late. In the morning, after she’s washed off all the blood, there’s a knock on the door. Standing on the other side is Alan, in a memory that we’ve only heard Alan relate.

Old and exhausted, he begins to make excuses for what’s brought him back to town after all these years before finally confessing that he’s returned because he loves her. The episode ends as they hold each other on the porch, as Ruth tells him, “Don’t leave.” Behind them are the chess pieces that indicate it is indeed just a memory and that Alan is truly dead, but it doesn’t diminish the moment. If anything, it’s what makes the episode so wrenching, capturing both heartbreak and joy in a single moment in a way that feels distinctly true to life.

The desire to frame Ruth’s journey with some measure of truth — and kindness, in conjunction — stemmed from the episode’s extenuating circumstances. The day before “The Queen” aired, Shaw tweeted out a short thread, calling the episode likely the most personal thing he’d ever worked on, and dedicating it to his mother, who passed away shortly before the writing on Castle Rock began.

As such, it became all the more important to figure out just how to address and portray Ruth’s dementia. It became a collaborative effort between Shaw and Spacek, as they talked through personal experiences with people with dementia, as well as reading the same books and watching the same documentaries on the subject.

“There’s this documentary that Sissy loves that I’d never seen called Confessions of a Dutiful Daughter,” Shaw recalls. “It’s this really poignant, kind of miraculous picture of a relationship between a mother who has dementia and her daughter, and part of what’s incredible is that there’s lightness, and there’s spontaneity, and there’s laughter. It is a much more specific picture of what dementia looks like than the picture that we usually see represented on-screen.”

Bringing all of that to life visually also sprang from that desire to portray dementia in a more considered way, as the idea of making the Deaver house into a literal memory palace — in the episode, Ruth leaves one room in 2018 and enters another in 1991 — appealed to Shaw, not least because it struck him as atypical.

“We think about dementia as this process of subtraction. Memories are taken away, and as the memories go, so do parts of the identity of the person who suffers from dementia,” he explains. “But there was something that was really interesting to me about the idea that, actually, the experience that Ruth is having over the course of this season might look a little different from the experience that you might imagine when you think about dementia and about Alzheimer’s, that the past might be very present to her.”

The emotional core of the episode, meanwhile, became clear in Spacek’s insistence that Ruth’s story not be presented in a strictly black and white matrix. According to Shaw, she didn’t want Ruth to be just a figure of tragedy, or somebody essentially haunting her own story — and Shaw didn’t want that, either.

It was this realization that helped ground the episode in the love story between Ruth and Alan, bringing warmth and light to a storyline that could easily have slipped into something less nuanced.

“In a way, the mission became telling a love story for Sissy and Scott,” Shaw says, adding that that approach also opened up the story to further explore the bond between Ruth and Henry, not just in terms of the mother-son dynamic, but in terms of Ruth’s old doubts and regrets.

That “The Queen” is so heartbreaking comes down to that focus on love; the Lewis chessmen that Ruth uses to remind herself that she’s in the present, while also a narrative solution to keep viewers oriented, lend an extra dimension to the story as a gift from Alan. They serve as repositories for Ruth’s memories. In his explanation, Shaw cites a piece in the New Yorker on the cognitive scientist Andy Clark and the idea that the way that objects can hold memories helps to constitute a person’s identity.

“It dawned on me that it might be really interesting if there were some objects that have a kind of almost talisman-like or magical set of properties for her character,” Shaw adds. “Genre stories are most interesting when they live in a place of ambiguity. It can either be a story about dementia or about something like time travel — that really appealed to me.”

As such, the relatively commonplace use of chess as a means of trying to stave off the effects of dementia gave birth to the idea that these objects would become magical wards, keeping the “monster of dementia” at a distance.

Ruth’s chessmen were the revelation that unlocked “The Queen”

“You sort of have those little moments where you feel like the universe is telling you, ‘Keep writing,’” says Shaw.
Dana Starbard/Hulu

The amount of work that went into “The Queen” is obvious, but just as the episode mixes the realities of dementia with the undefinable feeling of love, the creation of the show similarly lends itself to a few supernatural touches.

“You get kind of superstitious at times, as a writer — or I do, at least — and there are little moments or breadcrumbs or discoveries that suggest, to me, that I’m writing in the right direction,” Shaw says, “and there were a lot of those kind of spooky moments for me in the course of making this episode.”

The biggest revelation was the Lewis chessmen. Though never explicitly stated in the show, Ruth was envisioned as having studied Icelandic literature, and the Lewis chessmen were what came up when Shaw went looking for Viking chess sets.

“There was this theory that they had been carved by this woman who was the wife of a priest, and of course Sissy’s character is the widow of the minister,” Shaw explains. What also struck him were the expressions on the queen’s faces — both looked stricken, with a hand held up as if in shock. It was supposed that they looked that way because, at that point, queens were considered the weakest character on the chess board, whereas now they’re the exact opposite.

That turn helped inform the way that the episode centered on Ruth, who, like the queen, had largely been relegated to the sidelines and dismissed up until this point in the season. To Shaw, it seemed like a sign, and one that’s only become more profound now that he’s on the other side of it.

“When I set out to write this episode, I think if you’d asked me [if it was a personal experience], I would have said that I was just writing an episode of TV,” he says. “But I also think, by the end of it, that I was really metabolizing something over the course of working on it and making the episode. It sounds a little crazy to say that you had this personal experience writing an episode of a JJ Abrams-Stephen King horror thriller, but in hindsight, I think it was. In the end, I think, whether the episode worked or didn’t work, it worked for me.”

Castle Rock is streaming on Hulu. New episodes are released every Wednesday.