The Derivative Begs to Be Taken Seriously

Castle Rock’s “The Queen”

Sissy Spacek in 'Castle Rock'Hulu’s Castle Rock was inspired by the works of Stephen King, and the show takes pleasure in giving the author’s fans as many references as possible. Here’s Alan Pangborn. Here’s Alan Pangborn digging up a dead dog to make sure it’s still dead. Here’s a Torrance — Jackie Torrance, no less. Here’s Shawshank. Yes, they’re talking about Cujo. Yes, that’s same guy who played Pennywise in last year’s It, and of course that’s Carrie White, and she looks quite a bit like she did forty-odd years ago. Etc.

But the series has also been adamant about forging its own identity. Rather than stitching together existing narratives, its starting point is the idea that King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, has seen so much horror that there must be something seriously amiss. What other terrible things could happen there? So the show’s inaugural season has primarily concerned itself with the nature of The Kid — an ageless blank slate who was kept in a cage for decades in the bowels of Shawshank — and thrown a couple other paranormal curiosities in orbit around it. (The tone is one of dark mystery, but it’s barely creepy and absolutely not scary — none of which is a complaint.)

So when seventh episode “The Queen” immediately felt very familiar, I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised that it drew not from King but from a famously excellent episode of another TV show whose DNA had been plainly evident in this one. And then from a great movie.

The premise of “The Queen” was set up in the previous episode (“Filter”), and that’s reinforced by this episode’s “previously on” montage. So it takes barely any time at all for the first reference point to come to mind. The second comes courtesy of a climactic musical cue: composer Max Richter’s chamber piece “On the Nature of Daylight.”

For good measure, one sequence in the episode also brings to mind at least two other mind-bending movies. And yet another inverts one of cinema’s most-famous scenes. (Here ends my spoiler sensitivity. You’ve been warned.)

I don’t want to praise “The Queen” too much. Castle Rock has to this point been compellingly derivative, and its latest episode was its most compelling ... as well as its most derivative. But this Sissy Spacek showcase is derivative in the best way possible, and it hints that the show doesn’t live in a Stephen King echo chamber.

We’ll see whether Castle Rock builds on the achievement of this hour in the season’s final three episodes, and whether it can stick the landing. But if “The Queen” is the best it has to offer, I’ll be satisfied.

That’s because “derivative” is accurate yet not really fair. It would be one thing if “The Queen” merely mimicked the form, theme, and narrative function of Desmond Hume’s travels through time and space in Lost. But its use of “On the Nature of Daylight” so nakedly recalls Arrival that we cannot escape the purpose: Writer and show co-creator Sam Shaw and director Greg Yaitanes are basically begging you to compare this episode to its time-hopping kin.

Richter’s piece has been used in other movies, but it’s inseparable from Arrival to the extent that you might find yourself sniffling in Castle Rock just because something inside you connects the music to memories of Amy Adams’ character and her daughter.

To be honest, it should play like a cheap shot. “On the Nature of Daylight” brings tremendous baggage, and it serves the same emotional role here that it did in the thematically similar Arrival. The music could easily be seen as shorthand to extract an unearned response.

But that’s why I love the choice. In being so bald, Castle Rock is asking viewers to take it more seriously, to consider it not as Stephen King fan service but in the same league as Arrival and Lost’s best single episode. That strategy is ballsy and could have easily backfired, but “The Queen” is strong and rich.

In large part, the episode is designed as a contrast to predecessors showing people who don’t experience time linearly. “The Constant” is basically Desmond’s quest to make contact with Penny, which returns his consciousness fully to the present. In Arrival, the mind of Adams’ Louise ceases to distinguish between past, present, and future, a change with global and personal consequences: She’s able to defuse an international crisis, and she chooses to have a child that she knows will die far too young. To put it coarsely, both Desmond and Louise win.

Although the ultimate tone of “The Queen” apes the closing of Arrival in favoring the happy in the face of the undeniably sad, the episode is a different animal. Spacek’s Ruth Deaver can do no better than use chess pieces to orient herself; she’s fighting a losing battle.

Maybe this is what Ruth’s Alzheimer’s feels like — re-living memories and regrets. Maybe her malady merely looks like Alzheimer’s, when in reality she’s flitting uncontrollably from time to time and place to place. (The show has to this point toyed with the idea that most of its seemingly unnatural elements can be interpreted rationally, so the openness here is of-a-piece.)

The episode draws its power from the use of time travel as a metaphor for dementia. While Lost and Arrival used the sci-fi motif for emotional journeys, Castle Rock integrates the conceit into the character. It’s not asking for a suspension of disbelief that this sort of thing is possible; it’s asking you to use a familiar trope as a lens to see what it might be like to lose your bearings in the world. There’s a genuine empathy here, as we re-see previously shown incidents in the context of her fragmented experience of them. And we’re never allowed to settle into a comfortable rhythm because the presentation varies — Ruth as participant, Ruth as observer.

At first, “The Queen” seems to be marginally hopeful. Various versions of Ruth seem pleased that she’s cleverly coping with her condition, but eventually the nightmare reveals itself: She’s living important bits of her past in an endless loop, and, as much as she wants to change them, she never does. Desmond and Louise navigated their realities in ultimately positive ways; Ruth, it seems, is merely trapped.

Within that constraining framework, Castle Rock manages to move its story forward just enough. We get a better sense of Ruth’s dead husband, and of the troubled Deaver marriage. We see the tentative early bond between Ruth and Alan. And most importantly, I suspect, we get clarity that all the talk in “Filter” about multiple realities will play a major role the remainder of the season. Ruth’s condition, the fact that The Kid doesn’t age, and that Schisma blather appear to be facets of a larger phenomenon warping the nature of time.

Still, this episode basically paused the story and stands alone, which bears discussing. “The Constant” was one of 14 episodes in its season, which itself was one-sixth of the whole story. Arrival is entirely the arc of Louise’s consciousness. But Castle Rock is planned as an anthology series, with each season its own discrete narrative; to spend 10 percent of a new show’s first story on this particular digression was pretty damned risky.

All those elements — along with deft direction and editing, and Spacek’s thoughtful, unerring performance — combine to make “The Queen” the undeniable highlight of Castle Rock to this point, even if you figure out the episode’s ending before it happens. (I was a few seconds ahead of the reveal, which I suspect is what the makers aimed for.) And this installment suggests that the show might be working on a higher plane than I’d given it credit for.

But, as with “The Constant” and Arrival, none of the abundant strengths would matter nearly as much if they didn’t work toward a payoff. So, finally, there’s the bittersweet closing sequence of “The Queen,” accompanied by “On the Nature of Daylight,” with a subtle-but-clear-enough suggestion: Ruth and Alan had more than a decade together only because she killed him.

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