When we last saw Ruth (Sissy Spacek) she was looking up in fear at the Kid (Bill Skarsgård) as he enters her house while she’s alone. My concerns from last week that she was on the way out just as she started getting some meatier scenes gets a fantastic and heartbreaking respite here as we’re treated to a series of flashbacks and/or false memories seen through her fracturing mind. She runs from the Kid, arms herself with a gun, and we’re off to the races. So for now at least, as unfortunate as the circumstances may be, there’s a lot more Spacek.
The memories lean heavily towards the present, but they run through the years as she moves through her house. Her plan of leaving breadcrumbs — in the form of chess pieces in each room — that she mentioned last week to young Wendell (Chosen Jacobs) is brought to life here. She sees memories, and they sometimes see her, and she jumps as one triggers the next and the next after that. It’s heart-wrenching to watch due less to the events unfolding onscreen and more to Spacek’s deeply felt performance as a woman with dementia.
The moments are sweet, pleasant, and related to her interactions with Henry (André Holland) and Alan (Scott Glenn), but they eventually start to shift as she recalls her first sighting of the Kid. A church vision sees her husband (Adam Rothenberg) growing suspicious of her and Alan, a memory of a walk in the woods turns dark as her husband pulls a gun and starts talking about suicide and the voice of God, and a game with young Henry is interrupted by the pastor’s arrival. Per her plan, she “awakes” from the memories after seeing one of her chess pieces. They represent the present, and they bring her back from the past, but it’s her future she’s struggling to fight for now.
The Kid’s arrival is seen through her eyes as the return of her dead husband, and while it’s creepy on its face it’s made more so when Molly (Melanie Lynskey) arrives looking for Henry and instead finds a temporarily lucid Ruth recognizing her as the girl who unplugged and killed the reverend so many years prior. “You did right,” she tells Molly, “but it didn’t take.” She’s trying to outsmart the Kid — who she thinks is her husband returned — and the scenes terrify from increasing tension and suspense as well as the depressing reality that her grip on reality is so damn tenuous.
The beauty of the episode is that it wholly belongs to Ruth and Spacek. The show’s story line barely moves beyond the ending of last week’s episode, and instead it’s those final minutes that are spread out through her memories. She’s edited smoothly in and out of scenes from the season alongside new sequences — she plays herself as is in the memories regardless of the time frame — and she’s revealed to be a woman who long struggled with her husband’s deteriorating state and the trauma it brought. It’s clear she was aware of something amiss between the reverend and Henry, and she even went so far as to talk to the sheriff about leaving him. We see that, and we understand how difficult the situation is, but Ruth’s guilt over not doing enough weighs heavily. It adds to her harried and frenzied rush to kill the intruder to protect her family, and that in turn leads to tragedy.
One of my least favorite genre conventions is the accidental killing of a protagonist in an attempt to kill the antagonist, but this is the first instance of it being truly affecting instead of horribly frustrating. Rather than feel cheap and in the service of mere shock, it’s a moment that ‘s built to beautifully and painfully, moment by moment, as the tension ratchets ever higher. Ending the episode with the oft-quoted memory between Ruth and Alan is a cruel touch as it gives one last twist to the knife in our own hearts while reminding us of the sweetest moment between them. “Don’t leave,” she tells him — she told him — and he didn’t for a long, long time.
This is an undeniably powerful and haunting episode of television, both for the year and the medium in general, but where does it leave the show? As mentioned above, it only adds an additional minute or so to last week’s episode meaning everyone but Ruth and Alan are basically in the same place we left them. It adds immense depth to the character of Ruth, but does any of it inform the rest? We learn very little about Henry aside from he feared his father, but we have found more to wonder about the Kid. We know he’s not shy about leaving a trail of carnage in his wake, but he spends a lot of time focused on Ruth here. He even knows information that he really shouldn’t regarding safe combinations, her after dinner routines, and more. Or does he? Those beats could easily be a part of her delusions, but fittingly for the theme of dementia we don’t really know.
References! Quotes! Questions!
- Seriously. The animal deaths are out of control on this show.
- “They’re pissed off because we’re alive and they’re not.”
- Sissy Spacek is the Queen.