'Castle Rock' Creator Goes Inside the Hulu Anthology's Game-Changing Twist

Sam Shaw tells THR about how the tragic events of 'The Queen' set the stage for the final arc of the season: "This is the point where we throw a bunch of gasoline on the fire."
Patrick Harbron/Hulu

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode seven of Hulu's Castle Rock, "The Queen."]

The king is dead; long live "The Queen." Seven episodes into the Hulu horror anthology, Castle Rock has officially claimed the life of an iconic Stephen King character, killed at the hands of a different icon from King lore: Alan Pangborn, played by Scott Glenn, is gone, accidentally shot to death by his lover, Ruth Deaver, played by Carrie star Sissy Spacek.

The tragic death comes at the climax of "The Queen," easily the most character-focused episode of the drama to date, even if it's the most narratively confounding. The hourlong installment follows Ruth, whose struggle with dementia takes her down an ever-expanding rabbit hole of memories upon memories. The viewer is invited to experience the sensation of memory the same way in which Ruth sees her life, with present moments bleeding seamlessly into long-ago recollections and back again. Through Ruth's eyes, the audience comes to realize the extent of her late husband Matthew's cruelty, and the depth of her love both for her son Henry (Andre Holland) and her veritable soulmate Alan (Glenn), the local law enforcement officer who has been at the heart of numerous Stephen King stories over the years: "The Dark Half" and "Needful Things," to name two. 

As Ruth trips through her memories, she simultaneously reckons with "The Kid," the haunting figure played by Bill Skarsgard, the erstwhile Pennywise the Clown. Ruth's fear of the apparently ageless entity leads her to the toolshed outside her house, where she holes herself up with gun in hand, ready to kill the Kid. Instead, when the doors fling open, it's Alan who winds up on the receiving end of her attack. The retired sheriff passes away soundlessly in the arms of his lover and killer, a tragic end to the best-known King character currently featured on Castle Rock.

Sam Shaw, who co-created and showruns Castle Rock alongside Dustin Thomason, wrote "The Queen," shouldering the responsibility of sending Alan Pangborn off into the great unknown. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Shaw discussed what it was like to kill off such a beloved figure in the King catalogue, the episode's intricate narrative structure, and what to expect now that the season has moved into the endgame.

How was it decided to kill off Alan Pangborn, especially in this manner?

We didn't take it lightly. What is it to put a period at the end of the story of this iconic character who readers love? It was very difficult. In a way, the aspect of the story that felt most right to us was that Alan Pangborn is such a gunslinger within the world of the Stephen King library. He's such a knight or a hero that I think we never would have had the temerity to kill him off at the hands of a villain or a monster in the course of this story. 

I'll leave it to the audience to come to their own conclusions about how they want to read this story and whether ["The Queen"] is a story about supernatural intervention, whether it's a story about a woman who is a time traveler in some kind of uncanny way, whether it's a story about a couple that are in a state of denial and they don't want to reckon with Ruth's dementia, that sort of go against medical advice. In the beginning of the episode, a doctor tells Ruth that it's time to look into other living arrangements, but Ruth and Alan decide to go make a go of it on their own — and by the end of this episode, in which she kind of goes down a rabbit hole of anxiety, he's dead. So, maybe it's a story about a very real-world horror, which is Alzheimer's. 

However you read it or interpret it, it felt to us like the ending that honored the legacy of this character is the one that involves love, a different kind of love story between these two characters than what you usually get to see on TV. We cared enormously about these two and about their relationship. 

What went into crafting Alan's final moments?

It was really interesting to see Sissy and Scott engage with the story and bring their own really strong points of view to it. Scott Glenn, for example, felt really, really strongly that there shouldn't be any audible or visible indications of pain and suffering in those final moments. And not just because he didn't want to traumatize an audience. It's not even that he wanted to see a kind of moment of connection and a moment of beauty. He felt so profoundly that to the extent that Alan is in pain, he would hide that pain from Ruth in his final moments — that his last gift to her is to die peacefully. It was such a beautiful choice, and I think it's a testament to the spirit that Scott and Sissy brought to this love story that they played throughout the season. In a way, it felt like the ultimate and perfect culmination of the story we've been building.

What conversations did you have with Stephen King about killing off Alan?

It was really important to us to reach out and be sure that he was comfortable with the choice that we were making, and I'm gratified to say that we were really happy that he sanctioned the choice. We understand this is a character who means a lot to Steve. It means a lot to his readers. He's a character that we care about very deeply. We were nervous to put the request in.

Is Alan's story finished? After all, Warden Lacy (Terry O'Quinn) dies in the first episode, but we have seen him again via flashback. Will the story of Alan Pangborn continue even past his death?

I've learned to never say never in the world of Stephen King and the world of this show. But this really is the conclusion to the story we've been telling about these two, that much I can say.

Looking beyond Alan's death and generally at the story structure of "The Queen," how was this episode conceived? Early on, did you know that you would reach a moment in the season that would serve as a Sissy Spacek showcase?

We did, pretty early. One thing that we spent a lot of time talking about in the early going was how important point of view was going to be to this show, and one thing that I think the best Stephen King adaptations have in common is that the uncanny or the supernatural is usually filtered through the point of view and the subjectivity of a character you care about. One thing that distinguishes Stephen King from some other horror writers or genre writers is that as thrilling as the rollercoaster ride that his books offer their readers can be, he's not interested in the machinations of plot for their own sake. They're sort of psychological books that he writes, and they're character-driven. So we knew from a really early point that it was going to be important to ground the audience's experience of the uncanny and the disturbing and the strange and the serendipitous through the eyes of our characters. Then when you cast somebody like Sissy Spacek, you know that you have a duty to give her something really exciting to play. At a really early point in the season, we knew that we wanted to devote at least one hour to Sissy's character, to Ruth, and to tell a story from Ruth's point of view. 

It felt really daunting but also really exciting to us to think about what it would be to tell a horror story about dementia and about the sense of dislocation that her character might bring to this whole other wild set of events that are unfolding over the course of the season. We talked a lot about [the Christopher Nolan film] Memento for what it is to construct a thriller that is about amnesia. That was sort of our analogue, was that this was going to be a horror story about dementia. There was a card up on our board in the writers room really, really early that said, "Ruth's dementia." For a long time, it was like this kind of hectoring eye looking down at us from our bulletin board, and then eventually we arrived at this point in the season and it was time to figure out what that meant, practically. 

As the writer of the episode, the person responsible for telling this complicated story with an acting force as powerful as Sissy Spacek behind it, did you look at that card with a mixture of excitement and dread?

For sure. (Laughs.) Particularly because the making of this episode was a little different from writing most of the episodes, in terms of the TV I've been involved with. Usually you get this murderer's row of really great minds into a room, and there's a sort of Darwinian process where you work together and the best idea wins and you hope that it's sort of collaborative. It's like when you're at a blackjack table in Vegas, and the house busts. There's a sort of a collective feeling of exuberance, because you've beaten the story. You've broken it. This one was different because for a variety of reasons. We didn't break it in the sort of traditional way. We knew some things about the story. We knew that Alan Pangborn was going to die at the end of the episode, and that he was going to die at Ruth's hands. We knew that it was going to be an episode that filled in some really important blanks in terms of the backstory of the Deaver family. It's the episode that puts Henry's father, Matthew Deaver, onstage for the first time. In a way, there's been sort of a Matthew Deaver-shaped hole in Henry's memory and in the story for these first five hours, and this is the episode that's going to put him on stage. That was really daunting, too. Then we also knew that it was going to have to have its own front story, a very small but taut cat-and-mouse story — a sort of two-hander story — a story with two players: Sissy's character and Bill Skarsgard's character. We talked about Wait Until Dark and other kind of cat-and-mouse stories. 

But that's sort of all we knew when I went off to write it. I think it was Tom Spezialy, who is a consulting producer on the show and an old friend who worked on Manhattan with me, who at some point said, "Just take this one and figure it out by yourself." So we kind of didn't break [the episode] together [as a writers room]. I was excited to go off into a cave and figure the episode out. Then I wound up alone staring at my computer, realizing that it was a completely terrifying leap; there was a huge amount just in terms of how the story would be constructed, how we moved through time. Part of the idea of the episode from the beginning was that it would throw its audience into the deep end and replicate for the viewer some of the experiences of dislocation and disorientation that Sissy's character brings to her own experience. That was a governing idea, that at times the episode might be confusing by design or disturbing because our sense of time and place is unsettled in a way that usually we really scrupulously try to avoid when constructing an hour of TV. We knew all of that, but figuring out exactly how to puzzle it together was a whole other challenge.  

In that respect, much as chess pieces serve as anchors for Ruth in terms of sorting out her time and place, Sissy Spacek serves as the viewer's anchor through the hour. Even though we are jumping around throughout her life, with different actors playing younger versions of the same character, it's always Sissy playing Ruth. Did you feel it was important for such a narratively complex episode to have one thing to ground the viewer — and that one thing was going to be Sissy Spacek?

Absolutely. There's two pieces to that. One of them is, when you have an actor as extraordinary as Sissy, you want her in every frame of the story, you know what I mean? We wanted to give Sissy the opportunity to play herself at all these different stages of her life, which sort of raised some interesting storytelling and aesthetic questions. Oddly, I think the kind of great touchstone and proving ground that says that you can construct a story in this way is Quantum Leap, where Scott Bakula is always Scott Bakula. There's a sort of sense that there will be something really interesting about putting Sissy into all of these scenes and all these different chapters of her own life, and actually something kind of profound and poignant about it too. 

The idea is here's this woman who is involved in her own invisible battle throughout the season, which is this battle and struggle with dementia. It's sort of happening at the margins of our story. In fact, we may sort of discount her point of view as a character because she seems a little bit [disconnected from reality]. Part of a kernel of an idea was, what if her experience is not an experience of diminution? It's not that her world is thinner, it's that she's crowded out by memories. That the past is sort of alive for her in a really immediate and visceral way, which is different from the way that memories are alive for the rest of the characters in our story. We wanted to imagine what would it be for her to be walking through this literal memory palace where she can stand with Andre Holland's Henry in one room in the present and walk into the next room and encounter him as a little boy. What might that look like? 

The idea of giving that opportunity to Sissy and putting Sissy in all those scenes felt really, really exciting. It felt like it said something kind of poignant about the experience of her character. In the end, we decided to embrace it. I suppose you could have put Sissy in all those scenes and used VFX de-aging or makeup or hair to kind of change her look. But we really decided to tell a story in which the special effect would be Sissy and her extraordinary ability to be present in a character's life and scenes and to show us colors of this character that we haven't seen before over the course of the season. The truth is, the secret of this episode, as enormously complex as it is on paper, if you board it and look at the transitions from 1991 to 2018 back to 2014, it's dizzying and enormously complicated. The crucial thing was that it's all anchored by something that is really in its way deceptively simple, which is just this incredible emotional through-line of Sissy and Sissy's performance. There's no way that this episode would have ever worked if Sissy hadn't been the actor playing it.

Another force of nature behind this episode: [director] Greg Yaitanes. You probably know Greg's stuff, either his Emmy-winning work on House, or Banshee or Quarry or Manhunt. I was a big fan before I got to know him, and the collaboration on this episode was a real high point of the season and beyond for me. Greg and Sissy were extraordinary creative partners, just a Mount-Rushmore-level dream team. They took a big, wild, complicated piece and found a way to make it simple and deep and emotionally grounded. I would feel very remiss if I didn't shout his name from the rooftops. The other secret weapon was Trevor Baker, who cut the episode, about as beautiful a piece of editing as I've ever seen. For a bunch of reasons, this one was really personal for me, and I'm just in awe of the work those guys did.

If this week's episode was about immersing the viewer in psychological horror, there's a story coming up in the next installment that's more of an out-and-out violent horror. What can you say about what's next, both immediately and in the greater view of the season, as we're approaching the end?

The ending of "The Queen" is pretty cataclysmic for the world of the story and for the characters and for their relationships. In a way, I'd say it kind of throws the story and the viewer through the windshield into the back half of the final act of this story. It was really important that once we hit the gas, not to let our foot off the gas. As you say, episode eight is a pretty wild ride and one that we're really excited about. It's directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who's incredible. What I would say to viewers is that the pace and the tension and the strangeness of the season doesn't let up from here. This is the point where we throw a bunch of gasoline on the fire.

What did you make of the emotional Castle Rock episode, and the death of Alan Pangborn? Sound off in the comments below, and keep following THR.com/CastleRock for more coverage.