Castle’s fifth-season première finds the show in gritty-procedural mode, which is seldom the show’s best look. As a cop show, Castle is a live-action cartoon, starting with its endearingly ridiculous premise—best-selling crime novelist is given a license to hang out with New York City homicide detectives and help out on their cases while he “observes” them, remember?—that has never been anything but an excuse to have Nathan Fillion present at murder investigations without asking him to believably pass for a cop. (I’m not saying that Nathan Fillion couldn’t believeably play a Manhattan police detective if he wanted to. But if it can instead be arranged for him to play a rich, successful celebrity author who doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet on a detective’s salary or career advancement or not pissing off the wrong superiors and losing his pension, why cramp the man’s style?) A lot of cop shows demonstrate their seriousness with talk of forensics or torn-from-the-headlines stories. Castle is so far blithely divorced from reality that the only way it knows to appear serious is to invoke the kind of clichés it usually kids around with, but with a straight face. A very straight face. Like, a “the lab tests have come back, and I’m afraid the news is not good” kind of straight.
So less than half an hour into the new season, we have Esposito sitting in a car with someone in a military uniform who is reluctant to do him a favor, until Esposito grimly reminds his friend that he once “took a bullet” for him. Back at the station house, Ryan is yelling: “I’m on the clock here. I need to know who made that call, now!” into a telephone. (For that extra touch of old-school panache, it’s a landline.) These characters, whose usual function is to stand in the background and exchange amused looks while Castle and Beckett are sparring, are so grimly determined because they’re trying to locate the super-villain Maddox (Tahmoh Penikett), who is saying things like “Don’t make me take this to the next level” to a beaten, bloody man tied to a chair. Audiences were resigned to sitting through this kind of crap in the hope of getting to watch a good action scene as compensation. Good action scenes are not among Castle’s specialties, though it does its best. The problem is that when all the good guys and one of the major bad guys are in the same room and the suspense is supposed to build just before it all explodes, there are so many random shots of hands reaching for or clutching guns that it’s hard to tell who’s about to get the drop on whom. Instead of getting caught up in it, you patiently wait for it to resolve itself, in the hopes that when it’s all over, you can figure out what happened.
But nobody could really care less, am I right? The show’s been gone all summer, and the loose ends of the somebody-called-her-mother conspiracy plotline have been dangling in the wind for years now. For all the fans care, Beckett’s mother may have been assassinated by the same bastards who orphaned Bambi. What matters is this: What’s going on with Castle and Beckett? When last seen at the end of the previous season finale, they were falling into bed together. The season finale prior to that one ended with Castle stretched out atop Beckett’s fallen body after somebody shot her in a graveyard. Even those of us with reservations about a Beckett/Castle romance will agree that this latest development is an improvement. The show deserves points for not resuming the action at the exact point where it left off, and then having one of them get an urgent phone call or look out the window and see the Bat Signal. Instead, the episode begins with them waking up together, apparently having gone at it all night. “So,” says Castle, as if to reassure those of faint heart in the audience, “it wasn’t a dream.” I was a little disappointed that he didn’t throw a crumb to the comic book geeks in his fan base by asking if it had all been an imaginary story, but you can’t have everything.
This episode brings Jack Coleman on board as a powerful politician who’s been pulling the strings of the big conspiracy all this time, as part of his efforts to keep a scandal in his distant past under wraps. On Heroes, Coleman practically glittered with seemingly evil intentions in the early episodes, before he was revealed—disappointingly, I always thought—to be a softie who just wanted to protect his family. Here, he gets to do the same routine in reverse, presenting the face of an altruistic public servant while letting the monster within just barely peek its head out. The fact that the show went to the trouble of hiring Coleman indicates that we’ve not seen the last of him or the conspiracy storyline, even though the more the details of the conspiracy come into focus, the stupider the show seems. Coleman’s character has been having people killed left and right because if the secret about what he did decades ago ever gets out, it would destroy his life and career. At the same time, the show asks that we take it on faith that this man is so powerful that he can mastermind all these murders, and could have more of them committed tomorrow with impunity, and no policeman or reporter can lay a finger on him. In a world where most politicians can do nothing to save their careers if they get picked up for hitting on someone in the men’s room, that’s a reach.
With any luck, the conspiracy story will do what it’s usually done in the past seasons—i.e., lie dormant between sweeps weeks and until season-finale time rolls around again. That means the question facing Castle watchers going into this season is how well the love-story graft is going to take. The first few minutes of tonight’s episode are not promising. After Castle and Beckett exchange some post-coital banter, Castle’s mother shows up with his daughter in tow, and Castle shoves Beckett into a closet; she sneaks out on tippy-toe while Castle is commiserating with Alexis over her first hangover. (I wanted to hear more about her out-of-character wild night out instead of seeing it used as a pretext for screwball-comedy shenanigans.) Fillion, who’s said in the past that he didn’t think the two characters should get together, has been telling interviewers that he was wrong, and that it now feels as if a new show is finally beginning; what else is he supposed to say, “Abandon ship”? The one hopeful note is that, when she’s not hissing threats at Jack Coleman, Stana Katic loosens up and relaxes in Beckett’s private moments with Castle. Letting Beckett unwind was always a prerequisite for her to connect with Castle romantically, and one reason I never thought the two of them could work as a couple is that I didn’t think Katis had it in her. Their scenes together in tonight’s episode work just well enough to give me hope that there might be something there. But having them sleep together is just cracking the ice; if the two of them can start laughing together, this might really be the beginning of a new show. And evolving into a new show would be a smart thing for Castle to do about now.