Taking a break from closely following Castle on a weekly basis is one good way to rediscover just how much fun the show can be. (Another good way is to make the mistake of closely following anything else in primetime on Monday nights that doesn’t feature competing drag queens. The Following, Revolution, Bates Motel: You can all kiss my ass.) But then, it’s true that this show is currently more fun, or at least more consistently fun, than it’s been in years. A number of shows have run into trouble when they resolved a “will they or won’t they?” situation and, in the course of giving the fans what they were clamoring for, killed off their own best source of dramatic tension. Castle was never more of a drag than when it had Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic acting their hearts out, aching for each other, only to have one more silly misunderstanding or half-assed rival get in the way of the fulfillment of their romantic destiny.
This isn’t one of those series that rewrites the rule book on how to keep a TV series fresh and kicking; it’s an old-school star vehicle of a show, and dramatic tension is ultimately less important to its success than whether Nathan Fillion is getting the chance to do what he does best. Technically, what Nathan Fillion does best is act, and on a show like Firefly, with a character like Malcolm Reynolds, he could incorporate unrequited yearning for Morena Baccarin’s character into his performance, with results that were quite dashing. But Castle is a lighter, more tossed-together show, and Fillion is playing a character who, while likable and basically decent, does frequently revert to treating murder as a sort of spectator sport. Intimations of depth hang on Richard Castle like a dead possum on a Christmas tree: They don’t belong, they don’t add anything attractive to what’s there, and if you leave them there for two consecutive weeks or longer, they really start to stink up the room. Castle is in its best form these days because, with his relationship with Beckett going smoothly, Castle is happy, and Fillion is in high clover.
To celebrate its 100th episode, Castle throws itself a little Hitchcock-reference party. Castle is sitting at home with a busted wing, having wracked himself up while on a skiing vacation with Beckett. His daughter, Alexis, has given him a pair of binoculars to help him wile away the hours, and so he starts spying on his neighbors, watching a cleaning woman pocket some money found in a drawer and muttering, “Oh, that better be for a sick child.” Then, a woman is enjoying a tryst with some dude in a stupid hat, only to have her significant other come home early and send the lover scurrying. But then the man sees the hat lying on the floor, and for a minute, it looks as if he’s going to go down to the White Collar set and beat the shit out of Matt Bomer. But instead, he appears to murder the woman.
It’s an indication of just how Castle works, when it’s working, that, in Rear Window, James Stewart’s running commentary on the people he was spying on was maudlin and reflective even before he came to the conclusion that he was the only person, besides the murderer, who knew that an innocent life had been snuffed out. Castle is more like one of the puppets on Mystery Science Theater 3000, cackling over the tawdry soap opera of real people’s lives instead of a badly dubbed Hercules epic. There’s a moment when it looks as if the thought that he’s witnessed a murder might sober him up, but then a few scenes later, there’s a pretty adorable shot of Castle and his daughter, each of them with binoculars in hand, sharing a bowl of popcorn while waiting for the killer to make his next move. The not-so-great, heavy-handed side of Castle can be seen in the many, many explicit verbal references to Rear Window—Alexis is even said to have given Castle his binoculars when he hurt his leg, as a joke—which almost spoil the fun of the homage. (I can’t even imagine what the point of this is. Was the thinking that viewers who aren’t familiar with Rear Window would miss out, so they should be given a chance to pause the show while they consulted Wikipedia?) Meanwhile, Beckett is working on a murder case involving an unfortunate Mrs. DeWinter. The name is more a throwaway reference than anything else, but as inside jokes go, it works much better just because nobody ever says, “Holy cats, you mean like in Rebecca!?”
Castle and Beckett’s relationship isn’t even a closely guarded state secret anymore, so the supporting cast members have been able to loosen up and enjoy themselves, too; Javier Esposito and Kevin Ryan have a split-second gag where they strike poses out of the opening credits of Charlie’s Angels that's worth more than the sum total of everything they got to do in some entire seasons of this show, and Esposito is also funny explaining to Beckett why the injured Castle is such a crybaby: “It’s an evolutionary thing. Men who can get women to take care of them have a greater chance of surviving.” Penny Johnson Jerald still doesn’t have anything to do here but blow shit at Castle, but she’s resigned herself to her fate and gotten into the swing of it, hurling abuse at his head as if she’d studied under R. Lee Ermey. And Stana Katic, bless her, has found a way to make this weird love relationship work. When Castle calls her at work to whine that she hasn’t brought him his din-din yet, she patiently reminds him that she said she’d bring it when she was done working, and her tone is exactly that of a mother who’s past the point of losing her temper with her spoiled, idiot man-child. I’m not sure I want to know what it says about me that, in context, I found this rather sexy.