Castle can sometimes be a surprisingly frustrating show, especially given that it’s just a formulaic good-time series that only wants to give the audience a few laughs, a little romance, maybe once in a great while some genuine thrills, with some good old-fashioned TV-star charisma holding it together like a bow on a Christmas present. I keep saying that things like story values and emotional depth mean less to the effectiveness of this show than things like style and tone and just getting the proportions right, so that Nathan Fillion can tuck the whole thing under his arm and saunter to victory without having to do anything too awkward or embarrassing—like ache with yearning for the impressive iceberg sculpture that is Stana Katic’s Beckett—that might break the spell by causing you to feel sorry for him.
Tonight’s episode was an example of one that got the basics down pretty well. Fillion was allowed to be charming and funny, and though there were serious scenes involving both his relationships with Beckett and his own daughter, they were handled deftly and with grace, so that they added a suggestion of depth to his charm and kept him from being too flighty, without bringing the show to a dead halt. In these respects, it was a textbook episode, one that young people who hope to someday work on an episode of Castle that will reflect well on their family names ought to be made to watch as soon as the janitor can find the projector. But on the other hand, it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in my life.
The episode begins with Castle in a funk, because he doesn’t think Beckett wuvs him, and also because Alexis is going away to college and seems intent on enrolling anyplace but New York. (As she explains, not implausibly, she wants to concentrate on her studies and doesn’t need the distraction that would come from being in too-close proximity to her one-man party campus of a dad.) Glumly, Castle reports to what he thinks is the last case he’ll be working with Beckett, though he doesn’t tell her this. Consequently, when he expresses disappointment in what looks like a banal, open-and-shut murder, because he “just wanted this one to be special,” she misunderstands and thinks he’s being pissy because the killings she shares with him aren’t entertaining enough. What we have here, as Strother Martin used to say to me as we were throwing jacks in the dirt to see which of the newbies we were going to throw in the box overnight on some trumped-up charge, is a failure to communicate.
The case involves a man found beaten to death in a parking garage. Things start getting a little more interesting as soon as Castle and Beckett track a suspect, a co-worker of the dead man’s named Charlie, to his apartment. This is mainly because the actor playing Charlie has chosen, for reasons unknown to me, to deliver his lines in an outrageously over-the-top but very amusing imitation of Eric Roberts, circa The Pope Of Greenwich Village. Seriously, I really thought that, at any moment, he might start wailing that Bedbug Eddie took his thumb. Charlie reports that he was present at the scene of the murder, swears that the killer was a zombie, and explains that he’s chained himself to the wall because the creature bit him, and he doesn’t want to be a threat to others when he “turns.” Pretty ripe stuff, but so long as he’s speaking in his Eric Roberts voice, he could hold any crowd riveted while reading from the special college rankings issue of U.S. News And World Report.
After Charlie begins to recede from the picture, the episode grows ever more complicated and, at the same time, ever more turgid and dim. The zombie thing isn’t the only problem, but it doesn’t help. Castle talks as if he really thinks an actual zombie might be involved. In what feels like a last-minute addition to the script so that viewers won’t wonder if they missed a scene in which something heavy fell on his head, Castle assures one of the detectives that, of course, he doesn’t really believe in zombies; he just enjoys annoying Beckett. Unfortunately, having Castle, even in fun, talk about zombies as if they might exist is also fairly annoying for those of us watching the show. It gets really annoying when Castle and Beckett visit the crime scene late at night and find themselves in the middle of what appears to be a flash mob recreation of the "Thriller" video. Of course, it’s just a bunch of regular New Yorkers engaged in one of their wacky fads—dressing up as flesh-eating zombies with all their friends and going out in the middle of the night to scare strangers, 10 months before Christmas. Everybody’s doing it.
But the scene builds to a commercial break, with the “revelation” that the zombies aren’t real zombies saved until the action resumes. The last thing we see before John Slattery starts trying to sell us a car is Beckett, gun drawn, and Castle tensing up as a horde of fake zombies surround them and move in for the kill. Are we supposed to think maybe they’re not fake? If so, that’s pretty insulting, since the show is basically calling us stupid. On the other hand, if it’s assumed that nobody watching will think that maybe the zombies will turn out to be real, then why the pretense of building to a suspenseful moment before the fade? If we’re supposed to understand that there’s no danger, that’s pretty insulting too, though it would be properly filed under “wasting my time.” Either way, we also have the lingering sight of Beckett pointing her loaded gun at a bunch of people who are clearly just out having a goof. That’s maybe not the best look for a TV cop who’s supposed to be one of the heroes.
Ah, well. The really lame thing about the episode is that it’s a bitch to follow that may not be worth the effort, considering that it seems to involve a lot of characters who don’t stick out very well and whose connection to each other gets foggier by the minute. The actor playing the actual murderer tries to help out by giving one of those extra-strength douchebag performances that make it easier to understand how cops can sometimes want to frame somebody so badly that they couldn’t care less if the guilty party gets away with it, but it’s a case of way too much, too late. The solution turns out to be an urban variant on The Serpent And The Rainbow, with the evil genius slipping a basically innocent man an overdose of travel-nausea medication, knowing that this would make him so suggestible that he’d then be happy to agree to stomp somebody into a fine paste and then forget all about it. I think the motive had something to do with sexual jealousy, which is always a handy thing to have around the precinct.
But the big news—bigger even than the sight of Nathan Fillion in a laser tag outfit—is the dialogue exchange between Castle and Beckett toward the end. They’re discussing how much the murderer’s puppet remembers about what he did. “When a life-altering moment occurs,” Castle says, “people remember.” Usually Beckett would stare at him and wonder why he’s being so intense but not understand what he’s driving at, but this is the last chance they have to revisit this before the season finale, so for once, she snaps at the bait. She tells him that maybe the person who experienced the life-altering event “can’t deal with it,” and so only pretends not to be able to remember, but maybe that person has been working on her emotional intimacy issues and is just about… almost… ready to… tear down the wall. Castle bucks up considerably at this news, and is looking forward to seeing what will develop between himself and Beckett next week. It would be churlish to not hope for something that will make his dimples light up Christmas tree ornaments, but it might be less realistic than zombies running amok in the meatpacking district.