When I took a bit of a blogging break at the end of 2021, I finally found time to watch some TV and caught up with the first two seasons of Castle, the US mystery show starring Nathan Fillion as hyper-successful crime writer Richard Castle and Stana Katic as Kate Beckett, the NYPD detective he ends up shadowing for ‘research’ (which swiftly develops into a ‘will they/won’t they’ thing — spoilers: they definitely will, probably in season 5).
The first series of ten episodes is…fine. I’ll be honest, reading through the episode descriptions just now brought back only vague memories and the overweening impression that most of the killers would have remained at large had they not gone about something simple — shooting someone, say — in the most killer-specific manner possible (the body wrapped in the rug episode is so, so complicated). The writers were also big on Exciting Hooks (a woman killed and stuffed into a wall safe, with one finger cut off) that went nowhere (they cut off her finger to get her wedding ring, and stuffed her in the safe because…it looked cool, I guess). Honestly, without the charm of Fillion in the lead role, it would surely have been cancelled after these initial ten cases — the semi-cliffhanger ending feeling like a show that doesn’t know if it’s coming back.
The second series is a significant improvement plot-wise, and also has the common sense to lean into the most successful aspects of that opening tranche. Recognising that people tune into these shows for the lore as well as the individual case-of-the-week plots, Beckett’s team of detectives Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Ryan (Seamus Dever) are given an increased role, complete with genuinely witty banter that actually feels like these characters know each other well in this universe. Additionally, I’m a fan of single father Castle being shown to have such a positive relationship with his teenage daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn) while also freaking out over the various teenage experience (dating, school trips, etc) she’s starting to experience. In lesser TV shows, these B- and C-plots can be relegated to little more than a few clichés and a non-conclusion once the main mystery is resolved, but the writers have invested the wider universe with something that it’s nice to experience time and again because of how genuine it feels.
And those mysteries are better, on the whole. Sure, the nature of most jobbing TV actors is that they can’t help but give away how Significant My Character Will Be Later On — seriously, watch three episodes and see how much these people who know they’re the killers stand out, I think I caught all but one of them as soon as they first appeared — but the plots became more labyrinthine, falling onto the enjoyable rails of a Last Minute Revelation That Shocks Everyone Because The Answer Seemed So Obvious Before. But where something like Death in Paradise has the now-tedious routine of each suspect having some deep, dark resentment against the victim and these get explored in series before everyone is gathered together, Castle seems to delight in the multitudinous possibilities of malfeasance and chicanery that could play into someone’s murder. The avenues they explore are often wildly unlikely, but they again feel like a genuine piece of a universe that exists. If you’ve been successful in life, as most of these victims have, you’ve likely managed to piss someone off along the way.
At their most devious, the plots resemble puzzles in the best tradition, even if they don’t (yet…?) have the confidence to let those puzzles marinate for best effect. Episode 20, ‘Late Shaft’, has a brilliant, almost John Rhode-ian method of inducing a seemingly impossible heart attack…its one flaw being, as with a lot of Rhode’s fiction, that the viewer simply must be told the scientific principle rather than being able to anticipate it — and, alas, you’re told how it was done within probably five minutes of being told how it couldn’t have been done. And they catch the killer because that person bought the three items needed to induce said heart attack at the same store and paid using their credit card. Nevertheless, the principles are there — and, hey, I remember this episode pretty clearly, which is more than can be said of series 1.
For all it does right, however, I’d like to examine a few of the things that stop Castle — at this stage, at least — being a genuinely excellent show.
Oh, spoilers, I guess. Sometimes specific spoilers as to the identities of killers in a show where you can spot the killer because of their acting. I’ll flag specific spoilers ahead of time, but seriously someone really should have had a word with these actors.
The classic triumvirate for any criminal is Means, Motive, and Opportunity. For me, Castle falls down repeatedly on a point that’s probably an intersection of the first and third, and which I’ll call Capability. A lot of the time, for all the elegantly-imbricated motives and false trails, once the killer was unmasked I found myself asking one of two questions: “Yeah, but why?” — why stuff the body in the safe?; why steal a painting to make a forgery of it when it’s likely no-one even knew it existed?; why hide the dead body in a wardrobe if you’re it’ll be found almost immediately? — and, perhaps more crucially, “Yeah, but how?”.
We can ignore the first to an extent, because the nature of the crime must allow for that hook to pull in punters in the opening two minutes, even if it does fall foul of the sorts of plots it’s seeking to emulate. The position of the body, and its condition upon discovery, was often a key part of the puzzle plot. Look at the victim in The Bowstring Murders (1933) by Carter Dickson, discovered in a setting and manner thrilling enough for a dozen episodes of any TV show, with the precise position of the corpse in this location proving crucial to the unravelling of the crime. Or take the dead body stripped of all identification and sunk out at sea in an anonymised packing crate in The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts: another striking opening — an almost literal opening hook, given the fishermen who discover him — and crucial to both the commission and unravelling of the crime. You get to the end of the book and understand that these were more than just passing details; they were part of the mosaic, and without them the crime would have been very different indeed.
At times it does get a little frustrating when these setups fizzle out to nothing, however — like in series 2 finale ‘A Deadly Game’ when an apparent spy is found shot, the bullets that have passed through his body being dug out of a nearby log clearly showing that this was a professional hit. A wonderful piece of stunt casting is achieved by putting Mitch Pileggi in a role as an apparently all-knowing, all-influential spook…only for [SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 24] it to turn out that the “spy” was no such thing and had been shot by a jealous husband who’s just some average guy who would never have the foresight to dig his bullets out of a log after shooting someone. So that ‘professional hit’ thing just gets discarded because explaining away your setups is haaaaaard [end spoilers]. As a side note, I’ve started series 3 since writing this, and an early episode starts with a dead body found hidden in a couch. “I’d love to know why she was stuffed into the couch” says Ryan early on — and it’s never addressed again.
But, for me, it’s the gross oversimplification, or just plain dismissal, of ‘How’ that really gets in the way of this being a great show.
Consider now that Castle is covering the police story from both angles: both as an investigative puzzle and as a procedural with forensic pathologist Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones) frequently uncovering telling details about the deaths (that impossible heart attack, say). An effort is made to ensure that all angles are covered, then, which makes it all the more frustrating when basic oversights that prove crucial to the plot creep in. Take the two-part story over episodes 17 and 18 ‘Tick, Tick, Tick…’ and ‘Boom!’ in which a bomber confuses Beckett with Nikki Heat, the character she has inspired in Castle’s new series, and challenges her to a series of confrontations. At one point [spoilers for episode 17 and 18] Beckett wakes up at home one morning to discover a corpse left outside her front door…but since we’re told the building, and her apartment in particular, is under constant surveillance…how the hell did it get there? Later on, the federal agent leading the investigation is kidnapped when the criminal hides in her car…but how did he get into it? It was in the locked basement garage of a federal building…not exactly accessible [end spoilers]. Neither point is ever addressed.
Without either of these plot points, the story simply wouldn’t go the way it does and, given the intelligence and care taken over so many other aspects of the writing, it’s a shame to see lazy hand-waving like this seep into an otherwise high quality production. I couldn’t quite relax while watching any of it, because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, that moment where you realise an assumption made has been false (it could have been that the killer could access the car because he’s an employee of the FBI and so had access to the garage, say — which would be a huge reveal — but, no) only for what should surely be an obvious inconsistency to writers who have gone to wonderful pains to explore all avenues elsewhere to be swept away so that the credits can roll on time.
Possibly the most egregious example of this comes in episode 16, ‘The Mistress Always Spanks Twice’, in which a woman studying for a PhD looking into the psychology of sexual fetish is discovered having been drowned in treacle and left hanging from specially-made bondage restrains on a climbing frame in a public park. After [spoilers for episode 16] dismissing various threads, the killer is found to be the victim’s roommate, a woman who weighs about 8 stone and could no way have dragged the body all that way in a suitcase and then lifted and displayed it for the discovery hook (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” Raymond Chandler tells us, and my experience backs that up…er, forget I said anything). The sheer physical capability of the supposed killer to have committed the crime simply isn’t there — so how the hell has she done it? [END SPOILERS] Something like that should be a huge clue, because it disrupts the entire narrative of the crime. But, nah. Move on.
We could talk, too, about the sheer number of times killers bludgeon or hack someone to death and leave the scene with nary a drop of blood on them (of which, yes, many examples can be found in GAD…) but I’m going on and you surely get my point if you’ve made it this far. Castle could be great — it’s intelligent, witty, exploits the diversity of approaches in a way that Death in Paradise could still learn from, and must have been a hoot to devise plots for — and I just hope that the improvement shown from season 1 to season 2 continues into season 3 and beyond. It would be a shame to see that intelligence, and the willingness to engage with the complex crime puzzle in a 21st century milieu so inventively, wasted on easy corner-cutting measures when ten minutes of thinking could doubtless have shored up a much more satisfying answer for most of these points. It’s nearly a brilliant show, and coming so damn close is far more frustrating than rising below mediocrity, so I cross everything that this was addressed and it went on to become wonderful before being cancelled after the inevitable decline of season 8.
Expect updates the next time my buddy Jeff gives me a month’s free postage and video access.