This review contains spoilers.
6.11 Under Fire
Oh, how I loathe episodes like last week’s Castle! The heroes-trapped-and-about-to-die-while-everyone-watches-powerless-to-stop-it trope is probably one of the more painful TV episode clichés there is. Perhaps the only one worse is the largely-flashbacks-of-other-episodes episode. But luckily, that latter trope seems to be slowly dying out—I can’t remember the last time I saw one, thank goodness.
But each does fulfill a specific purpose. The flashback episode is largely driven by a not-even-thinly hidden motive: it’s simply cheaper to make an episode where the majority of the material is recycled from other episodes. It has the side benefit of luring in new viewers who were channel surfing by showing them an episode made of almost nothing but the best moments.
The trapped-and-about-to-die episode, on the other hand, is a touch more complicated. It tends to revolve around the human tendency to unburden oneself of secrets in the last moments of life. This can take several forms, but common variations are the parent/child with their family secrets as well as the romantic leads and their declarations of love (or near-love). Castle has had more than its fair share of that last category. But there are also the side benefits of the heightened suspense, the general emotional outpouring, and the cathartic release once disaster is (as it always is, in these shows) averted.
Unfortunately, such episodes are, generally speaking, fairly ingenuous. Nobody ever does die in these stories (unless Whedon or Moffat are at the helm) and we almost always know this going in. Certainly, while it’s not Castle and Beckett in the burning building this week, there is little doubt that Esposito or Ryan aren’t in any real danger.
This doesn’t keep the writers from dialing up the pathos, however. Before the two enter the building in their investigation of an arsonist who has killed a fire inspector, it has been driven home that Ryan’s pregnant wife Jenny (played by actor Seamus Dever’s actual wife, Juliana Dever) is at full term and likely to go into labour at any moment. When it turns out that the building is actually the arsonist’s lair and has been booby-trapped with explosives, Javier and father-to-be Ryan are trapped inside and no one knows they are alive or where they are in the inferno. And of course, as Beckett and Castle stand helplessly outside, Jenny calls to ask them where Ryan is, and when they tell her, she shows up at the site in full blown labour.
Still not enough, when their cell phones prove useless, Ryan patches the landline just enough to be able to call Beckett to let her and Castle know that the two detectives are alive and in the sub-basement of the building. By this time, Jenny is about to deliver in the back of an on-site ambulance (with Lanie at her side) and Ryan asks to speak to her. Sure he will not survive, they affirm their love and decide to name the coming child after Esposito if it’s a boy and Jenny’s grandmother if it’s a girl, and then the line goes dead. Cue tragic music.
But of course, neither Ryan nor Esposito die. Castle and Beckett figure out who the bad guy is and get him to spill his guts about the other hidden way out of the sub-basement. The detectives are rescued, and there’s a tearful reunion. All-in-all, pretty emotionally manipulating.
And yet, for all that, it’s not a bad episode. Oh, the case they’re working on lacks depth (it’s pretty clear what the bad guy is, if not who specifically, about halfway through). And the trope is overused, as I said. But the episode not only avoids the fatal pitfall of such episodes, it actually turns it on its head.
Such storylines tend to be overwrought, full of long, verbose scenes that allow actors to pull out all the stops. This makes them largely unwatchable as the actors take full advantage of the edible scenery, and this is what I was expecting as it became clear what kind of story this would be.
I’ve been lauding the actors so far this season and their ability to snatch dramatic victory from the jaws of bad writing. So I don’t know why I was so surprised when they again managed to save Under Fire from itself. Perhaps because they usually pull this trick off by adding to the script… dialing things up so you don’t notice how bad the source material can be. Had they done that here, it would have been a disaster.
Instead, what we get are very controlled performances from all of the actors. And that makes sense. Because while we talk about how chaotic large groups of people can be in an emergency, the truth is that most individuals, in a crisis, tend to stay fairly calm. It’s how we get out of such situations—by staying just rational enough to deal with what’s on our plate right this moment. And most of our characters are professionals trained to deal with such a crisis.
Which is precisely how Fillion, Katic, and the rest played it.
Fillion is not, however much we like the man, the best actor in the world. He is good enough for the roles he plays, and that’s fine. And since Castle is not all that different from Fillion in many ways (at least the Fillion that shows up at cons and the like), it’s a fine fit. But he definitely nailed this week’s episode by showing us a very different side to Castle. Rather than the manic boy we’re used to, the moment it’s clear what the stakes are, Castle shifts sharply but believably, stepping in as Beckett struggles to deal with the impending death of her team. He maintains focus, all but solving the crime while at the same time holding Kate together. He makes us remember that Castle is not just that playboy: he’s also the steady son to an actress mother, and solid single father to an incredibly well adjusted daughter. He knows how to hold it together when necessary.
Not that Kate was a mess. Katic plays her as lost and frightened, but only to those who know her. We’ve seen her deal with a lot and get upset before. But here, Katic communicates just how powerless the detective feels, holding all of it just barely in check—no real outbursts, no yelling or sobbing. Instead, we somehow know that the only thing holding her together is a thin layer of professionalism and Castle. And that’s okay. The way she moves into Castle’s arms (and his response) as Ryan and Jenny say their goodbyes makes it clear that they know that but for the grace of God…
Kudos also to Tamala Jones and Penny Johnson. Jones’ Lanie had me rewinding just to catch all the subtleties of her performance. We know she and Esposito are, if not in love, only missing it out of sheer obstinacy. So she has skin in this game. Unfortunately, she also has Jenny to deliver and knows she cannot go to pieces because of what her own fear might do to Jenny. So she keeps her in tight control, communicating her anxiety only in quick looks directed at Beckett and Castle until the moment the men are rescued. Then she dissolves, clinging tightly to Esposito. Maybe those crazy kids will get it together.
Johnson’s Gates likewise shines. Captain Gates was brought in to be the resident bitch, a constant thorn in Beckett and Castle’s side. She was unreasonable, officious, and endangered the blossoming relationship. But here, we get to see how she got her stripes as she rolls into crisis mode and runs things with a draconian but effective tone that somehow makes you like her more rather than less.
Finally, there are the boys. They keep it together and never give up. But there’s no over-the-top declarations or surprises, and the tears are delivered so well, as Ryan slides from laughing at Esposito’s taunt (“You’re gonna name a white Irish kid ‘Esposito’?”) to choking up at the thought of the child he will never see, that we don’t feel manipulated in the slightest.
Under Fire proves that less really is more. And leaves you wanting more… of less. And that’s a good episode, regardless of any trope.
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