This review contains spoilers.
7.10 Bad Santa
What a relief!
This season of Castle has not been one of their best. From ridiculous plots (involving inter-dimensional travel) to non-existent ones (where any useful evidence is withheld until seconds before the killer is revealed) to the explanation that is nothing of the kind (Rick ran away from last season’s wedding to do what exactly?), it’s been pretty disappointing. So honesty, I wasn’t expecting much this last week. And that’s especially sad considering the episode, Bad Santa, includes two actors I generally love: Vincent Spano and Paul Ben-Victor. But their appearances did have me expecting a mafia-related episode, and I think that was probably the only thing I guessed right. I was certainly wrong about the level of quality I expected.
Because this is definitely one of the better and certainly most surprising episodes we’ve gotten this season for some very disparate reasons.
The plot initially seems standard fare, with a young man found murdered after being chased down in a car driven by Santa—okay, maybe not so usual but perhaps not unexpected according to Castle: “Squeezing down countless chimneys, delivering millions of presents in one night? It’s bound to happen. Santa finally cracked.”
It is quickly revealed that the victim was a mob doctor, and it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s that connection that got him killed. So Beckett’s usual authority as a cop, which generally opens doors for her and Castle’s investigations, actually lead to them being frozen out. Castle must use his own relationship with a mob boss (whom he bonded with while doing research for one of his books) to try to get access to the murky world of the NYC mafia.
What is not surprising is that Castle sees this walk through the seedy underworld as an adventure, and this is largely validated by the fact that his mob boss friend—Dino Scarpella (Paul Ben-Victor)—makes Castle a literal offer he can’t refuse: find the killer of the victim who was like family to Scarpella and prove Scarpella henchman Christopher Carlucci (Vincent Spano) innocent of the murder. Castle ends up taking a blood-oath that even Ryan has to admit is pretty cool, though the most pragmatic Beckett understands that this is not a game—except for the fact that she’s relegated to its sidelines.
Nor is it surprising that Beckett is quite right. When it becomes clear that the trail may hit even closer to Scarpella’s home, Castle finds himself in real danger and caught at the nexus of an impending gang war.
What is surprising is that while the writing resorts to many of the standard mafia clichés, it does so without becoming too mired in them. Writer-couple Dara Resnik Creasey and Chad Gomez Creasey play some of it for laughs, but also manage to pen a believable storyline which we should have seen coming, but for the most part, don’t.
This gives at least one of the guest stars a real way to shine. It’s hard to play a mafia boss without overdoing it, and even more difficult to do that in a show like Castle, where the type of humour varies so wildly. But the script and director Bill Roe do a good job of making sure the tone of most scenes is clear, and Ben-Victor plays them precisely. So well, in fact, that by the end, we’re certain we know exactly who this noble man is—until we find out that’s exactly who he is not.
And the end, just at the moment we think is where we’re going to fade out on the holiday tableau, is where the real surprises kick in.
The first, of course, is the shift in the Lanie and Esposito relationship, and here is the one place where I think the story falters, especially after this season’s Kill Switch. When Lanie begs Espo to—and the triteness of the situation is almost unbearable, saved only by the fact that it’s these two doing it—go along with her story to her parents that they are engaged, we assume this is going to be the moment suggested by that earlier episode: Esplanie are finally going to stop dancing around each other.
To instead learn that they mean to quit the dance entirely… that they both realize that however much they care for each other, it’s not the happily-ever-after kind of love…well, on a personal note, it was hard to watch. It makes sense, to a great extent. Their on-again, off-again relationship has been frustrating, but I think we all believed that they were going to get to the same place as Caskett, just via a different route. But again, looking at the evidence, we’ve been given even less evidence for the ultimate success of their relationship than we had for Rick and Kate in the early days. But still, it was enough to think they’d work things out.
But by doing it so abruptly, especially after the engagement set-up, it comes across as more of a “gotcha” than a plot twist.
Which is very much not true of the case-based twist at the end. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. Castle has been at the precinct for a very long time and done some absolutely ridiculous stuff that would make even the morally questionable real-life NYPD kick him to the curb. And yet, whether it’s been his personal charm or his powerful connections, Rick has managed to weather some pretty bad storms in his time as a consultant working with Kate.
So for reality to suddenly raise its head at this point is a far larger shock than for Castle to again get away without facing the consequences of his tendency to play too close to the edge. And it also reveals a nicely subtle thread that’s been woven through this season: Capt. Gates has never been more friendly towards the novelist than this first half of the season. Without setting this up, it might be too easy to read her news to him at the end of the episode as her finally ridding herself of this torn in her side. Instead, we aren’t just relying on Penny Johnson’s performance to communicate that Gates is actually sorry to have to give him the boot, and that’s a very well done touch.
As is the shocking end itself. It’s been a while since we got a cliffhanger on the show that didn’t insult our intelligence, either with its manipulative angst or its telegraphed resolution. Instead, we get an ending that makes sense, suggests some real peril (for the show’s relationships, if nothing else), and sets us up for a great second-half of the season. So nice to get such an unexpected gift, especially at this time of year.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Last Action Hero, here.
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