This review contains spoilers.
7.4 Child’s Play & 7.5 Meme Is Murder
Of all the adjectives I can think of that might be used to describe a television series, the one I would most shy away from with Castle is “consistent.” The show is fun—most of the time. Formulaic—sometimes. Inventive—on occasion. Inspired—once in a while. But unfortunately, good or bad, it’s none of these things consistently.
Last week’s Child’s Play and this week’s Meme Is Murder are effective examples of this.
In Child’s Play, Beckett and Castle investigate the death of the driver of an old-fashioned ice-cream truck. Found in the last place one would try to sell frozen treats to the little ones, the truck also yields a field-trip permission slip which leads the duo to a classroom of second graders. They believe that the slip was left in the truck by one of the youngsters who witnessed the murder. While the children have been questioned, none of them will admit to having seen anything, and it becomes vital for the NYPD to try to gain the trust of whichever one was in the truck.
Yes, yes, it’s clear who is most equipped to handle this, and so usually, we would not expect much discussion on the issue. But, as I said, Castle goes for the fun most of the time and does not let many chances for this go untapped in Child’s Play. As Beckett and Castle sit in the principal’s office, reasoning that the school let them have a crack at the kids themselves, the latter is distracted by a puzzle toy and begins fiddling with it. Beckett makes their case for understanding that they cannot question the children like they do other witnesses, trying to reassure the school officials they understand this needs to be handled differently: “So basically we’re looking for someone who won’t intimidate them? An adult presence in the classroom that 8 year olds will view as a peer? Someone that they can consider one of their own?”
And on cue, but without any sense of his impeccable timing, Castle sets the toy, now completed, on the principal’s desk, with a tinge of excitement. “Done.”
None of this is a surprise to regular viewers of the show. Castle has not only been characterised from the first season as an overgrown child, but as having a special ability to connect with children—everyone from his daughter Alexis to random young victims and witnesses have shown that Castle knows precisely how to get the underage to trust him implicitly because they recognize him as one of their own.
But, as I pointed out, the show does sometimes surprise us, and when it does, it’s generally delightful, much as this episode is. Because where we expect Castle to have these 7-year-olds ready to follow him anywhere, from the beginning, Rick is instead to be shown as totally out of his depth. It is one thing to bond with a single child. It’s quite another to try to manage twenty or more of them at one time. Instead of being the hero we expect, we instead see him humiliated (“My dad says your books suck!”), temporarily successful (when he gets one little girl to open up during a recess fairy-princess tea party), humiliated again, (“Mr. Castle wets his pants!”), and finally almost pushed out the door (when the fairy princess, on his misunderstood and extremely well-crafted—by the episode’s writer Rob Hanning—advice, clobbers the classroom bully).
In the end, the show reverts to the formulaic, in that it is the classroom bully who keeps trying to force others to let him show off his instant camera (which—of course—holds the missing clue) who is the witness-who-did-not-witness they have been trying to find. But Nathan Fillion and director Rob Bowman both do such a good job, making fun of Castle and our belief in Castle’s infallibility when it comes to children, that we care less about the lack of imagination in the eventual resolution because the journey has been so much fun.
If only the same thing had happened in Meme Is Murder.
It’s really hard, given recent developments, not to see Meme Is Murder as a commentary on GamerGate—especially given that Nathan Fillion is the star power that fuelled and continues to fuel the show. GamerGate largely got traction when Fillion’s friend, former Firefly crewmate, and non-gamer Adam Baldwin tweeted support of the supposed “ethics in journalism” movement which quickly devolved into trumped-up accusations, death and rape threats, and more against primarily female gamers and critics of misogyny and homophobia in games. Much more recently, Felicia Day, the undisputed queen of female gamers and also friend and fellow geek deity of Fillion’s, admitted that she had been silent on the controversy out of fear that she herself would become a target—which she did, less than an hour after calling for the community to chill out.
So for Fillion, himself an avid gamer and advocate for the gaming community, to have said literally nothing on a dispute that hits so close to home both professionally and personally is something of a head-scratcher. And it is into that vacuum that Meme Is Murder steps.
A cyber-celeb, literally known only for her online life, is killed and pictures of the crime posted to Snappmatic. Clues lead to who seems to be the next victim, another internet party-girl, but the killer momentarily stymies the detectives when it is the girl’s boyfriend who is found slain. It quickly becomes clear that the murderer is playing a long-game with Beckett and Castle, setting them up only to show how powerless they are to stop him, including posting a picture from days earlier showing them enjoying coffee together—seemingly, but not—in the midst of his crime spree.
The lesson: the internet allows those who wish it to create narratives which have little to no relation to reality. And as Capt. Gates points out upon seeing the picture, in the face of such, “The truth doesn’t matter, Kate.” If we were being particularly thick, Beckett clarifies this lesson for us: “This is why I hate social media. Once something is out there, you have no control. People can take a private moment and create their own context.” Much as was done to GamerGate’s first victim Zoe Quinn.
Which made Castle’s next line especially disturbing, even more so since it flows from Fillion’s mouth: “Come on, Beckett, it’s the Internet. No one’s gonna take that picture seriously. It’s gonna blow over. With millions of items being posted every minute, this is but a blip on the net continuum.” At the time of this writing, Zoe Quinn (and other female gamers) is still in hiding after being doxxed and threatened with rape and death—more than two months after the original “ethical” accusations against her were made and shown to be without merit. It is Kate’s response reflects the reality of cyber-life more accurately: “You know the problem with net anonymity? There is no accountability. It empowers cowards to become bullies.”
Her insight leads them closer to the perp when Castle points out that many bullies start out as victims of bullying themselves. And this is where the episode breaks down entirely, becoming not just formulaic, but possibly narrative theft.
The murderer, it turns out, was bullied back in the day when nothing could be done about cyber-bullying (what has changed since then exactly is never explained, and the lack of successful prosecutions for such out in the real world would suggest that little has). He has set this entire game in motion not only to punish those like the ones he holds responsible for bullying him but the law enforcement which failed to protect him. His final play has him kidnapping the two creators of Snappmatic, hooking them up to be electrocuted, and streaming their images, encouraging viewers to “like” one or the other by saying he’ll save the one who gets the most votes.
Yes, we’ve seen almost this same thing on Criminal Minds and elsewhere. And the resolution isn’t any more original.
Because we’ve seen this enough to know, even before he says it, what the killer wants out of all this: he wants to be remembered, on the internet, as the one who outsmarted everyone… he wants a legacy. And the standard way to get these now-cliché characters to give the cops the information they need to save the victims: tell the perp that they will squash or otherwise twist that longed-for legacy. Which is precisely what Kate does.
So while both episodes are consistent in having weak, predictable endings, there any comparison ends. Child’s Play is enjoyable because it highlights one of the two things that the show does best: they know Castle will never win the Emmy for television writing, but that’s okay because the writers still knows how to have fun, how to play with audience expectations, how to make the characters laugh at themselves as much as we do them. If only we got this all the time. Instead, we get episodes like Meme Is Murder where they try to half-heartedly take on a complex contemporary issue.
And this might be fine if Castle’s writing team had anything new or insightful to say on the subject. But to choose to air an episode on cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying right now, while there is such a high-profile case of women being targeted with rape and murder threats for expressing a viewpoint that some people don’t want to hear? It makes it look like you are capitalising on their suffering without offering anything in return. Frankly, whatever ‘insights’ the episode offers on this issue are years out-of-date and even more out of touch with what’s happening now.
So instead, we end up with a story that lacks both originality and any real coherent point.
On the other hand, in a way, perhaps it is Castle’s lack of consistency that has kept it on the air so long. When it’s good, it is like digging your hand into a bowl of cheap candy, one where you keep regularly—but not always—coming up with the kind you fell in love with as a child: you know, objectively, that there’s not a lot to recommend it, but you cannot stop shoveling it into your mouth even as an adult. And so you’re willing to risk the occasional piece of black licorice or cinnamon candy that immediately has you looking for a tissue to spit the offending sweet into.
And yet, you can never quite keep your hands off the bowl.
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