Castle season 8 episode 12 review: Blame Game

Castle channels 1997 film Cube with a puzzle-solving extravaganza in this week's season 8 episode...

This review contains spoilers.

8.12 Blame Game

What do you get when you combine the film Cube (1997) with the television shows Criminal Minds and Star Trek: The Next Generation? Evidently, this week’s episode of Castle, The Blame Game.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Cube is about a group of strangers who wake up in a fairly featureless room alone with a small portal in each of the walls. Through each of the portals is another room just like the one they are in, except that that room may be equipped with a deadly trap, some of which can be outwitted, almost all of which can be avoided if you’re smart enough. The strangers band together and try to find a way out, but not before turning on each other. (Just a side note: it’s an unevenly acted film, and some of the dialogue is pretty bad, but the concept and direction make it a real nail-biter and worth seeing.)

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The similarities to The Blame Game should be fairly obvious. While Beckett is investigating the death of a journalist, Castle takes a quick moment out to inform Martha and Alexis that he’s on his way to meet Stephen King, who has invited him to collaborate with him on a project. Once at the address King has supposedly given him—a derelict building—the lights start to go out, there’s a sharp pain in his shoulder. Fade to black.

When he awakes, he’s in a kindergarten classroom with three other men he doesn’t recognize. They seem to have nothing in common except their need to get out of what is quickly discovered to be a room that is booby-trapped and laden with clues… some of which lead to other clues, some of which are deadly, all of which appear to suggest that only some, or one, of them will make it out alive. They are being watched via camera, and there’s a television in the room that comes to life to reveal that their spouses/girlfriends (except for one character, who doesn’t have either) are being held in an identical classroom.

Beckett, lured to the same building and kidnapped like all the others, is in that other room, of course. There is a television in their room as well, but the monitor only comes on at given and meaningful intervals where what’s happening in the other room might have an impact on their own behaviour (for example when, after both groups have discovered the gun and the note that says only one person in the room will be allowed to leave alive, one spouse grabs the gun, and the monitor comes on; seeing what their partner is about to do encourages the corresponding spouse to also grab for the gun in the belief that the two of them will be reunited. This, of course, does not happen.)

So like in Cube, the participants are at each others’ throats at various times, as they argue over what to do next or deal with the threat of “there can be only one.” One key difference, however, is that while purpose of the Cube or even who built it (although one of the people trapped inside did have a hand in it) is never revealed, The Blame Game is, a la Criminal Minds, all about discovering who created such a terrible set-up and why. This falls not just on those trapped inside, but also to Ryan and Esposito, who are tracking down the journalist’s killer (who is linked to this experiment), and Alexis, who discovers that her father has gone missing and works to track him down.

What is very different is that the maker of the hellish trap is inside it with them, and while it may not be obvious to most of the participants, it is painfully so to the audience. The first clue, that Todd never explains how he was lured to the building, is supposed to be countered by the whole bee-epi-pen-poison-antidote incident, but the sheer unlikelihood of such a trap actually working (Will they think to grab the axe early? Will the bee immediately go after Todd and either sting him or get close enough for Todd to fake it? Will they think to look for an Epi pen or consider it might be in the Cryptex? Will they have found the Cryptex for that matter? Will they solve that puzzle? And so on for the poison…). Plus, if you’ve ever seen anyone in anaphylactic shock, you know that Todd wasn’t suffering from that condition, since he had none of the actual physical signs. The whole episode made Todd seem more suspicious, rather than less. When, at the end, Castle and Beckett share that they too have caught on and list the ways in which he slipped up, it reads as though they are doing a standard mystery “reveal,” going back over the clues and explaining them to a character, but really doing it for the audience’s benefit, so they will understand what really happened.

The problem is that most of us have been in on it from the beginning. Castle‘s writers need to stop underestimating their viewers.

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In the meantime, Ryan and Esposito have been trying to track down the symbol found on their victim’s mirror, totally oblivious to the disappearance of both their captain and their buddy Castle, while Alexis and Hailey suss out that both have been kidnapped by a guy in a white van.

And this is where The Next Generation comes in. Near the end of the episode, when the police find Rick, Kate, and Todd/Brandon, Castle asks how they found them, and Ryan says “We had our best person on it” as Alexis runs into the room. Now, to be honest, Alexis’s role in finding them was about equal with that of Hailey and the boys, but looking back over the last season, a disturbing trend is starting to emerge: Alexis is becoming unrealistically central to the solving of cases, as in Tone Death a couple of weeks ago, where suddenly she was a bona fide hacker. Now, don’t get me wrong. I adore Alexis. But what I love about her is how much she was the adult to her father’s child. How she went a very different way than her father, while still indulging him and obviously loving him as much as any daughter might. It was bad enough that this season had her, for all practical purposes, dropping out of college (she’s still going, but when do we ever see evidence of it?), but the idea that she’s now become this investigative powerhouse is a bit much. And it’s not just that she’s Veronica Mars; she’s smart like Mars, so that might scan. It’s things like a sudden expertise in hitherto unexplored areas, like hacking, that’s problematic. She can’t be good at everything nor solve or fix everything. If the show wants to invite Wil Wheaton on, I’m sure Fillion has his number. They do not need to grow their own Wesley Crusher.

Also on the down side, there’s the big plot hole: remember the whole tandem spousal shooting incident? While Todd might very well have had a way to turn the monitor on in the women’s room to show them that the male half of the homicidal couple was dead, how exactly could he have known only moments before that the soon-to-be expired man’s wife had just grabbed the gun and was pointing it at Beckett and the other woman, thus prompting him to turn on the monitor in the men’s room so that they could see what was happening and thus motivating her spouse to also take up the gun and shortly after kill himself?

This glaring problem, along with the one about the unintentional transparency of Todd’s true identity, might have been resolved by simply not having him there in the first place, but just watching from a nearby control room. It’s important to remember that part of the reason Cube worked, despite its flaws, was because the core concept is so compelling. And although The Blame Game is unarguable derivative,  it wasn’t bad here. But, it could have been far more compelling if the writing had been more focused on the puzzles and mindgames than these other elements that led the story astray. A big part of Castle’s charm is watching our crimefighters solving unusual puzzles. Having them do it in this new environment would have been playing to the show’s strengths, not merely hoping we didn’t notice this week’s weaknesses.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Dead Red, here.