Castle season 8 episode 17 review: Death Wish

Rick goes off the fantasy deep-end in this week's left-field Aladdin-themed episode of Castle...

This review contains spoilers.

8.17 Death Wish

If last week’s episode, Heartbreaker, was an excellent example of one of my favorite types of Castle episodes, then this week’s Death Wish, is one of my least favorite. And that’s because it invalidates an important part of who Rick Castle is.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where Nathan Fillion ends and Rick Castle begins. And that’s been entirely intentional. The role of Castle was designed, let’s face it, to take the larger-than-geek-life charisma of Fillion and deliver it to a more mainstream audience without diminishing what we geeks love about Nathan.

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Whether you’ve seen him on a stage at a panel, giving an interview, or had an autograph or photograph session with Fillion, you’re likely to report the same things: he’s bigger than life, even IRL. He is full of both a happy-go-lucky, inoffensive celebrity confidence bordering on arrogance and an aw-shucks humility that seem completely contradictory until he greets you, after you’ve stood in line for three hours waiting to meet him, by offering you his hand and introducing himself–“Hi, I’m Nathan”—as though an introduction might be necessary. He cracks jokes, he does imitations, and he almost never, ever stops playing.  [Note: He does not, however, tolerate rudeness towards others in his presence, however. I’ve witnessed a Fillion glower at someone taking a call at the wrong place at a rude time, and it made Buffy’s Caleb look like a pussycat. Fair warning.] I once got the chance to ask him if he was having as much fun in life as he always seems to be, and his enthusiastic response and Cheshire-cat grin made it clear that nothing about that aspect of him is an act.

And much of that is harnessed to create Castle.

There are a few important differences. Fillion is a very private person about his personal life, but it’s safe to say that he does not have two ex-wives, both of whom left him despite his best efforts to make the relationships work. He does not have a daughter that he raised largely alone and who seems like the kind of child we all hope our progeny might resemble in terms of accomplishment and maturity level. He is not the child of a fairly flighty Broadway actress, but comes from what seems a stable family—both of his parents are retired English teachers; he is the one who ran off to become an actor.

In other words, while Castle may be built largely on the persona Fillion exudes in the geek world, Rick does have a serious side that Fillion may, if not lack, at least does not share with the rest of the world. He has fun, but he takes his duties as father, son, and husband very seriously. He may be a creative writer of fiction, but Rick very much lives in the real world. He has to. Detective fiction is all about the characters. You cannot create compelling, interesting characters if you lack the ability to observe and analyse the world and the people around you. His ability to do this is what makes him valuable not just as a writer but as a detective—the whole premise of the show.

So when we get an episode—and there’s one every couple of years or so—where Rick steps over the line from jokingly entertaining a theory of a crime by positing “pirate’s booty, cold fusion, alien cadavers” to starting to believe his own ludicrous hypothesis, it grates. As Rick puts it, sometimes, the “storyteller inside (him) craves a far more far-fetched” explanation, but he still knows the difference between fantasy and reality.

And thus, Death Wish annoys. This week’s murder victim has recently returned from Turkey, where he was fired from his job as a sonar technician for an oil exploration company, and has been found beheaded by his own scimitar, surrounded by what appears to be a bunch of new, high-end purchases and books on King’s Solomon’s tomb and 1001 Arabian Nights. With the help of the victim’s ex-boyfriend, a college professor, and a mysterious blonde woman, Castle and company quickly realize that the man without a head, Lars, was using his job as a cover for his true mission in Turkey: to find Solomon’s tomb. And that it is his success that led to his death.

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While the rest of the team focuses on the possibility that Lars was killed over a host of unknown antiquities which he stole from the tomb and had shipped back to the States, Rick singles one out: he is convinced that not only has Lars found Solomon’s tomb, but has found Aladdin’s lamp and believes it to be magical. He also becomes convinced that the mysterious but helpful blonde feeding him information is actually a genie, despite being told that genies themselves are dangerous, demonic creatures.

Why Aladdin’s lamp would be found in the tomb of a king of Israel is never really explained—1001 Arabian Nights is actually based on a Syrian manuscript from the 14th century AD, about 2000 years after the death of Solomon.

Along the way, the writers give Rick “reasons” for suspecting that the blonde, named Genevieve, or Genie for short, is the supernatural being he wants her to be, but this mostly involves her ability to quickly appear and disappear when she is needed—hardly a surprising quality in a “fixer.” But it’s enough to keep him thinking about what he’ll wish for when he finds the lamp, rubs it, and becomes the genie’s new master (which he is convinced is what she wants). This isn’t just “fantasy-augmented.” It’s nearly full-on delusion.

However, since we’re talking about wishes, I kinda wish that the writers, in keeping Castle amused, had thought to construct a better mystery around this lamp. Because, quite literally, by the end, there’s only one possible suspect left, so it’s really no surprise who did it. And although there’s a certain geek joy in seeing Denise Crosby (short-lived Tasha Yar from Star Trek: the Next Generation), she comes off here as stiff and not very convincing.

Oh, and the scare about Jenny and the baby, and Kate asking Rick to wish for them to be okay—that was manipulative and undermined whatever fun we were supposed to be having.  

All of that said, if you are going to have Rick going off the fantasy deep-end, Fillion handles it well enough—he knows how to dial it up enough to sell it, even if it is over-the-top, even for Rick. And Katic, Huertas, and Dever are old and very good hands at eye-rolling at this point.

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If it seems that I’m saying that they should never do these out-in-left-field episodes, I want to be clear that I’m not. I don’t mean that the writers can never play with the line between fantasy and reality, but fantasy always has to be the thing that gives, because, in the end, Rick lives in the real world. So if the writers are going to do these episodes, they should try to keep them closer to early last season’s Clear And Present Danger.

That episode, which involved Castle and Beckett being attacked by an invisible man, was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And in that case, the mystery was solved when they realized they were dealing with a prototype for a suit that used cloaking technology to render the wearer practically invisible. It didn’t take the challenge out of the mystery nor, really, even the magic from Castle’s point of view since he treats technology almost as though it is magic.

In other words, it both kept us solidly on the ground, kept Rick in character, and allowed us to experience his sense of wonder. And that’s a big part of why we like both Castle and Fillion: because both of them, really, spend a lot of their time playing and having a very good time—they are grown men acting with childlike enthusiasm for the adventures that come their way while never ceasing to be adults. In cynical times like these, it’s not a bad way to live. 

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