Castle Series Finale Review: Crossfire

Castle ends for good with a season 8 finale that doesn't do justice to the strength of this show's actors, or its fans' love...

This Castle series finale review contains spoilers.

Castle Season 8 Episode 22 “Crossfire”

I’ve tried. I’ve tried really hard. I’ve watched and rewatched, and there’s only one conclusion: “Crossfire is downright insulting to the Castle audience.

As I suggested last week, I’m not exactly surprised by this. The series finale doesn’t just conclude the show, but brings to end one of the most excruciating seasons ever of a show that I otherwise liked. It’s not that I haven’t always had my problems with Castle. I have. But I’ve been a fan of Nathan’s since his short stint on Buffy, where he played, the Gentlemen from Hush aside, the only truly frightening villain the show ever had. And so I’ve followed him, from Firefly to Slither and Waitress to Drive and even Desperate Housewives (the gods helps me) and a dozen other guest starring roles, and thus, finally, to Andrew Marlowe’s brainchild.

And it’s not just that the guy is ruggedly handsome—though, of course, he is. He’s also undeniably, overwhelmingly charismatic… and yet oddly humble. No matter how talented Fillion might be, he never seems to take himself too seriously, nor does he take for granted how blessed he’s been in his career. What might otherwise be insufferable instead becomes his charm.

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And the truth is that you can hang a lot on that kind of an actor. Producers frequently do. By the time Fillion signed up for Castle, it was clear that that was the selling point of the entire show. He was to be to the procedural what he had been to Firefly: the unifying focal point, which also seemed a mistake. After all, how can you have a police procedural with romantic leads if one of those leads is the primary draw? How do you deal with such a fundamental imbalance?

You cast Stana Katic. For just the reasons I’ve given, I thought sure Castle would go the way of Drive. But Katic is a force to be reckoned with, and she had just the right presence to take the wind out of the sails of a personality as large as Fillion and his Rick Castle without completely deflating or deflecting him. In a show about a strange but ultimately perfect match, they—as actors, if not as friends—were just that.

Marlowe then surrounded his partners with a great ensemble. None of the characters themselves—any more than Rick or Kate—were anything particularly special or original. But what happened on Firefly happened on Castle: it quickly became clear that these actors were really enjoying thoroughly themselves (perhaps because of that common Canadian thread). And when that happens, it shows on-screen. The series develops a chemistry that is contagious and infects the audience—they are just as hooked as the people making the show.

Of course, the similarities between Castle and Firefly end when it comes to another major component of a television series: the writing. Joss Whedon isn’t just a good writer. He brings a level of imagination and ambition to his work that’s fairly breathtaking and he inspires his stable of writers to meet him on his level. Castle, on the other hand, had all the hallmarks of a badly written series from the outset. The premise, for example, was almost too ridiculous, too trite, to be creditable: the concept of a crazy novel writer doing a semi-permanent ride-along with a hard-boiled by-the-book homicide detective sounds like something spit out by a television series random generator commissioned by a soulless TV exec.

I’m still not entirely convinced it wasn’t.

Because if there was a cliché that could be adapted to the Castle universe, Marlowe and company embraced it without reserve. Virtually every plot was as predictable as a Scooby Doo episode. And almost as ridiculous. Only the childlike (or childish, depending on the episode) quality of the character of Rick Castle and his willingness to embrace the absurd kept the audience from objecting. Eventually, the outlandishness of the crimes (coupled with uninspired solutions) became one of the hallmarks of the series.

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Another writer failing, especially in the first couple of seasons, was the dialogue; it was so boilerplate I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which specific other police procedural a particular conversation with a “perp” had been lifted from unaltered, but I would have bet it was. But luckily, over time, the actors seemed to have an impact on the writing. They found physical ways to overcome the flat dialogue they had been given and carved out actual characters despite the words. Those characters eventually found their way into the writing, rather than vice versa. Go back and watch the Ryan and Esposito in the first season and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

But whatever its failings, the show was a hit. It was never going to be critically acclaimed because of its narrative limitations, especially the Moonlighting-framed handling of the Caskett relationship for the first four years, but fans loved the leads, the chemistry of the entire ensemble, and the Joanna Beckett myth arc that defined Kate’s character. And despite the expectations of romantic cynics, the series even survived its lead consummating their relationship. If anything, season six, which took place after this earth-shattering (in television terms) event, was one of the best.

And then Marlowe stepped down, and things went to hell.

I will be the first to admit that I was never really a fan and said so as I reviewed the show under his leadership, frustrated with the ways he had limited his own creation. It had not occurred to me until he left that there was one thing worse than Castle repeating other shows, and that was Castle repeating itself. Under new management, and especially in this last year, fans have endured a weird kind of ret-conning. As the Joanna Beckett/Bracken storyline morphed into the LokSat one, it seemed as though the writers developed a case of amnesia and expected that to be as contagious as the enthusiasm that had first infected fans.

After all, one of the major milestones in Kate Beckett’s character development was when she learned that, in chasing down her personal demons, she could not do it alone, keeping those who loved her in the dark: it was not safe for her nor fair to them. These were lessons she learned in season three’s “Knockdown and season’s five “Always,” the latter of which was also the moment when she and Rick finally turned the corner and became a couple in love.

So to start this last season of Castle with Kate suddenly acting as though none of that ever happened, as though she had forgotten that it was her partnership with Castle in tracking down those responsible for her mother’s death that had led to the greatest breakthroughs and kept both her and others alive was frustrating enough. But in the same way that her initial realization had led her to open herself to a romantic relationship with Rick, this sudden lapse in memory also seemed to roll back her relationship with her husband.

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Season eight showrunners Terrence Paul Winter and Alexi Hawley had Beckett pretending that there was something wrong with the relationship, or she needed a break or… something. Whatever it was, we now had Castle acting like the lovesick puppy he had been in season four/five, chasing after his own wife, desperate to make amends for whatever is was he had(n’t) done.

In the meantime, the LokSat storyline largely languished, while far more time was spent on the new gulf between the partners we fans had waited so long to see united. As the season wore on, the reason they were apart, or apparently apart, or eventually back together with virtually no explanation—LokSat—essentially went nowhere. As late as the penultimate episode, Hell To Pay, we were just waiting for something, anything, to happen. And then, “Crossfire.”

If “Crossfire had been a standard crime-of-the-week episode, it would not have been so bad. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time an interesting character from a few episodes back made a reappearance. But the Joanna Beckett/Bracken/LokSat storyline has been building up for eight years both in and out of the narrative universe we’re talking about. To make the ultimate baddie of the show someone we didn’t get to meet until halfway through the last season, and then to make him so utterly transparent that my husband—who couldn’t tell you who Joanna, Bracken, or Loksat are—watching over my shoulder comments as Beckett and Castle narrowly escape the trap LokSat has set for them, “Um, those gunmen don’t actually wanna stop this Mason guy, do they? They aren’t aiming for either the driver or the tyres”? After all this time, all this build-up, all the brilliant work on the part of your actors working on this storyline over the years, some random guy from the Greatest Detective Agency is the best you could come up with? It shows both a lack of planning and forethought on the part of the writers and the belief that we’re too dumb to notice or care.

The same might be said for the second ending that’s tacked on. No, not that one. We’ll get there in a minute.

I mean the one where we find out that Caleb isn’t really dead and he returns to the couple’s apartment to kill them both. How does this begin to make any sense? We already know that Mason, Caleb, and Mr. Flynn are driven by pragmatic motives rather than emotional ones. So revenge is out. And everyone thinks Caleb is dead, so coming back to kill Rick and Kate is running a terrible risk—at this point, he can take off and no one would ever suspect to come looking for him.

So why does he come back to shoot Castle and Beckett?

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That’s right, so that there would be a cliffhanger going into what would turn out to be the non-existent ninth season. Because there has to be a cliffhanger. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t necessarily have a problem with ending on a cliffhanger, although, as I have expressed elsewhere, it’s often a sign of writer’s insecurity. What I do object to is when said cliffhanger isn’t an integral part of the story and is instead just some inexplicable (or in this case, counter-intuitive) coda tacked on to the end of a season. Honestly, it’s so ham-handed, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a first-year scriptwriter’s rough draft.

And then there’s the “happy ending.”

We heard, going into this episode, that we shouldn’t worry. Winter and Hawley had made sure that an alternate ending had been shot just in case the series wasn’t renewed. They might have saved themselves the trouble.

If it weren’t bad enough that it looked like the series was going to go out on the image of Beckett and Castle crawling towards each other to die in a pool of their mixed blood, the writers had to go and make it just that much worse. Because however clichéd the dead partners crawling to each other is, at least the dying together had the appeal of a great love ending in a great tragedy. If they had let go of their hubris, of the mystery of LokSat and the belief that only they could set the world right, perhaps this could all have been avoided. Tragic, but in the end, noble.

Instead, we get a hazy (really?) flash-forward with no explanation of how they survived to what is yet another disjointed, narratively lazy moment in time where they are making breakfast for their three (prophesied—I guess they were paying attention to some of the series’ canon) kids. But in doing so, they treat us like children. Did they think we wouldn’t be able to handle seeing our heroes die? Or that if they had indicated that the two would eventually be saved (by Martha or Hayley or Alexis of any of a number of other characters dropping by—or Lucy/Linus calling the cops even), that we wouldn’t be able to imagine the “happily ever after for ourselves.” It’s bad enough to pander to your audience so obviously. But to do it with such low expectations of that audience? It’s hard not to be outright insulted.

But then, that’s been season eight all along.  Thankfully, it’s over.

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Am I happy to see Castle gone? Absolutely not. Whatever my qualms with the show, however formulaic or saccharine it might have sometimes been in the earlier seasons, it was always fun, and Fillion, Katic and the rest treated the audience and their roles with greater respect than they themselves were often treated. I am sad to see the show end, but even sadder to see it end the way it did.

I am also sad that it means these reviews have come to an end. I write them in order to connect with other fans, and many of you have discussed your own thoughts and opinions with me in the comments. Thank you for reading and even more for posting. It’s made it worth every late night.