Castle season 8 episode 3 review: PhDead

Why are Kate and Rick being sent back to the start in Castle season 7? What happened to years of character development?

This review contains spoilers.

8.3 PhDead

When people talk about the Moonlighting Curse, they usually focus on the idea that the writers of whatever show seem unable to conceive of a romantic relationship that’s interesting to watch without the constant tension of “will they or won’t they?” “Is it possible,” they ask incredulously, “that television writers have never been a part of a healthy, happy, and yes, interesting couple?”

But while the near-misses and impossibly-timed collisions with exes/mobsters/aliens are frustrating and confounding, to me, they are not the worst part of the curse. Nor is it the ridiculous idea that two people would work side-by-side for years on end as ‘best friends’ and not have a simple, honest, clarifying talk about the sexual tension between them or even just the ever-increasing implausibility that nothing—ever—seems able to break the stalemate between the two.

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No. While all of those qualify, in my mind as poor writing, they are not the thing about the writing that makes me want to tear my hair out when watching a show that buys into the Moonlighting formula. What drives me completely around the bend is the blatant disrespect that writers almost certainly must show their characters in order to make the Moonlighting trope work—even in the original.

When the romantic leads on that show, David and Maddie, consummated their relationship in the middle of the third season, you would have thought that the show, already modelled after the screwball comedies of the 1930s, would settle down into a Nick and Nora Charles-esque model, the now-coupled pair continuing to solve crimes and playfully spar, only with a lot more kissing woven in. But alas, this was not to be.

Instead, the writers almost immediately split the two back up and the entire tenor of the show changed. It ceased to be largely about the cases and instead became about their liaison: the pain in the now broken relationship. But more distressingly, the characters themselves changed. The wise-cracking David with the heart of gold disappeared, as did the self-assured and witty Maddie. The characters we had fallen in love with weren’t built to suffer. Yes, they had been, to a small extent, obstacles to their own conjoined happiness for a while. But once they admitted their feelings, the internal obstacle should largely have been gone.

But it wasn’t. Not because it made sense for the characters—it didn’t. But because the show needed a reason, any reason, to keep them apart. And their own depressed inability to interact, to enjoy each other, to even be in the same room, accomplished that. “Will they or won’t they get together?” became “Can they or can’t they fix it?” and the two of them were so miserable, so suddenly dysfunctional, so not David and Maddie, that the question wasn’t an attractive one to consider. Watching them just hurt.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

This week’s Castle was painful. PhDead might have been a decent episode in terms of the mystery, but like those post-break-up episodes of Moonlighting, the case was so overshadowed by what was going on with Kate and Rick that it was hard to focus on the murder. And while I have always been impressed with the cast’s ability to elevate the material they’re given, in this instance, even they could not save it.

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And a great deal of that probably had to do with the fact that the script, at least for the scenes that touched on the relationship, didn’t appear to make any sense.

As PhDead opened, we saw Rick alone in the apartment, obviously adrift. That’s hardly surprising considering his wife has told him that she needs some time to clear her head. When he catches sight of a package on the table, he gets that Castle gleam in his eye, and unwraps his new Cortana-like companion who asks him to introduce him. “I’m Rick Castle, and my wife just left me.” “Sucks to be you,” it replies, and he casts it a dark but funny glower. For a moment, we think, hey, this might be okay. Maybe they can pull this off. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode sinks those hopes.

Because for the rest of PhDead, all Castle can talk about is how he is going to “win” his wife back. Which, don’t get me wrong, that’s an admirable goal… if, in fact, you’ve lost her. But he hasn’t. Let’s rewind to the end of last week’s episode. Kate announces that she needs some time to clear her head. To get things straight in herself. When he tells her he will do anything to save her marriage, she tells him that is why she needs the time—she is doing this to save their marriage. She loves him and hopes that when she has her stuff worked out, he will love her enough to take her back.

Now, I know that the men among you get accused of not listening to your better halves, often by your better halves. But you don’t have to be paying a whole lot of attention here to understand that Kate is quite clearly telling him: this isn’t about you or anything you’ve done. I’m screwed up and need some time to get my head together. She tells him outright: I’ll be back. I hope you’re here waiting for me when I come back.

But even if you buy into the men-don’t listen stereotype (I don’t), this isn’t just some wife telling her husband to pick up some dinner on the way home. These are two people deeply in love, who have worked for that love, talking about that love being in danger, and one of them is Rick Castle.

While I suppose it’s possible to be a world-famous novelist with no idea how people communicate (cough—E. L. James—cough), it’s a bit harder to believe that you can actively interrogate people—people who are actively trying to keep murderous secrets—on a regular basis and not be able to hear what people are saying to you. Especially when multiple people are telling you. Multiple times. Not only does Lanie clearly tell Rick that Kate just needs some time to herself, but Kate reiterates her position in this episode, and still Castle carps on about winning her back.

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But even more out of character is that Rick’s whole raison d’etre is to solve mysteries. Even when no one else knows they are mysteries. The man can conjure up a conspiracy given the slightest provocation. And yet, nothing about the reemergence of Bracken and his doings, not even his death or the convenient death of Allison Hyde (Jacqueline Obradors), sets Castle’s Spidey-sense tingling, not even Kate going all lone wolf, the way she has before around the conspiracy involving her mother’s death.

And despite everything we know about him, we’re supposed to buy this. And the idea that somehow the fact that she’s walked out on him will keep the bad guys from using him against her when she becomes too much of a problem.

These, coupled with his repeatedly stated intention to earn her back in precisely the way he originally won her, speaks volumes about the writing here. If all we’re going to do is throw out the last seven years of character development and relive the same courtship, can’t we just end the series and watch season one on DVD? At least there’d be some excuse for what we’re seeing.

Showrunners Terrence Winters and Alexis Hawley have been making the rounds in the last week or so, talking up their decision to split the two, as I touched on in last week’s review of XX. They’ve redoubled their efforts since the Twitterverse came crashing down on them with outrage over the denouement of that episode, expressing hope that fans would stick with the series and have faith that things would improve.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this done before, back in the 80s. And it didn’t end well for the characters or the series. At this point, they might want to take their cue from another 80s show—Dallas—and have Rick walk out of the shower to find that it’s the morning of his end-of-season-six wedding day, and the last year has all been some terribly bad dream. More than one fan would be profoundly grateful. 

Read Laura’s review of the previous episodes, XY and XX, here.

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