Castle season 8 episodes 1 & 2 review: XY & XX

Castle's opening season 8 two-parter feels frustratingly like a ratings-grasping attempt to rewind things back a few years...

This review contains spoilers.

8.1 XY & 8.2 XX

We’re only two episodes into Castle—a single two-part storyline (last week’s XY and this week’s concluding XX), and already, there’s more than a little room for concern.

It’s not exactly a secret that Castle’s strength is its cast. Arguably, Nathan Fillion may not be the most versatile actor on television, but he does have a knack for fostering chemistry. The thing that most of his work has in common is the sense of real connection between the actors—that they are enjoying their work but taking it seriously, regardless of the quality of the script they were given. And in the case of Castle, the script has always been the weak point.

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Take this season opener. Like each of the last two seasons, this year starts out with a story that threatens to change everything. Kate is about to step up as Captain of the precinct (goodbye, Captain Gates?) when she receives a call which sends her to meet a mystery man from her brief stint in Washington and both of them into an ambush. Someone is killing off her entire former team, and they almost get Beckett before she manages to take three of them down and get away. Now on the run, she cannot contact Castle without putting him (and her new family) in danger. That doesn’t stop the boys, however, from trying to track her down, aided by Alexis, who is now somehow managing to carry a fulltime college course load and work fulltime running her father’s private detective agency; new girl Hayley, a British import from Hackney with a posh accent who comes off as a rich girl slumming rather than vice versa; and Rita, who announces that she’s Rick’s step-mother to absolutely no fanfare—despite the rather surprising nature of that claim.

The whole thing revolves around Beckett’s nemesis and the man responsible for the murder of her mother, former Senator Bracken. He used to work with a large-scale drug dealer to fund his Presidential run by selling drugs. It turns out that there was a third party responsible for the flow of drugs into the country through an illegal CIA operation, and although they appear to identify the person responsible—Allison Hyde, who conveniently kills herself (or rather is killed)—it’s clear that the real culprit is still out there. And although Hyde’s staged death gives Beckett, Castle, and everyone else cover from the true killer by providing a plausible theory that into which they can pretend to buy, that’s not enough for Kate.

As Bracken warns Castle shortly before the disgraced Senator’s death: Beckett cannot leave well enough alone. She is determined, everyone’s warnings to the contrary, to find the true malefactor and bring him or her to justice, just like she did with her mother’s killer. Even if it means she has to leave her husband to do it.

While all of this sounds like a great kick-off to the season, there are two sizable problems here.

The first is that we’ve seen all this before. As I said, each of the last three seasons has started out with this kind of game-changing beginning. But Kate’s Washington gig at the beginning of season six was over by the end of the third episode of that season, and Castle’s mysterious disappearance at the beginning of the seventh turned out to be one of the most disappointing storylines imaginable—either mentioned in passing or ignored entirely for most of the season until it culminated in a poorly done episode that provided completely unsatisfying answers. Such season-starters make one long for a good end-of season cliffhanger where all we expected at the beginning of the next is to find out that everyone is still alive and healthy.

But to do the same thing three seasons in a row?

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Oh, sure, you could argue that we don’t know that that’s what’s going on this season. That this time it’s going to be different. But if the strength of the show is the cast, the evergreen weakness is the writing—and particularly the lack of either originality or risk-taking on the part of the writers over the years. Castle is not a show that takes chances or reinvents itself. Hell, its leads only got together after its closest rival—Bones—had had theirs together for a good while.

And when you talk about poor writing, the blame, in most cases, goes to the showrunner. The showrunner, nowadays, is the person for the overall direction of the show, including overseeing (if not doing) the writing. In many cases, the showrunner is the creator of the show—the one who came up with the concept, and the person you’d imagine has the clearest idea of where the show should go next. And usually, when the showrunner is changed, it’s a pretty clear indication that the powers-that-be think that the series is off-the-rails. 

Castle has had three showrunners in the last three years. Andrew Marlowe, the creator and showrunner, stepped aside at the end of the sixth season for David Amann. Amann lasted only one season, and has now been replaced by Castle writers Alexi Hawley and Terrence Paul Winter for season eight. And if you thought that new showrunners meant new ideas, here’s the second problem with the resolution to XX:

It appears that Hawley and Winter’s reason for having Beckett walk out on Rick at the end of the episode is their desire to keep things “fresh.” As they explained to TVLine: “We’re using this to actually put the spark back in, and the stakes back in, which give us the fun and the juice… Obviously there’s some heartbreak in it as well, but it makes it much more emotionally impactful every week, because there are stakes now.”

That’s right. They’ve looked (as, I imagine, have network executives) at the dip in ratings last season and, rather than decide to do something new or exciting with Caskett, have chosen to merely turn the clock back to when ratings were better—when the two were still at the “will they or won’t they?” stage.

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It’s hard to make the argument that this is anything but a rewind. After all, when Kate solved her mother’s murder and caught Bracken, it wasn’t just the closing of a case. It was the end of an era for her. She left behind a big and largely dysfunctional part of herself (in one of the best episodes Castle’s ever produced) in order to embrace her life with Rick. She wasn’t, as Bracken put it, just becoming Mrs. Castle. She was becoming her adult self—free from the ghosts of her childhood.

And now, that’s just gone. A season and a half of growth wiped away because the writers cannot imagine that we will keep watching unless we’re asking ourselves if they will get together…again.

This does not bode well for season eight of Castle. I would be very surprised if next week’s ratings didn’t show just how much the new showrunners have misjudged their characters, and their audience. 

Read Laura’s review of the season seven finale, Hollander’s Woods, here.