Monday, February 25, 2013

THAT Scene: how Castle betrayed its main character (and the audience)

When Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) tortures an injured man for information, it sells out the character in the name of plot momentum.

THAT Scene is a recurring feature that takes a closer look at a single scene that exemplifies a particular show, theme or moment in time. The scene might be good or bad, but it will always be memorable and worth talking about.

When judged alongside other serious Castle episodes (for the record, the worst kind of Castle episodes), "Target," the first half of the Alexis-gets-kidnapped two-parter that ends tonight with "Hunt," is actually pretty solid. The hour does a good job of building to the reveal that Alexis (Molly Quinn) is missing, first by playing Castle's increasing paranoia over the Columbia-set mystery for laughs, then having Castle and Beckett discover that Alexis was with Sara El-Masri (Karen David) the night she went missing, and finally revealing that Castle's daughter was the kidnappers' second victim. It was also a good episode for Alexis, who has been increasingly grating as of late; Quinn did a great job leaving behind the character's neuroses and showing that she can be calm and collected under pressure while remaining vulnerable. Plus, we got a surprisingly detailed and accurate depiction of how to pick a lock in the bargain!

One incredibly jarring moment, however, nearly soured the whole experience for me. After finding the injured driver of the kidnappers' getaway vehicle in a local hospital, Beckett (Stana Katic) and Castle (whose presence at the interrogation of a man involved in his daughter's kidnapping would bother me more if it weren't consistent with Castle's usual blatant disregard for actual police procedure) try to get the man to tell them where Alexis and Sara are being held. After an immunity offer fails to entice, Castle asks Beckett to give him a moment alone with the man. We see Castle threaten the suspect, and then cut to Beckett outside, as we hear the injured man scream. A moment later, Castle emerges with the address of a farmhouse north of New York City.

This scene is just over a minute long, and in sixty seconds manages to undercut everything we know about Richard Castle. Even worse, it does this not in the name of character development, but in the name of plot contrivance. Castle tortures the suspect (and, based on what the scene shows us, there is absolutely torture going on here) because the show needs to stage a scene of FBI agents breaking down the doors of a house that, since this is a two-parter, never stood a chance of being the correct location. Castle's cold-hearted treatment of the prisoner has no repercussions for the character, beyond Beckett's quick aside that she's never seen this side of her boyfriend before, and it barely has any consequences for the plot.

The scene does, however, carry immense repercussions for any audience members who have actually become invested in these characters over the course of the show's five-year run. Castle's actions are completely out of character for a man whose particular set of skills is focused on wisecracks, elaborate costumes and spinning fanciful narratives about homicides rather than Liam Neeson-style ass-kicking. (Although given the reveal of Alexis' location at the end of the episode, it seems that the show's writers took a few cues from Taken.) And yes, I get that the point of the scene is to demonstrate Castle's fierce loyalty to the people he cares about, but it's not like Nathan Fillion went all Zero Dark Thirty (timely Oscars reference alert!) on the asses of anyone in the shadowy syndicate dedicated to taking down Kate Beckett. Castle the show is clearly trying to showcase the desperation of a parent whose child has been kidnapped, but Castle the character has always been more of a teddy bear than a commando.

The scene would be less problematic (although no less jarring), though, if there was any indication that the scene was going to have any character-based repercussions. But since Castle's actions are so far distant from his characterization as to belong to someone else entirely - and since the fact that the lovable writer illegally tortured someone is never brought up again - the moment becomes nothing more than a plot contrivance, a way to get from point A to point B. (It's especially infuriating because point B consists of that cliched crime thriller stand-by of cutting between the captives and the FBI strike team who are in two completely different locations, Silence of the Lambs-style). In other words, Castle just sold out the characterization of its main character for a plot development that doesn't actually go anywhere.

The real issue with the decision to privilege plot momentum over character is that, when it comes to Castle, the plot has always been secondary to the characters. The mysteries on this show, whether cases-of-the-week or excessively far-reaching conspiracies, have always been vehicles for the fun characterizations and easy chemistry that define the show. On the surface, this episode should have been a great exemplar of that philosophy, as it features a mystery that is heavily centered around the main character and his relationship with his daughter. Instead, "Target" pushes Castle's characterization to the breaking point to serve the plot, and in doing so demonstrates the writers' disregard for the elements that elevate Castle above the mediocre procedural that the cases-of-the-week would suggest.

It's certainly possible that I'm overreacting to this scene, and that no one else finds it as bothersome as I do. It's also possible that this week's conclusion, "Hunt," will have Castle in trouble with the police for torturing a suspect and Beckett seriously re-evaluating her conception of her boyfriend, which will at least demonstrate that the writing staff understands the seriousness of what they did. For now, however, I know that Castle betrayed its fundamental strength - the characters, specifically Fillion's Castle - in favor of plot contrivance. Richard Castle would disapprove of that type of lazy storytelling, and his fans should feel free to do the same.