9:52pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Castle' Series Finale Strikes a Sour Note
[This article contains spoilers for the Monday, May 16, series finale of ABC's Castle.]
I would say that in the aftermath of the hilariously bad series finale of ABC's Castle that I feel sorry for the fans who dedicated eight years to have things end that way, but I watched eight seasons of the show, too. So, darnit, I feel sorry for me as well. But also for the fans. Always for the fans.
I must admit that I had little invested in Castle. At its best, it was a fun, clever procedural carried by the considerable charm of its stars. Nathan Fillion entered the series as the guy with the cult fandom and the crazed devotees, but it was clear from very early on that Stana Katic was, at least in this context, entirely his equal. Their joint chemistry, which in my opinion never required they become a romantic couple, was there when they were bickering co-workers brought together by Castle's persistence and it was there when they were friends and productive co-workers. The chemistry remained when they were coupled up, even if that also was when the show began a decline that marred its last two seasons.
The show didn't run out of ways for Castle and Beckett to do their jobs while also being a couple. It barely even tried. Castle was abducted on his way to their wedding, setting up one extended and wholly artificial separation. Beckett dove into a high-level conspiracy and imposed a second extended and wholly artificial separation that sullied most of this season's episodes. Some people will incorrectly point to Castle's post-coupling failures as proof of something lazy folks call The Moonlighting Curse, but it's actually an illustration of how, to whatever limited degree it may exist, The Moonlighting Curse is a self-inflicted phenomenon. Pairing Beckett and Castle up didn't kill Castle, but failing to make creative use of them as a couple probably did. We'll leave aside the rumors of what was happening behind-the-scenes and how it related to separating the leads. Writers have to tell their stories. Or if circumstances force them into corners, they still have to find better ways out.
More than anything, Castle just fell into the justifiable creative rut that comes from doing 170+ episodes of a procedural story and there's no shame to that. If you're a CSI or a Law & Order, you have the constant ability to grab new stories from headlines or medical records, but that wasn't the kind of show Castle was. Over the years, producers tried adding life-or-death stakes to a couple episodes per season and those were rarely my favorites, nor were the episodes that built a mythology around different mysteries involving Castle and Beckett's respective parents. The episodes I liked were the ones that creatively hewed to the oldest and most old-fashioned of whodunnit formulas: Pair a rule-breaking amateur with a streak of whimsy and a vein of paranoia with a by-the-books authority figure, dump them into a case that initially strains credulity and spurs the amateur's imagination and come to a resolution that incorporates both legitimate crime-fighting and also vigilante spirit and that leaves both heroes feeling like they've made compromises. Castle believed in all sorts of wacky things and every case was his favorite case ever. Beckett didn't believe in any of those things, but she cared enough about Castle to encourage him. And if the resolution to the crime didn't turn out to involve vampires, Satan or black-helicopter government conspiracies, Beckett was never smug and Castle always contributed enough that he was never sullen. It was a partnership of difference, but also equals.
And apparently they loved each other, Beckett and Castle did.
In a statement released tonight, the show's current executive producers called Castle "a love story for the ages," which makes me wonder why they were apparently prepared to go on with the show if ABC had done what absolutely everybody expected last week and ordered a ninth season, even though it had already been announced that Katic would not be back. I don't care about the circumstances surrounding Katic's exit. If there was behind-the-scenes whatever, it's none of my business here. What is my business is that writers who spent two-plus seasons conspiring to keep the show's two main characters apart and yet still called it "a love story for the ages" were ready to keep going for an additional season completely without half of that love story. Was the season going to be Castle mourning Beckett, but eventually coming to realize through a season of wasting time with Ryan and Esposito that he was lucky to have been able to share time with Beckett at all? Come on.
Incidentally, I had to look up both "Ryan" and "Esposito." I vaguely know that there were two other cops who got to be part of B-stories every week and maybe they got one or two focal-point episodes every few seasons. They were never what I watched Castle for. If Castle had turned around and gotten rid of both Katic and Fillion, I would have come back for a season focusing on Castle's daughter Alexis (the increasingly versatile Molly Quinn) and MI6 veteran Hayley (Toks Olagundoye, the only good part of the eighth season) as they started a new PI business, but ABC was never going to give a valuable piece of primetime real estate to a show starring Quinn, Olagundoye and the guys playing Ryan and Esposito. Once that was the case, I actually applaud ABC for cutting bait and not returning with Half-Castle, which would have been totally the expected course of complacent action for the network.
That's another strange part of the Castle legacy, that ABC has had five years of struggling to launch shows in several drama time periods, but the network never thought it might be a good idea to put Castle, an established performer, on Tuesday at 10 p.m. and then letting a different drama have its biggest available audience lead-in in Dancing With the Stars. Instead, that Dancing audience was for Castle and Castle alone, a mystery of programming that I've never understood. I can't think of many shows that lasted as long as Castle lasted without ever needing to stand on its own, other than the handful of episodes that aired without Dancing each season and inevitably drooped in the ratings, but again never convinced ABC to make a move.
But let's get back to the finale ...
Charitable fans are celebrating that at least the episode pandered to them and gave them an ending and that it was the best that could have been hoped for, given that Evil ABC canceled the show abruptly.
This is not really true.
This was, perhaps, the best that could have been hoped for given how bad the rest of this season has been. It's like I've always said when people have called How I Met Your Mother one of the worst finales ever: To me, that finale was just the continuation and climax of a four- or five-year decline. A bad finale squanders good will and, in ending the series, makes a shocking deviation into badness to impose a culmination. But everything Castle did this year, from the contrivances to keep Beckett and Castle apart to the ongoing mystery with LokSat to the utterly one-dimensional and pointless new sidekick Vikram, was handled with equal degrees of clumsiness. You could have given the writers five weeks' warning and maybe they would have added a different storybeat or two, but they couldn't have fixed that finale.
And the things that worked in the finale were things that were going to be there even if it was just a season finale and not the end of all things. Castle, under a truth serum, talking about how much he loved Beckett and how he wouldn't change a thing, even if being with her was about to mean his death, was sweet. It was stupid drama, because Castle would have said those things to anybody who would have listened, and having him do it under a truth serum was pointless. The point of the old "Character admits his true emotions under truth serum" gag, a hoary crutch if ever there was one, is that they admit repressed feelings that they may not even understand themselves. This condition does not apply to Castle, but if you think it was nice, that's fine. Ditto with Beckett "confessing" her love and admiration for Castle to Mason. As a series finale, you like having those moments, even if the audience already knew those things and the characters already knew them and it was a silly thing for Beckett to be telling Mason, especially since apparently at the time she already knew that Mason was LokSat.
Oh. Right. That. The recognizable character actor (Gerald McRaney) from an earlier episode this season who showed up in this episode for no discernible reason turned out to be the Big Bad. "Surprise," he said, revealing himself to Castle. No. Not really. Not at all, actually. We were given no other alternatives. I really couldn't tell if the Greatest Detective Society plotline from earlier this season was a coincidence, a contrivance or merely retroactively dumb.
The actual dispatching of LokSat, at Beckett's hands, was anti-climactic and devoid of freshness, but I thought it was going to be the most anti-climactic moment in the episode until out-of-nowhere, Caleb (Kristoffer Polaha), previously thought incinerated (I'm not gonna go back to see who blew that call), appeared in Castle's apartment and shot Castle. And then Beckett came out of the bathroom and shot Caleb and took a bullet herself. The season was going to end with Castle and Beckett clinging to each other and clinging to life. We're to assume that if we returned for a ninth season, Castle was going to have survived and Beckett would have died? Or would be in an unseen hospital bed all season? There was going to be no "love story for the ages." But two endings were shot, so to speak.
So the camera panned over from our heroes' bodies and we got an audio flashback to Castle and Beckett's first meeting (or maybe the end of the first season?), their initial banter and then "7 Years Later," Castle and Beckett are happy and have three perfect children.
"Every writer needs inspiration and I found mine," Castle says.
"Always," Beckett agrees.
So let's count the things wrong with this painful, tacked-on ending.
1) If it's sincere and literal, it's just total fan-service and not of the good kind. It's saying, "Yeah, we don't think you can handle a sad ending, so we think you'd rather have a happy ending that we didn't defend in any way. See? It was a love story? Happy now? They are." That's insufferable. It's the kind of thing parodied at the end of the great Simpsons episode "Das Bus," which leaves the children stranded on a deserted island and adds a James Earl Jones voiceover, "So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say ... Moe." The Castle writers went with, "So Castle and Beckett lived happily ever after after they were rescued by, oh, let's say ... Dr. Sidney Permutter."
2) It doesn't need to be literal. The pan could take us from the death of Castle and Beckett in our timeline back to an earlier point at which things could have gone a different way. So the Beckett+Castle+3 Kids could either be a sideways reality or a post-tragedy happy ending fabricated by Castle, who hypothetically survived, or a total fabrication of Castle's dating back to the first season. That's not what this series was. You don't get to suddenly make it that in the finale. That's saying, "Yeah, we ended things sadly, but let's briefly become a different series for 30 seconds and then you can be happy, fans." It could also be Heaven, I guess. But do you really want to deal with a version of Castle that concludes with Castle and Beckett making house in Heaven? No. You do not. This was not a show that trafficked in figurative language.
3) Beckett was an autonomous character. Yes, Castle had the mother and kid and the show had his name, but Beckett was a character. She wasn't just there to enable Castle's creative fiction. She wasn't just there to be an inspiration for a male writer. She's not an embodiment of male fantasy. That's what the ending makes her into. It completely sells out her personhood in much the same way a certain Fox series dispatched with its female lead earlier this spring by making her into an instrument of male deliverance and undoing everything about her as a character. The conclusion of these eight years of TV should not have been, "Oh, that Beckett. She totally inspired Richard Castle."
I'm not sure what else to say. The finale was a wreck through. Even with a better last two minutes, the resolution of the LokSat arc wouldn't have magically been good. And the season leading up to it wasn't good.
That's not the way I like to resolve eight seasons of TV viewing.