Castle "Scared to Death" Review: Ring Around the Hokey

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Castle S05E17: "Scared to Death"

After a two-week break following one of the better (if still ridiculous) dramatic arcs the series has had in a while, I was kind of hoping that we'd return to a rejuvenated Castle. It's not that this season hasn't mostly delivered—outside of some of its more lackluster standalone episodes, it's largely been quite solid—but after such a dramatic, James Brolin-flavored rush, and a couple of weeks to catch our breath, I was ready to return to the fun-lovin' murder-solvin', divorced-from-any-larger-story context. We certainly got that, but beyond a few good laughs, "Scared to Death" might have been the worst episode of the season yet.

"Scared to Death" lives in the same problematic area that last season's zombie episode took up residence in. The premise, which involved the thoroughly hokey notion of a spooky, demonic DVD that kills its viewers three days after they view it, was mired in a supernatural kookiness that might be believable in, say, a particularly murder-filled episode of Scooby Doo, but made no sense in a show that is, by and large, predicated in real-world crime-solving. I grant you that much of what happens on Castle is kind of silly and unbelievable, but there's a difference between, say, a crime-solving author with a CIA agent father tagging along on endless murder investigations with a super-hot lady detective whose mother was killed in a massive, far-reaching conspiracy involving corrupt senators and god knows what else, and actual evil spirits coming back and killing people.

Of course, actual evil spirits were nowhere to be found in "Scared to Death." Just like the dumb, dumb, dumb zombies episode, this one has an entirely corporeal evil at the center of it. But for long stretches of "Scared to Death," Castle, as well as Esposito and Ryan, were periodically convinced that something creepy, kooky, and altogether ooky was going on. Beckett, for her part, remained unconvinced, as any sane person should have. She attempted to reason with her suddenly cowardly compatriots, and even volunteered to view the DVD herself, despite grave warnings from Castle, who accidentally watched it at the crime scene.

And speaking of the video, it was maybe one of the silliest things I've seen mature adults attempt to appear fearful of on a major television program. It was an obnoxious hodgepodge of The Ring-inspired imagery that looked like it was constructed by a 16-year-old with terrible taste in horror movies and a fondness for crappy video-editing filters. And yet its hilariously delivered warning of, "You saw it. Three days. You die." was somehow completely terrifying to Castle, a grown-ass man who's seen plenty of other seemingly supernatural events pass by with entirely reasonable explanations.

It's not that I don't appreciate Castle's occasional childlike qualities. I like that he's a big, silly man-baby who plays the coward when it's funny, but can still be heroic when real trouble comes. But the writers' insistence of putting their characters through such nonsense plots is never not awful. These people are not stupid. We've watched them evolve over five seasons now, and the idea that Castle was actually terrified that a video was going to kill him was maybe just a bit more than I could take.

It was especially ridiculous given that the writers so clearly hated this plot idea, too. The Castle crew brought up The Ring no fewer than three times during the episode, which included a particularly bizarre cameo from Wes Craven, whom Castle called up to "hypothetically" discuss a way out of his predicament. It's one thing to maybe knock on the fourth wall a bit and poke fun at how stupid something like this is, but "Scared to Death" seemed almost embarrassed at times by its utter lack of originality.

Almost nothing about this episode worked. Not Castle and Beckett wandering into a spooky old hotel briefly seen in the video. Not Castle and Beckett wandering into an insane asylum on a dark and stormy night. Not the realization that all the victims were witnesses in the trial of a serial killer. Not the fact that the serial killer's dead body had apparently gone missing from its grave. None of it was scary, creepy, or even particularly entertaining. It just felt like the tossed-out entrails of various horror scripts being stitched together into a lazy, altogether unpleasant... thing.

Really, the only tolerable thing "Scared to Death" provided was a few decent jokes. Beckett's constant teasing of Castle over his death fears (not to mention her frequent, only half-joking sexual advances) was fun, and Esposito and Ryan's bro-dude fist-bumping over their own mutual cowardice in not wanting to watch the video was pretty great. But other than those few amusing bits, "Scared to Death" was pretty much a wash. Too often the episode became bogged down in its own unenthusiastic usage of tired horror tropes, and the result, which featured the daughter of a man originally accused of the crimes committed by the dead serial killer using the "scary" video and a defibrillator as a way to extract revenge on the witnesses who originally fingered her dad—it was a bit much, really.

Some shows can do horror and make it work. Castle is not such a show. Maybe some day, the show's writers will figure that out.



NOTES

– Ryan's assertion that he couldn't view the video because he's trying to have a child and doesn't want any evil spirits causing him and his wife bad juju was maybe the most honest character moment of this entire episode.

– I don't know why Wes Craven was in this episode. He didn't even make The Ring. Was Gore Verbinski just busy?

– In order to keep Craven on the phone, Castle immediately launched into a genuflecting diatribe on how great all of Craven's movies are, including his most recent movie, My Soul to Take. First rule in praising a director: Don't talk about how great a movie they made that everyone hated and nobody went to see was. They won't believe you.

– Just a quick "You're super old!" reminder that The Ring is an 11-year-old movie.

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