Castle sure loves him some Christmas. Loooooooves it. Lurves it, even. Dude is evidently something of a Christmas freak, going to absurd lengths to get just the right (giant-sized) tree, decorating every square inch of his ludicrous apartment in tinsel, lighting, and colorful ball things, and even adhering to a tradition of strict family attendance, a tradition that heretofore had remained unbroken in the 18 years since Alexis was born. But suddenly, all of this tinselly tradition was threatened when in "Secret Santa," the women of his life decided to make other plans. Could Castle save Christmas, while also solving Santa Claus's murder?
Oh, did I forget to mention that the episode cold-opened with Santa's bloated corpse falling out of the sky and nearly crushing a family to death in the process? Probably should have led with that bit, huh? Oh well. Next time!
Yes, it wasn't quite a holly jolly Christmas for old St. Nick—or, at least, the portly fellow pretending to be him who fell inexplicably out of thin air and undoubtedly sent a little girl into years of therapy for Christmas-related panic attacks. But Castle was initially more bummed about mom and Alexis deciding to make other plans on Christmas Eve, bitching to Beckett that tradition is tradition, dammit. Beckett, for her part, seemed wildly uncomfortable every time Castle brought up Christmas plans, which we learned later on was for good reason. But before we got to that, Castle had to spend two thirds of the episode moping around, wondering why nobody wanted to adhere to his damned Christmas customs. Also, he solved that murder. Eventually.
While I have enjoyed this season of Castle quite a bit, I have to admit that the responsibility for that has largely been on the backs of the cast. The murder mysteries, while never the central focus of the show—let's face it, most of us are just here to watch the title character be an impossibly clever goofball—have been especially throwaway for much Season 5. Now, I don't know if it was the holiday spirit, or just a case of better-than-average writing, but "Secret Santa" had a particularly engaging, if convoluted, mystery for Castle and Beckett to solve. How, exactly, does a 200-pound elderly gentleman with a flowing white beard and bright red suit find himself with a bullet in his back, floating down from the heavens right into the middle of Central Park?
Of course Castle was ready to entertain the idea that maybe the real Santa got sleigh-jacked, but not quite in that "a-little-too-serious" kind of way we saw last season with existence of zombies. Fortunately, that sentiment didn't last all episode, and we learned soon enough that our airborne Saint Nick actually used to be some kind of Wall Street bigwig, one of those corporate mercenary types who spent much of the early 2000s backing people into unmanageable home loans that eventually resulted in foreclosure. How, exactly, does one of such dastardly DNA end up as Santa Claus, you ask? Through a series of twisty-turny events involving soul-crushing guilt, years of binge eating, and a chance viewing of Miracle on 34th Street, of course!
You see, this Wall Street executive had a change of heart after seeing that film, that great beacon of Edmund Gwenn-shaped hope that has so often been referenced in TV and other films over the years. He said goodbye to his seemingly loving, if slightly haughty, wife (we met her later in the episode), packed his bags, and disappeared into a life of Santa-tude. He literally dropped everything and became a rentable Santa, apparently out of some need for redemption. So that's a sweet, if slightly insane, story, but how the hell did he end up dead and flying, in that order?
That part actually managed to capture my attention in a way most of this season's murders haven't. The sheer volume of steps involved from getting this fellow from Point Santa to Point Dead was staggering enough that I couldn't bring myself not to pay attention. Sure, I do find the idea of a former corporate bigwig-turned-Santa-Claus crafting an elaborate heist involving incriminating documents of his and his former partners' crimes, a $30,000 antique clock, a cherry red helicopter (that's how he ended up airborne), and a corporate Christmas party hosted by his former cohorts all a bit much to take in at once, but "Secret Santa" did a good job of meting out the details in such a way as to not overwhelm us. Just when we thought things might be getting a bit too crazy, Castle and Beckett stepped in to have a little talk about what Christmas means to them, or Esposito showed up just long enough to give Ryan a bro-talk about the act of baby-making. I sort of wish I was kidding about that last one.
Christmas episodes are always aggressively cheesy. Sometimes that cheese is purposeful and ironic, and sometimes that cheese is just a byproduct of sincere Christmas cheer. Cynical and irritable as I may be, I generally prefer the more sincere Christmas specials, just because I like the idea of some period of the year, no matter how over-commercialized and sacrosanct as it may be, bringing people a lot of joy and excitement. And Castle is the perfect character to represent that holiday cheer, because you can totally believe that he sincerely loves Christmas. There's nothing out-of-character about it. Nor is there anything out-of-character about his quiet acceptance of the changes inherent to time and the notion that not all traditions are meant to be held indefinitely. People change, circumstances change, and traditions are meant to evolve along with them. So when Beckett confessed to Castle that she'd taken the Christmas Eve shift at work because that's her holiday tradition—along with an almost Batman-esque piece about watching over families as they celebrate the holiday—it was no surprise that he was cool with it. If anything, he almost looked downright proud of her. Aww.
In the end, the murderer was caught, like always, but "Secret Santa" offered greater joys than simple crime solving. It was a nice, sweet episode full of Christmas cheer that never teetered over into painful schlock. I don't even like Christmas, but after watching Fillion, Katic, and the rest of the Castle crew have such a merry old time this week, the icy patches around my heart have somehow begun to melt. I think that qualifies this as a pretty good Christmas episode, don't you?
– So Alexis has a boyfriend now. I have no idea if he's going to last beyond this episode and lead to an inevitable "meet the father" situation somewhere further into this season, but the thought of Nathan Fillion going full-on psycho dad on some poor college freshman sounds like something I'd enjoy watching.
– I mostly enjoyed Esposito and Ryan's back-and-forth over their traditional "Beers and Madden" Christmas Eve plans, but I never want to hear the words, "Go home. Make a baby, bro," come out of Esposito's mouth again. I don't care that he was speaking literally of Ryan going home to impregnate his wife. Phrasing, people. It's all in the phrasing.
– Beckett's moment of confession regarding her traditional Christmas Eve shift was really sweet, though I do wish the writers would stop having Castle and Beckett hide stupid details about their lives from one another. It's lousy, manufactured tension that doesn't need to be there. It's safe to say that if either of these characters were hiding anything relationship-destroying from the other, they'd have figured it out by now. This is the very definition of sweating the details.
– Pun of the night: Castle's response to Beckett's comments over the plausibility of their victim actually being Santa. "Don't you mean, less CLAUSABLE?" That scene really deserved to conclude with the sound of a slide whistle, for maximum impact.
– We never did find out if the fluffy red jockstrap was real or a metaphor. I hate dangling plot details like that.