"Swan Song" was an episode of Castle in which very little happened. There was a murder mystery, yes. There was also a bit of dancing around the usual nonsense regarding Castle and Beckett's sort-of-secret relationship. Nathan Fillion even made a few funny faces. But in terms of development, humor, and overall entertainment value, "Swan Song" was ultimately little more than a stopgap episode, a story used to fill a necessary episode count, rather than anything of great import.
Every show has these filler episodes—crime procedurals especially. You can't have a 22-episode season and have them all be bangers. In music terms, "Swan Song" was an album track, the sort of song the band might play live once in a while as a lark, but that's largely forgotten in the grander scheme of its catalog. Sure, this might turn out to be some crazy fan's favorite episode, but that fan will be in the distinct minority and probably keep ranting about its brilliance to anyone who will listen while everyone else just smiles, nods, and keeps humming along to "Always."
I'm extending this extremely labored band analogy because "Swan Song" was about a band. One called Holy Shemp, who were apparently on the verge of becoming the Next Big Thing, despite the handicap of having a terrible name and also apparently not being very good at music. Regardless of these issues, the band was very excited to learn that people cared about them, and couldn't wait to tell their guitarist, who happened to be the band's biggest talent. He also happened to be dead.
Discovering the tragic history of this doomed guitarist was ostensibly the point of "Swan Song," but for the audience's benefit, it was really more about the episode's goofy use of Behind the Music-style camera work. As we soon discovered, Holy Shemp was SO on the verge of breaking out that the band's label had commissioned a filmmaker to document their every move. With the band now in peril, the nerdy documentary director made a last-ditch effort to save his film and somehow got the police department to allow him to keep filming. Why? Captain Gates spouted something about good publicity, but really it was just an excuse for the show's actors to mug goofily to the camera for a whole hour. Fortunately, that really only got old toward the end.
Of course, all three of the guys in the group were hamming it up something fierce. Esposito and Ryan got a generous amount of screen time this week, as Esposito repeatedly launched into his movie "bad cop" routine for the benefit of the cameras and Ryan tried his best to make his more cerebral approach to policework seem somehow enticing. Meanwhile, Castle did what Castle does, smiling charmingly for the camera while engaging in long-winded deductions regarding the case at hand. Beckett mostly did her best to stay out of the camera's limelight; every time she was forced to explain the current situation for the benefit of the theoretical viewers at home, she sounded like an irritated third-grader forced to stand up in front of the class and read a book report she didn't want to write.
Most other shows would probably wither under the weight of forcing their supporting characters to do this much heavy lifting in a given week, but Castle got by because theirs are built for this kind of ridiculousness. Esposito's bro-dude tough guy thing can sometimes be a little grating, but it generally works best when he's at his most self-aware, like in last night's episode. Toward the end you could sense that the joke was getting old, so it was nice that the writers reworked things to change the whole dynamic. Suddenly, Esposito and Ryan went from competing to aggressively congratulating one another for their accomplishments during the case. It was a nice turnaround that reminded us of why we generally like these guys. They might be kind of douchey at times, but all things considered, they're mostly just good friends who look out for each other.
Interestingly, this was a running theme with Castle and Beckett as well. Despite Beckett's pleas to stay off-camera, Castle repeatedly went to great lengths to show off just how awesome Beckett is at her job, bragging to the camera about her prowess as a detective and giving her every opportunity to come in and own the scene. That she repeatedly avoided said opportunity, while also still showing appreciation for Castle's beaming pride, was a nice touch.
Oh, and then there was the murder mystery, I guess. I forget exactly how the progression worked, but I know that we went from a suspicious songwriting collaborator to a jealous band member to the discovery that the deceased grew up in a violent religious cult in upstate New York to the accusation of the leader of said cult (played by C. Thomas Howell) to eventually just getting back to a jealous band member—the bass player, of course, who was upset that he was being kicked out of the group for not being a very good bass player. Not exactly a thriller, as Castle cases go, but in the end, the murderer was discovered, Holy Shemp found a replacement for its dead/arrested musicians, and Castle and Beckett managed to squeak by another week without having Captain Gates discover their secret.
Was this a good episode or a bad episode? In the stolen, somewhat adjusted words of Marge Simpson, "It was an episode. That's enough."
– Of COURSE the bass player did it. After all, bass players are generally shifty characters, pretending like they actually contribute to the music, as they do. And I'm totally not saying that as a drummer who has his own deep-seated relevancy issues in an attempt to shift focus away from my minimal musical contributions. Absolutely not.
– Penny Johnson Jerald is generally best on this show when she's getting goofed on, and "Swan Song" offered plenty of Johnson Jerald goofing. She was still upstaged by Tamala Jones, though, who may have offered up the best, subtlest "I'm posing but really trying not to look like I'm posing" faces I've seen in a good long while.
– I appreciated the casting of noted creepy older person C. Thomas Howell as the cult leader, but he really only had one scene and then became irrelevant to the plot. Soul Man deserves better. Actually, maybe not...
– I can't imagine what a soulless endeavor it must be to have to try to write authentic-sounding popular music for TV series. "Here, we want this band to sort of sound like a mix between Pearl Jam and whatever that hipster crap people listen to nowadays is. Also, they're called Holy Shemp. Make it work." Ugh.