Castle: The Best and Worst Episodes of Season 4 (Thus Far)

Standard police procedurals rarely deserve much examination beyond the entertainment value of the crime of the week being solved, but Castle has never been a standard police procedural. More a cross between Murder She Wrote and Moonlighting than a typical NYPD cop show, Castle has found a viewing audience that most other procedurals never will, largely because of the unquestionable charm of lead actor Nathan Fillion. For as much as Fillion is playing a character on Castle, he's also leveraging that unique mix of self-effacing goofiness and straight-up niceness that makes him such an endearing actor. And that's why people keep coming back: to watch Fillion be Fillion week after week.

The last couple of seasons of Castle have been a bit rockier than the early goings, mostly due to the writers' apparent desire to push more overarching plotlines and traumatic character drama than in the more freewheeling early days. Sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't. This season in particular has been especially up and down, with an abundance of perhaps overly gimmicky episodes and a much more pointed push toward maybe, just maybe, hooking Castle up with his sexy-yet-troubled partner Kate Beckett, dutifully played by Stana Katic. Everyone's been on pins and needles over that last bit, not just because of the overwhelming desire to see those two finally hook up, but also out of palpable fear that Castle might truly go the Moonlighting and lose all its momentum once the sexual tension between Castle and Beckett is eliminated. Will tonight's season finale finally make good on all those wayward half-glances and repeated bouts of unspoken jealousy? Or will we be left dangling until next season? And regardless of which path the showrunners choose, will we actually still care about all this by the end?

I have no idea, because I haven't seen the episode yet. But since we haven't covered Castle a ton, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look backward at some of the best and worst examples from this season of what Castle as a show can be. So, without further ado, here are the best, the worst, and the best/worst episodes from Castle's fourth season, listed according to the order in which they aired.

WORST: "Kick the Ballistics"

Season 4's early episodes relied a bit too heavily on the show's long-tail plotlines (Beckett's shooting at the end of last season especially) for my tastes. I say this because I personally do not watch Castle for its deep back story, nor for its Very Serious Moments. I watch it because Nathan Fillion could charm the communism out of Stalin, given five minutes in a room with the guy. He's a magnetic, hilarious, deeply sympathetic presence in nearly everything he does, which is why episodes that push him to the back burner tend to be the worst among the show's catalog.

"Kick the Ballistics" simultaneously pushed Castle aside while setting about a plot that recalled Season 3's as-yet-unresolved serial killer plotline. Season 3 had its problems, but the 3XK episode, which revolved around the sudden return of a previously dormant serial killer, was one of the few that actually did the more dour drama relatively well. Not so much this time around.

Instead of any real resolution to where the 3XK thing might be going long-term, the episode was more of a reminder of, "Hey, this killer still totally exists!" than full-fledged forward progress. It doesn't help that the crux of the episode, which centered on Detective Ryan's lost service weapon (lost to 3XK, in case you forgot) coming back as a ballistics match in the murder of a young girl, was a total dud. Rather than push any meaningful connection to 3XK, the crew was instead led to a shadowy Chinatown Triad and the son of the Triad head, who had a relationship with the dead girl. It was a throwaway mystery that misused its own comparisons to Romeo & Juliet frequently in addition to just not being all that interesting. Oh, and the actual 3XK connection? It turned out that 3XK shared a jail cell with the episode's killer one time, and at some point following last season's fracas, 3XK gave him the gun, knowing it would be traced back to the cops as some sort of convoluted revenge plot. Look, I'd love for the 3XK thing to see some legitimate airtime, but this was just a waste all around.

Lone Redeeming Quality: The appearance of François Chau as the patriarch of the Triad family. You may remember him as Dr. Pierre Chang of Lost fame. Pity he didn't have more to do here than be a menacing-looking Chinese guy.

BEST: "Eye of the Beholder"

For all intents and purposes, "Eye of the Beholder" was a gigantic Thomas Crown Affair rip-off. It had the elaborate art heist, the sexy, head-strong insurance investigator (played by the wonderful Kristin Lehman), and ample flirtations of romance between the two leads of the episode. Granted, Fillion is an altogether different brand of charming than both Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan, but in his own goofy way, I'd certainly put him on a similar "cool factor" pedestal as those renowned actors. And that's a big part of why "Eye of the Beholder" worked so well: It was a Castle episode that was extremely heavy on the Castle.

Beckett's role in "Eye of the Beholder" was mostly to look either irked or kind of sad about Fillion and Lehman making googly eyes at one another—especially Fillion, who might as well have let out a hearty "AWOOOOOGAAAHHH" with steam shooting out of his ears the first time Lehman came on screen. And while I've said before that I don't find the bulk of this season's dances around the subject of will they/won't they very interesting, Katic's moping around and general hostility toward Lehman was surprisingly fun to watch. This pretty much happened all over again in the Firefly fanboy squee episode "Headhunters" (featuring Adam Baldwin as a rugged, renegade cop who Castle immediately regretted deciding to hang out with), but by that point in the season the whole "will Castle and Beckett frigging kiss already" thing had more or less run out of steam. Here, it still felt fresh enough to elicit a response other than one of utter indifference.

The main plot, in which a fake sculpture called "The Fist of Capitalism" (literally a giant golden fist stuffed with cash) was stolen during an art gallery exhibit at which one of the curators of the exhibit was also found murdered, mostly played second banana to Fillion being the best example of Fillion the Goof ever and Lehman charming circles around everybody via the best impression of Rene Russo circa 1999 in human history. But it was still a decently twisty little mystery that managed to loop back around to a conclusion that was both satisfying and totally insane. Just like a good Castle plot should.

Best Moment: Pretty much everything involving Lehman. I wouldn't mind it terribly if the writers somehow shoehorned in at least one art theft per season just to keep her coming back. Maybe she can flirt with Esposito once Castle and Beckett finally consummate this damn thing.

WORST: "Heartbreak Hotel"

I'm pretty sure the sole reason for this episode's existence was to get Nathan Fillion into an Elvis costume. That has to be it, because apart from that wonderful image, this was less than a nothing episode. It was a vacuum of interest, sucked down by a murder plot of no real consequence and an over-reliance on the other male detectives' ability to carry an episode.

I say again, Castle is Castle because Castle is Castle. I enjoy Esposito and Ryan as foils and cheerful info-dumpers, but when an episode's focus shifts so significantly to the two of them, I tend to tune out. Not to belabor the Moonlighting comparison, but it reminds me a bit too much of that show's fourth season, where several episodes had to be reworked to focus on supporting players because Cybill Shepard was out delivering twins and Bruce Willis suddenly realized he was in Die Hard and therefore didn't really need to be on TV anymore.

It's not as bad as all of that, but the episode's lame-duck riff on a casino crime thriller set in Atlantic City was too convoluted to gain much traction, especially without Beckett around to help balance out the investigation. And on that note, this episode also spoke rather clearly to why I don't enjoy Penny Johnson Jerald as Castle's new police captain. She's a fine actress (I've been a fan since her turn as Captain Sisko's love interest on Deep Space 9), but the character is solely defined by her absurd need to micromanage and her abject hatred of Castle. There's literally nothing else to her, and the fact that she's the one Beckett interacted with most in this episode did it no favors.

Redeeming Qualities: Castle's daughter, Alexis (Molly Quinn), having a giant rager of a house party while her dad is out of town and suddenly realizing she's way too nerdy to host a giant rager of a house party. Also, the aforementioned Fillion in Elvis regalia.

BEST: "Cuffed"

I don't know exactly why this was my favorite episode of the season, though I assure you, it's not because it reminded me of a Star Trek episode (TNG's "Attached"). I think it's most likely to do with the fact that much of this episode involved Castle and Beckett, and only a fraction of it involved them making vague metaphors about their stalled pseudo-romance while trying to maintain the illusion of casual conversation. "Cuffed" featured Castle and Beckett handcuffed together in a dank, dusty room that looked like a rejected Jigsaw real estate venture, while trying to piece together the events that led them there because neither of them remembered what happened.

What actually did happen is less important than the consequences of that thing happening. Beckett and Castle were shown together for long stretches, both flashing back to the investigation that led them to this apparent impending doom, and trying to work their way out of the situation they found themselves in. It worked because, again, Castle and Beckett are the characters you're ostensibly supposed to care about on this show. That doesn't always work out for Beckett, whose sole character traits more or less amount to a traumatic family history, a gruff demeanor that only Castle can melt away, and a borderline insane need to constantly deride Castle's silly theories as implausible, even when Castle is very clearly saying things he knows are implausible because they're funny. She's the Omar Epps to Castle's Hugh Laurie, except there was never any threat of House and Foreman humping—though if there had been, I might have actually stuck with that show.

The trick here is that when Beckett was presented with a troubling situation and she was more or less stuck with Castle, the writers fond ways to keep their banter relatively light, even in the most desperate of times. It was great fun to see them together, even when they were discussing the logistics of one of them severing a hand in the name of escape. And hey, even Esposito and Ryan were pretty good in this one! Because there was so much Castle and Beckett, we weren't forced to endure too much of The Other Guys' investigation into where the hell Castle and Beckett got off to, but there were enough decent character moments among them to justify their place in the episode.

Also, there was a giant, angry tiger in this episode. I'll leave it to you to discover the context for that.

Best Moment: See above, re: giant tiger.

BEST: "The Blue Butterfly"

I've lamented Season 4's over-reliance on gimmick episodes, but "The Blue Butterfly" is one of the few that was truly done right. This episode, which featured a fairly elaborate '40s noir flashback/fantasy plot, could have so very easily flown off the rails into cloying parody, but it managed to stay right on the edge from start to finish, while remaining on the side of "enjoyable gimmick episode" in the process.

The mystery involved a missing piece of jewelry (the titular Blue Butterfly), an unsolved 60-year-old murder, and the mysterious journal of a former private detective, who as you might imagine, was the most private detective-y private detective to ever call himself a gumshoe. It wasn't especially great, but the flashbacks to the '40s, with various Castle regulars fitting into the various hero and villain roles of the episode's noir plot, were surprisingly fun. Of course Fillion hammed it up as the detective who wrote the journal, but his enthusiasm for the ludicrously overbearing detective speak reminded me more of Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Dixon Hill" noir throwback episodes. Also, this story is going to be nothing but Star Trek and Moonlighting references from here on out. Sorry.

What's more surprising is how much fun the rest of the cast had with their parts. Esposito and Ryan as Cuban and Irish thugs (working for a mobster played by Lost's Jacob, Mark Pellegrino—okay, yes, I'll throw in some more Lost references too—were stupid good, while Susan Sullivan and Molly Quinn seemed to relish their roles as Fillion's secretary and a young Southern belle, respectively. Even Stana Katic, who I would not call an actress with a particularly grand range, managed to provide a little bit of amusement as the arm candy of the aforementioned mobster, who of course Castle (as the detective) fell in love with. It's the little details in the performances that sell these gimmicky episodes. If the actors find ways to make them entertaining, they work. If the actors don't seem wholly bought in, well, then you end up with episodes like "Undead Again," which I'll discuss shortly.

Best Moment: The sweet, if utterly obvious ending, which reminded us of just how painfully adorable old people who are still super in love with each other can be.

BEST/WORST: "Pandora"/"Linchpin"

This one's a real head-scratcher. On the one hand, the "Pandora"/"Linchpin" two-episode arc had a number of good qualities. It was another good excuse to separate Castle and Beckett from the rest of the crew for a Very Special Adventure, and it introduced a couple of interesting guest stars in Jennifer Beals—as a CIA agent and Castle's former espionage novel muse—and the always welcome Timothy Carhart as a crazy-yet-correct doomsday theorist. Unfortunately, all of that was in service of a plot that can only be deemed a colossal, nonsensical waste of time.

Sometimes I enjoy big, idiotic Sweeps Week plotlines on shows like Castle, and this one actually started out on a positive note. For two whole episodes, Castle and Beckett were segregated from the rest of their precinct by top CIA agent Sophia Turner (Beals) after they stumbled upon the apparent murder of a CIA assassin by a rogue agent, which eventually dovetailed into a massive anti-American conspiracy that has far-reaching implications. But the result of the story was a whole lot of noise about very little.

In this regard, I suppose I'm assigning a "Best" to "Pandora," and a "Worst" to "Linchpin." The set-up was grand, intense, and still full of plenty of Beckett-brand jealousy and Castle-brand one-liners. The other guest star, David Chisum as the rogue agent, was a completely perfect blend of full-on menace and a knowing demeanor that says "you don't know the half of it, you idiots." Even Carhart's late-episode introduction as a former CIA operative whose job was to find global scenarios that could potentially unmake America as we know it was pretty great. Then they killed him off almost as quickly as he arrived, and we were left for a week to ponder whether Castle and Beckett would survive a dunk in the river while still seatbelted into their car.

Of course they did, and of course they kept on investigating despite their near-death experience, and of course the whole plot unfurled with more twists and turns that eventually implicated someone other than the person we'd been expecting to be the bad guy from the get-go. Unfortunately, it was all just limp spycraft from there. Too many red herrings, not enough actual intrigue. And once the doomsday scenario was revealed, it was exactly as anticlimactic as it had to be. With all that build-up, of course America's future rested on something as simple as a child dying. Yes, a child dying was all it would take to start the dominoes falling toward World War III. So Castle and Beckett saved the child of the future, and...that's it.

This could have been a really neat story arc. Instead, it was a heavier than usual distraction with multiple wasted guest stars and two straight episodes of the Stana Katic jealousy face. Still, Beals clearly had a good time riffing on a bunch of CIA agent cliches, and the abundance of Fillion spread throughout the two episodes was just about perfect. Hence the split reaction.

Best/Worst Moment: I am always a sucker for that shot in movies and TV shows where the good guys wander into a conspiracy theorist's den of craziness, and the moment when Castle and Beckett first walked into Carhart's apartment, which looked like a schizophrenic sixth grader's room-sized school project, was pretty awesome. I just wish the ultimate realization had been...I don't know, cooler?

WORST: "Undead Again"

Possibly the most obnoxious of the season's gimmick-based episodes, and tragically, the last episode to lead us into tonight's finale. Look, this is a season that has featured elaborate noir dream sequences, murder victims dressed like fairy tale characters, superhero vigilantes, a renegade cop who doesn't play by the rules, a murdered ghost hunter, and Nathan Fillion wearing a frigging Elvis costume. This season has been ridiculous, but even in its silliest moments, it still felt grounded in some kind of identifiable reality. "Undead Again" had its roots in reality, but it repeatedly insulted the audience's intelligence with allusions of "Yeah, but what if...?"

Specifically, WHAT IF ZOMBIES ARE REAL?!? It's an agenda that Castle actually pushed as a possibility when two men were attacked in a parking garage by what the one surviving man described as a straight-up zombie. There was even video footage that proved it! Until, of course, the plot got around to unproving it. No, the episode did not feature actual zombies, and it even afforded Castle a line to explain that, no, he doesn't really believe in zombies, but he does like driving Beckett nuts by pretending he believes in zombies. Unfortunately, the writers spent wayyyyy too much time nodding and winking in a halfhearted attempt to sell this "Yeah, but what if...?" scenario before they get there.

There was even a commercial break where Beckett and Castle suddenly found themselves surrounded by a horde of zombies (who were actually a flash mob), and we were supposed to think what, that Beckett and Castle might get eaten? Of course not, and within seconds of returning from commercial, Beckett snapped to how stupid it all was and yelled that she's a cop, sending the faux-horde to a screeching halt. It was a terrible tension-building concept, because there is no way the Castle universe is suddenly going to introduce zombies into the mix. We knew they were just a flash mob, so why even tease us with the supposed moment of peril?

It was lazy, hacky stuff, made even worse by the convoluted explanation for the whole zombie murder thing, which involved motion sickness drugs, a jealous fiancee, and a man literally thinking he was a zombie, all of which was tied up via a ruse so idiotic, it belongs in a bad Scooby-Doo episode. That the one truly sweet moment of metaphorical romantic exposition between Castle and Beckett came in such a direly uninteresting episode was tragic, since its impact was ultimately lessened by what came before it. The end of "Undead Again" left us believing that Castle and Beckett were supposed to be back on the road to potential romance, but after 40-some-odd minutes of them chasing after druggies in zombie makeup, I had a hard time really caring. Here's hoping tonight's finale closes out the season on a higher note.

Redeeming Qualities: Either the callback laser tag scenes (in which we discovered that Castle's daughter has repelling equipment just lying around for use in their apartment), or this shining, two-second example of Nathan Fillion's awesomeness. What I'd have given to be that extra.

What do you guys hope to see happen tonight? Do you want to see Castle and Beckett shut up and kiss already? Or is the torture of protracted non-romance more appealing than watching these two crazy kids get together? Comment away, and while you're there, be sure to list your favorite Season 4 moments!

Castle's Season 4 finale airs tonight at 10pm on ABC.

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