Castle is, first and foremost, a mystery series. As much as we might love the characters and personalities tasked with solving its mysteries, the actual investigation of murders and other major crimes is ostensibly why we ended up hooked on this show in the first place. It's something that I sometimes wonder if the show's writers have begun to care about less and less as the seasons have worn on. After all, in the early seasons, we barely knew Castle, Beckett, Esposito, Ryan, or the rest. So in absence of familiarity, the cases often carried the weight. Now, we're more familiar with all these characters, and more apt to just sit back and watch them interact with one another, while the mysteries essentially fade into the background.
That's been especially true this season, which has presented the fewest memorable murder cases of any season of Castle to date, despite still being pretty solid largely on the merits of character interactions. So color me thrilled that last night's episode, "The Human Factor," was one of the few this season that managed to keep me engaged both through the rapport between the characters, and a surprisingly intriguing mystery.
Granted, it's relatively easy to build by momentum by kicking off an episode with a huge explosion followed by a shadowy cover-up. In this case, a man walking the streets of downtown Manhattan got into his parked car and was greeted by a fiery ball of death. When Castle and Beckett arrived on the scene, they found the vehicle already being impounded, and their fellow detectives stonewalled by government agents. Nobody would talk to them, and the lead agent effectively told them to buzz off. Our heroes being who they are, they of course did nothing of the sort.
All the detectives had to go on was the ID of the victim, a sort of Julian Assange-lite activist who'd dedicated his life to exposing corporate and government misdeeds via the internet. His wife and son recounted his exploits in a way that showed their weariness with the man's lifestyle of paranoia and misdirection. He'd even taken to hiding out in their rental apartment in Queens in recent weeks, only spending time with a young woman (who he'd apparently been having a brief affair with) and his assistant, a college student who helped him set up his website and maintain it.
There was one other piece of evidence too, in the form of explosive residue taken from the crime scene before the feds could sweep things clean. The bomb was no ordinary bomb, you see. It was a missile, launched from an unmanned government drone. Was the government spying on our victim? Did they have him "taken out"? No one would say one way or the other, but when Beckett and Castle paid a visit to a nearby military base, they were effectively shown the door just seconds after their accusation that a drone had been used in the murder. In fact, by the time they were back in their car on the way to the city, they learned that the military had raided the CSU labs and taken all pertinent information relating to the drone.
As much as the unmanned drone story has dominated the news cycle of late, I'll give "The Human Factor" credit for not sensationalizing it too much. Castle got to go off on one of his typical tangents, but rather than accusing the government of malfeasance, he suggested that this might lead to the inevitable rise of the machines, Skynet-style. While that kind of nonsense theorizing can occasionally feel overwrought on this show, here it was a nice, lightening touch to keep the episode from getting too heavy. Additionally, it became pretty clear relatively early in the episode that the government wasn't so much trying to slide the whole thing under the rug as they were trying to figure out just what the hell happened, which removed a bit of the big brother-stink from the whole thing.
Most of those details came out when Beckett arrested a sketchy man who appeared not only at the crime scene, but during their meeting at the military base AND as a tail while Beckett was trying to interview the victim's assistant. The man looked like he could have wandered out of the Smoking Man's team on The X-Files, all grimace and suit, with no identifiable personality up front. But then, as Beckett attempted to interrogate him, a call from the Attorney General's office (the one in Washington D.C.) assured her that this new suspect would go free. However, Beckett turned the tables a bit, agreeing to let him go with no argument on the condition that the AG would allow the man to divulge some details of the investigation.
I don't know exactly why that worked. I mean, the AG could've pretty easily just told Beckett to go to hell, right? Well, he didn't, and our mystery man revealed his identity as a secret investigator for the Attorney General's office. He revealed that a drone, which had been flying a test run over Long Island, had been hacked and controlled by some unseen force. He showed Castle and Beckett footage of the drone striking our victim, as the helpless pilot screamed that he had no idea what's happening. And before you ask, no, it wasn't the machines rising up to destroy humanity.
The investigator mentioned a man named Warburg, who'd previously worked for the government designing drone software but had gone off the grid. Of course, he didn't tell them why Warburg might be a suspect or where he might be, but the hint was enough for the team to get their investigative juices flowing and lo and behold, they found him hiding out in Woodstock—with his own private drone security system, I might add.
Warburg, as played by veteran character actor Eric Lange, made for a pretty good OCD weirdo, but he wasn't the killer. In fact, he was out to prevent the further proliferation of drone strikes, especially against U.S. citizens. He'd been working with the victim to possibly leak the software for controlling drones, but the victim was worried that the information might be too dangerous to post in a public forum. Which then presented the question of who had access to the thumb drive with the software on it?
Initially, suspicion shifted to Omar, the assistant. But after our investigator friend had a plane headed to Lebanon rerouted to put Omar back on U.S. soil, Omar made it clear he had nothing to do with the murder, and that, in fact, someone else had access to the drive. That someone? The victim's son, a college kid who deeply resented his father both for his alienating line of work, and for betraying his mother with the affair. The son managed to use the software to hack into the drone, and to launch the missile at his father. While I'll grant that this sounds patently ridiculous, the writing of "The Human Factor" was strong enough to at least keep me guessing up to that point, and the kid was a good-enough actor to sell his anger toward his father. Crazy? Sure, but a reasonably satisfying conclusion, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, "The Human Factor" didn't quite stick the overall landing. While I loved the self-contained mystery, the true purpose of the episode revealed itself right toward the end, when the investigator, having been deeply impressed with Beckett's investigative prowess, offered her an interview for a job with his agency. This job would take her to Washington D.C. full time, and would clearly have grave consequences on her relationship with Castle.
Then again, would it? This dangling job offer was presented as a potentially relationship-destroying event that will have to be dealt with in next week's finale, but isn't Castle a super-wealthy man of means who could potentially just pick up and go anywhere Beckett does? Yes, Alexis and Martha are in NYC, but D.C. isn't exactly an insurmountable distance from New York—hell, it's just a three-hour Acela ride away. Unless the job includes some kind of "no relationships" clause, I'm not entirely sure I see what the huge, world-destroying issue is here. I'm sure we'll understand better in next week's season finale, which, if the promo is any indication, will be very heavily focused on this immediate, life-changing event that has just about nothing to do with any of the other ongoing storylines from this season (at least on the surface).
– Not to harp on this too much, but I'm disappointed that of all turns this season could have taken, this is where it's seemingly about to end up. Unless there's some strange connection to Senator Bracken in all of this, I feel like the promise of that story, as seen in the season opener and "Recoil," is being somewhat abandoned. Nobody's expecting a bombshell finale like last season's, but if all next week's episode turns out to be is an extended "maybe they're going to break up!" plot, I'm going to be a little bummed.
– One of the peculiar, but awesome details to emerge from the Castle/Beckett coupling is that Beckett is apparently a master of pranks. Between her elaborately staged birthday mystery in "The Lives of Others" and her expert use of Castle's various remote-controlled vehicles to send him into a Skynet-fueled panic this week, I'm genuinely impressed at her skill and dedication with regard to screwing with Castle's head. It's maybe a bit terrifying just how good she is at it, but it's a character trait I can certainly get behind.
What'd you think of "The Human Factor"?