Cliffhanger endings live and die by their ability to keep the audience rapt with anxious interest between the time one episode ends and the next one begins. This is especially true of season-ending cliffhangers, the likes of which must find ways to sustain audience speculation for months of dead air, as opposed to just a single week's time. When one of these endings is done particularly well, they'll stick in my brain like a bug, burrowing ever deeper until the anticipation of seeing the payoff becomes almost too much to bear.
I can't say that any season-closer of Castle has ever quite successfully reached burrowing-bug status in my mind, but there have certainly been times where I've wondered over the course of a summer what might happen to intrepid investigators Richard Castle and Kate Beckett; this was especially true after Season 3's capper, which featured Beckett on the wrong end of an assassin's bullet. But as for Season 5's ending, which saw Castle and Beckett's still burgeoning relationship hit a particularly rough snag following a new job offer for Beckett in Washington D.C.—as well as Castle throwing down the gauntlet with a marriage proposal right at the tail end of the hour—I can't say I've really given it much of a second thought over the last few months.
Some of that undoubtedly had to do with the relatively rushed nature of both the job offer and the proposal, the former of which only became a factor in the second-to-last episode of the season, and the latter seeming wildly out-of-the-blue, given the short amount of time the couple has actually been a couple. Good cliffhangers build on existing storylines to create a feverish level of interest and then cruelly (but effectively) cut off right before the moment of highest anticipation occurs. Last season's finale felt like a hasty build-up to a problem and solution nobody had much time to wrap their heads around, nor really invest in. I spent most of Season 5 liking Castle and Beckett together, but the manufactured job offer seemed like a nonstarter, not only because it had no time to breathe within the season itself, but because it barely seemed like that big of a problem. As I said in my review of last season's second-to-last episode, "The Human Factor":
"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."
Evidently, showrunner Andrew Marlowe and his staff couldn't quite bring themselves to mine any meaningful, lasting drama out of this scenario, either. As Season 6's premiere, "Valkyrie" demonstrated as it picked up right from last season's moment of truth, Castle is still pretty much the same show, except now Beckett is living in D.C., has a super clandestine job, and Castle has to go visit her sometimes. Which is hard, I guess.
Maybe I'm selling the moment where this all came to fruition a bit short. It was sweet to see Beckett's face go from sheer terror to a kind of giddy excitement as she realized Castle wasn't trying to talk her out of this new job, but simply to confirm his commitment to her, regardless of where she ends up. It made all the dumb drama of the last couple of episodes seem even more superfluous, but having her accept the engagement with the freedom of being able to further her career the way she wants to was pretty great. I might not have been looking forward to seeing how this played out, but I was glad for how it eventually did.
It's where "Valkyrie" went next that I became progressively less and less enamored with. Following the accepted proposal, time jumped a few months to find Beckett already on the job in D.C., albeit still in something of a training capacity. Her opening action sequence saw her chasing down a perp, only to be gunned down after a hostage situation turned out to be a double-cross. Of course, this was all just an exercise, emphasizing that Beckett still has a ways to go to learn the ropes in her new position as a government agent. This fact was repeatedly pointed out by Beckett's new partner, a.k.a. Cuddy from House (Lisa Edelstein).
Meanwhile, Castle was just coming home from a whirlwind book tour, and both were lamenting the lack of time they'd been able to spend with one another. Beckett had been scheduled to head out to New York for some R&R, but then a new case hit her desk, and she was stuck working for the weekend. Castle was crestfallen, but, being the man of means that he is—and also facing a newly returned Alexis and her fruitarian space case new boyfriend (more on him later) staying at his house—Castle did the only sweet-if-intrusive thing he could think of and jetted off to D.C. to surprise Beckett.
Unfortunately, Beckett's life is not what it once was. While NYPD cases required a degree of discretion, her current workload is legitimately classified, meaning that Castle's endless curiosity is now far more of a detriment than the boon it used to be. When Beckett took off to head to work and inadvertently left behind a case photo of a serial number from a recently exploded transformer, Castle couldn't resist calling up his old buddies Esposito and Ryan to help him track down what he claimed to be "research" for a new book, but obviously was anything but.
This resulted in Castle and Beckett both ending up at the same golf course, which served as an exit for the thieves involved in the heist Beckett had been assigned to. This particular heist involved a device of some import, taken from a government lab near the greens during a blackout in a highly coordinated operation. Definitely the kind of thing civilians aren't supposed to know about, making Castle's presence wildly inappropriate. Cuddy (sorry, I know that's not her name, but I'm having a real hard time summoning any other identifier for her) was not pleased, but an incident was essentially avoided when she admitted her own accidental indiscretions from her early career to Beckett. Now these two have something in common, in that they have both accidentally leaked classified materials at various points in their lives.
All of this stuff worked reasonably well, mind you. The fumbling nature of Castle and Beckett trying to establish new boundaries while still allowing for some openness between them made total sense, and both Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic played the misunderstandings for decent drama and laughs. The problem with "Valkyrie" came as the case itself began to bloom into greater and greater nonsense. As it turned out, the heist itself was a distraction for a much bigger crime, but before anyone learned that, the presumed suspect of the robbery, an ex-military man who was spotted at the golf course, actually took Castle hostage, having spotted him when Castle went to do his own investigatin'. By this point, Castle had agreed to excise himself from any investigations whatsoever, and was actually just out buying dinner for Beckett. Now, all of a sudden, he was trapped in a car with a gun pointed at him as this seemingly raving lunatic shouted random questions about something called Valkyrie, and a mysterious military base called Dreamworld. All this, just moments before the guy passed out dead and wrecked the car into a bus stop.
Things only get more convoluted from there. Castle was briefly interrogated by Beckett's boss before being sent back to NYC. Meanwhile, Beckett was hunting down the (now dead) suspect's girlfriend, only to eventually realize that it was all just a cover-up, a staged operation designed to distract the authorities from something even more dangerous that'd been stolen from a top-secret lab a few floors above the one they were originally investigating. And then, just as Castle returned home long enough to have an awkward conversation with hippy boy and type the words "ghost base" into a search engine, he was already on the way back to D.C. to learn that he'd been poisoned with a chemical weapon. Yes, that weapon was what was stolen from the top-secret lab, and that weapon was what killed the previous suspect. Castle had been infected too, and according to Beckett, he only had a day to live.
Gosh that's an awful lot of crazy stuff to shove into the back third of an episode that's already trying to: 1) orient the audience to a new locale, 2) transition into a new situation for the main characters, and 3) to find room for its previous supporting players. As much as I still think the show is trying to eke too much out of too little with this long-distance relationship, "Valkyrie" kicked off by actually throwing some meaningful stakes in there. Beckett's life is markedly different than what she and Castle had become accustomed to, and while the addition of an engagement solidifies them a bit, there are still numerous changes to be made before the two of them are actually be able to share a life together. "Valkyrie" had just barely started playing with those concepts before this freight train's worth of high-octane military drama came crashing into the mix. It's like someone found a way to weaponize NCIS and detonated it in the middle of a Castle episode.
Of course, Castle's sudden lack of time left on this Earth, as well as the whole of this theft case, will almost assuredly be wrapped up by next week, at which point we'll be able to see what kind of rhythms this newly long-distance series might fall into. I just worry that putting Beckett in the middle of these higher-stakes government investigations week after week is going to push things to a place where the show will habitually be trying to make things even crazier and crazier. With the NYPD, Castle was primarily focused on murder investigations, with the occasional evil Senator or initialed serial killer popping up from time to time to dial up the drama every now and again. Now that she's in D.C., we're already off to the races with shadowy forces, ghost bases, deadly chemical weapons, and a main character only having one day left to live. That's a lot to throw at an audience that's already off-balance coming into this season. Considering how hit-and-miss a lot of Castle's crazier stories can be, I have my share of concerns over how this season may play out. We'll see, I guess.
– I'm guessing this episode was written and produced before the whole thing with Syria and its chemical weapons flared up, but man, talk about weird timing, eh?
– I scarcely know what to think about what will happen to Esposito and Ryan. Castle calling them up at the old squad room felt more like the show trying to find a way to establish their continued existence than a meaningful plot point. Like, there's some part of me that worries this will be the only way we see these guys from here on out, though I'd just as soon assume I'm wrong about that. I give them crap for not always being the most useful cogs in the Castle machine, but here's hoping they aren't about to be thoroughly reduced in screen time.
– Now, about Alexis's new boyfriend: Was this really necessary? The "girl comes home from college/trip/finding herself with new idiot boyfriend" trope has aged to the point of being rotten, and having this new boyfriend come in expressly to annoy Castle in the middle of everything else that's going on felt like one obnoxious detail too many. The joke that the guy is a spaced-out fruitarian wasn't even particularly funny, nor was any of the banter between him and Castle. So what is the point here? Did Andrew Marlowe just happen to catch a mid-afternoon cable showing of Pauly Shore's Son in Law and laugh way too hard at it? It just seemed senseless.
– Just a heads-up that we won't be covering Castle on the regular this season. Since this week's premiere turned out to be a two-parter, I'll be back next week to cover that one as well, but beyond that, we'll probably just check in on the show from time to time to see how it's progressing.
What'd you think of the season premiere?