Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Castle's" Season Finale Shocker

Were you as surprised as I was last night with the season finale of "Castle"? I've got my take on it over at Criminal Element.

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2019 Update:

(Now that it has been eight years, I'm posting my review here in case the Criminal Element link disappears.)

Did Andrew Marlowe, the creator of the TV show Castle, misname the show?

Think back three short years ago. Castle appears as a midseason series with only ten episodes written and produced. From the first sequence, we learn most of what makes this show so charming: the juxtaposition of glamour shots of author Richard Castle (actor Nathan Fillion) at a swanky book launch party and crime scene shots of Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). Two worlds destined to intertwine.

Note: If you don't want intertwined SPOILERS, read no further, until you watch the finale for yourself.

For all the witty allure and fun, light banter between the two leads, there is only so much crime-of-the-week storytelling viewers can take before the tales begin to blur. A series succeeds based on its underlying backbone, a far-reaching story arc that can tie multiple episodes together. The X-Files had Mulder’s search for his abducted sister. Adrian Monk constantly searched for the man who murdered his wife. Ditto for CSI: Miami’s Horatio Caine.

Richard Castle is basically a man-child, a kid in a grown up body. While he has emotional baggage, it’s not the stuff that makes good, compelling drama. Since this is a cop show, there has to be a character that can’t move past The One Case that’s stymied everyone else. There always has to be a detective that will shoulder the burden for that one special case and forge ahead, finding clues here and there,and  never giving up. Kate Beckett is that cop. She has that case. It just so happens to involve the murder of her mother.

Early on, in the pilot episode, Castle tries to put Beckett in a nice little box. Using his writerly imagination, he postulates why she became a cop and, then, detective. In one of the best scenes of the entire series to date, the camera lingers on Beckett’s face, her fa├žade of toughness visibly eroding before our eyes. With that one scene, you get additional information that echoes throughout the series: Castle often goes too far, and Beckett hides more than she reveals. He is intrigued by what lays hidden behind her steely cop face, and, over three seasons, more and more of her backstory is uncovered.

Season 3 demonstrates how to move a story forward without reaching the end and resolving the very dramatic tension that propels the show each week. In the episode “Knockdown,” Beckett and Castle are interviewing the former detective who investigated the murder of Beckett’s mother, when a sniper’s bullet kills him on the spot. The subsequent investigation uncovers the presence of a mystery man behind everything, including the hiring of professional hit man Hal Lockwood (Max Martini). As Lockwood goes to prison, Beckett swears to him that she’ll visit the prison every week until he names the man who put out the hit on her mother. The events of this episode not only show how ragged, determined, and blinded Beckett can be when it comes to the subject of her mother, but it also gave us The Kiss. (link and scroll to watch or re-watch in action.)

Granted, it was designed to be a distraction for the bad guys, but Rick and Kate lingered for just a moment, their eyes meeting. For a light-hearted police procedural, the acting is, at times, superb. After three years of will-they or won’t-they suspense, they finally took a step. And, yet, what marks the writing of Castle is how many times Rick and Kate can make a move forward, only to have them take two steps back…and make it believable.  “Knockdown” ends with the plausible event: Beckett’s boyfriend arrives to comfort her. Thus, Castle and Beckett are apart again.

Interestingly, the title of the season finale is “Knockout,” an obvious move to link the two episodes. On one of Beckett’s visits, Lockwood offs a convict (one of the two former detectives who investigated the murder of Mrs. Beckett) before having a confrontation with Kate. She smiles grimly when referring to Lockwood’s mysterious employer: “He can’t hide from me.” Lockwood merely returns her stare: “You can’t hide from him.” During an arraignment hearing, Lockwood escapes with some trained hit men dressed to look like NYPD cops. A manhunt ensues and, during the squad room scenes, Castle postulates that there has to be a third cop involved in the cover-up. Thus, not only do the police search for Lockwood, they also sift through years-old information searching for the identity of the third cop.

In the three seasons this show has aired, there have been some genuinely great moments. “Knockout” had more than its fair share. Jim Beckett, Kate’s father, talks to Castle to urge him to help Kate back down. Captain Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson in perhaps his best episode ever) and Castle have a scene together where we learn how the captain and Beckett first met. Naturally, Castle and Beckett have a fight when he asks her to back down. The good thing is that they get to address the elephant in the room: their romantic feelings for each other. And, like every other episode, it’s left unresolved. Why else would we tune in each week? Finally, there is the first of two scenes between Montgomery and Beckett. With exquisite somberness, the captain admonishes Kate not to let this case consume her. “We owe the dead justice,” he says, “but we don’t owe them our lives.” Life is a series of battles where there are no victories. “I will stand with you, detective,” the captain says.

In following leads, Detectives Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Kevin Ryan (Seamus Dever) discover the truth about the third cop right after we viewers have: it’s Captain Montgomery. In what is perhaps the most excruciating scene between Ryan and Esposito to date, Ryan, in shocked disbelief, speaks the words that the captain has to be dirty. Esposito decks him and the two fight. The anguish in their faces and voices is palpable, real even, and brings home the obvious fact that these two characters are as essential in Castle as Rick and Kate. If there was an Emmy Award for Best Co-Star Team, Huertas and Dever should be nominated annually. As they stand in an alley, backlit so that only their dark profiles are seen, they faced the unspeakable truth, and realize they must warn Beckett.

Stana Katic as Detective Kate Beckett in Castle Season 3 Finale
Bad News Keeps Coming for Beckett in Castle’s Season 3 finale
She is already at an airport hanger, brought there by Montgomery’s phone call. She gets a text message from Ryan and confronts the captain with it. In an episode already dripping with heart-wrenching scenes, this one hits it out of the park. As Beckett implores Montgomery to reconsider—even going as far as saying (begging?) “I forgive you!”—he just looks at her with all the paternal grace he can muster, and tells her “This is my spot.” Castle drags/carries a screaming, moaning, inconsolable Beckett away to safety. Montgomery, dirty cop that he is (or was), goes down and takes out all the bad guys with him, including Lockwood.

The funeral scene, complete with eulogy by Beckett is touching, but the moment is ripped away as a sniper’s bullet (again?) hits Kate. Castle, hovering over her, pleads for her to stay with him. In a moment of desperate clarity, he utters the words we all know he feels: “I love you.” She smiles, a tear running down her cheek, and closes her eyes.

Going into the episode, I knew that one of the team was not going to make it. After hearing that Montgomery was going to retire, I pretty much pegged him as the victim. I did not, however, see the turn of events that put him in the middle of the giant conspiracy surrounding the murder of Beckett’s mother. I can’t imagine that Andrew Marlowe, the show’s creator, had the captain as a bad guy from the start. But it works, and it doesn’t come off as some gimmicky, out-of-character thing like what happened to Clarice Starling at the end of Thomas Harris’s novel, Hannibal (when she willingly went off with Hannibal Lector).

In a show with humble beginnings and a funny premise, Castle is marked more by the episodes of intense drama than the humorous, crime-of-the-week variety. In fact, while watching last night’s show, I realized something: the humorous show, Castle, does drama well in the same manner that the serious show, The X-Files, did humor. From a midseason replacement series, Castle has grown and matured fast, both in the writing and the acting. For a program that is more about the characters than the plots, it is the interaction of the cast that gels this show into something greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, for all the charm and wit and charisma of Castle, the brotherly comradeship between Ryan and Esposito, and the dynamic between father and daughter and son and mother, the emotional core of Castle is Kate Beckett. It is her story that underpins the entire series.

And it is her story that might have just ended with this cliffhanger of a finale.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two Posts at Criminal Element

My second post for Criminal Element, Incognito by Ed Brubaker, is now live:

This follows the first one from last week about The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke.

Head on over to that excellent resource and give it a read.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review Club: It's Superman by Tom De Haven

(This is the May 2011 entry for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

I've always been a Batman guy. Even as a kid, I gravitated towards the Caped Crusader with his more outlandish villains, his humanness, and his tales that seemed just a bit more real. As a kid, I loved Superman, but I liked him best when he was with other characters. My Superman comic collection fits in probably one-and-a-half comic book boxes (approx 250/box). My Batman collection spans three boxes at least, perhaps four. Even as an adult, I still kept up with Batman while Big Blue just seemed to fade away.

So how to explain the sudden desire, about a month ago, to read a Superman tale? The author, to be exact. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is just about the best Superman story I've read in a long time. Not hard to do considering I've not read a Supes story in years. Morrison recaptured that whimsical Superman pre-1986, when DC Comics rebooted Kal-el's story from the beginning.

But I've always wondered about Superman's true beginning. Since his debut was in 1938, that makes him a Depression-era hero. For all the years of telling and retelling his origin, writers have always tried to update Clark Kent's story. Where was the tale that put Clark back in the 1930s? Tom De Haven must have had the same question, but he answered it with his novel, It's Superman.

When you get right down to it, some of the best Superman stories are, in fact, Clark Kent stories. A good friend of mine--a member of my little SF book club--commented that, since Superman is so strong and so invulnerable, the only good Superman story is an origin story. He might have something there. Case in point: TV's "Smallville" has stretched Clark's discovery of his alter ego over ten years. Jeph Loeb captured an excellent, modern retelling of Clark's story with "Superman: For All Seasons." But not since the Depression has there been a good, honest story about Clark Kent and Superman in the 1930s.

Superman, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is an American story of the Depression. Tom De Haven captures the look, the feel, the smells, the sounds of the Depression with intimate detail. Not hardly a page goes by without some reference to how we lived in the middle of the 1930s. It served as a wonderful touchstone to the types of lives that Siegel and Shuster lived as they created the first, great superhero. To be honest, this tale is more pulp than SF. Heck, it's almost Steinbeckian in its slowness and non-action.

Not that that's a bad thing. De Haven allows all the characters to breath on their own. The story is the origin of how Clark went from a farm boy in Kansas to a reporter and superhero in New York. And, yes, De Haven sets the story in NYC, not the fictional Metropolis. It's yet another piece that makes the story of this alien more real.

Lois Lane and Lex Luthor play their obligatory roles. Lois is almost the most fully realized character in the book. She is not some modern 2011 woman trapped in the 1930s, complete with winks and nods to us 21st Century readers. She is a modern, 1930s-era woman. She wants to be taken seriously as a reporter--something the male reporters don't do--but, also, upon meeting one character, tries out his last name with her own first name, wondering about marriage and kids.

Lex is fabulous. This isn't the mad scientist of the Silver Age of Superman's history. Lex, now, is more in line with the post-1986 rebooting of the character: a rich, brilliantly intelligent man, an Alderman, and a gangster. He doesn't want to rule the world, he just wants to rule the organized crime groups in NYC. Unlike Clark, Lex knows that his intelligence makes him an outsider among the more "normal" people.

Lex's brains is a nice counterpoint to Clark's brawn, a usual aspect of Superman stories. But, in this retelling, Clark isn't very smart, constantly doubting what he should do. In fact, it is Clark's constant questioning of his powers that, depending on what kind of story you want, will sway you one way or the other. For those of y'all (like another member of my book club) who read the word "Superman" on the cover and wait for Superman to do something super, you'll be disappointed. For those of y'all (like me) who enjoys the human side of Clark's story, this novel will be right up your alley. In the world of 2011, if one discovers one has superpowers, we'd likely try to get a TV deal. For someone like the Clark Kent of the 1930s, he almost doesn't know what to do.

Superman, like Batman, James Bond, and various animated characters, has adapted as the decades have passed. With my reading of It's Superman coming around the 900th issue* of Action Comics--the comic where Superman debuted--and it's modern, super-smart, SF version of Superman, it's fascinating to read a novel that takes Clark/Superman all the way back to his beginning.

*Don't let the news-making storyline of Superman renouncing his American citizenship rankle you too much. It wasn't a part of the main story and, frankly, I'm wondering if this little short story isn't truly canon. Another thing about the actual citizenship story: the end panels show Supes flying away after standing in the plaza of Tehran (I think) for a day. As he flies away, leaving only the protesters and the soldiers, one protester gives one soldier a flower. The one soldier lowers his weapon. It's almost as if the author is saying Iran 2011 equals USA 1970. It's really ironic that everyone's so up in arms over this one, potentially uncanonical story that, in the end, symbolizes American ideals anyway.




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