Depending on how seriously you take the "will they or won't they?" thing that's supposed to be going on between Nathan Fillion's Rick Castle and Stana Katic's Kate Beckett, Castle is either the Nathan Fillion Show or the Nathan Fillion Plus One Show. The premise that the show has been running on for three years—bestselling crime novelist has so much juice with the public and the mayor's office that he's able to get himself "partnered" with one of New York City's best homicide detectives and tag along with her as she works major murder cases, all to give his writing imagination a shot in the arm—has never passed the laugh test. Most of the show's mystery plots wouldn't overtax the investigative abilities of Sledge Hammer. Although Susan Sullivan, who plays Castle's live-in mother, and Molly Quinn, as his teenage daughter, work well with Fillion and can be good for a chuckle, down at the precinct, the supporting cast is made up of bored-looking drones who have trouble navigating the show's tonal shifts, so that they don't always seem certain whether they should be imitating the cops on NYPD Blue or the ones on Barney Miller. But all this can be forgiven if you're in the mood to just crash in front of the screen of your choice and waste an hour watching your favorite space cowboy demonstrate how much mileage he can get out of a few good jokes, a few more bad ones, and a warm, wry smile.
Katic herself isn't exactly the actress you dream of seeing paired off with Nathan Fillion. If Fillion is going to solve crimes in tandem with a woman he's meant to be attracted to, why not match him with an actress who could match him wisecrack for wisecrack, the way William Powell and Myrna Loy did as Nick and Nora Charles? (This is not meant as an actual suggestion that some studio revive the Thin Man series. On the other hand, I'm not I approve of the idea of reviving The Rockford Files, either, but if someone were hell bent on it, you'd think he'd see that Fillion is the most logical choice imaginable to play Jim Rockford. Fun fact: both Fillion and Dermot Mulroney, who did play Jim Rockford in a busted pilot last year, have voiced Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern—Mulroney in an episode of The Batman during its "Brave and the Bold" period, Fillion in a forthcoming DVD movie. Only in the specialized world of cartoon voice work could anyone think of those two guys in the same role.)
Katic, who looks a little like Mariska Hargitay, has some of the cast-iron, super-severe brunette gravity that has made Hargitay's show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's, network TV's leading antidote to Prozac. She's meant to have a reason to be so glum and so focused on "speaking for the dead", the latest cant phrase for TV cops's obsessions with bringing down bad guys. It's all due to a childhood trauma: the murder of her own mother remains unsolved. Meanwhile, Rick Castle is, well, Nathan Fillion. He's a vain, funny, hang-loose guy who insists that he's no hero but who, because of his fundamental decency and love of the underdog, keeps pulling his Don Quixote lance out of mothballs and pulled back onto his white horse. The idea behind the alleged attraction between the two leads is that she makes him a better man and he shows her how to have fun for the first time in her life. That's sometimes a workable premise for how the two can complement each other's crime-solving skills, but I'm not sure that the show has ever sold anyone that it's a promising formula for romance. These two are not Nick and Nora. To put it in actual crime writer terms, they're more like Donald Westlake meets Andrew Vachss.
Which is fine, so far as it goes; Castle is hang-out television, a chance to unwind for an hour at the end of a long hard day, spending a little quality time with Nathan Fillion. The shock of the season finale is that the show decided to go for hard seriousness, with a humorless hour of bloody killings, explosions, and exposition about the vast conspiracy that has been slowly developing surrounding the death of Beckett's mother, which has turned into Castle's big tease, like the mysterious serial killers with catchy handles (Jack of All Trades, Red John) who have danced at the edges of entire seasons of shows such as CSI, Profiler, and The Mentalist. The most striking thing about the episode was that its straight-faced tone and dour, paranoid conspiracy plot served to all but write Castle himself out of the show. The lightest moment came early on, when Fillion was flashing a copy of a new comic book based on one of his novels, and it wasn't really a joke but a product placement: the actual comic—actually, a hardcover "graphic novel" co-written by Brian Michael Bendis and Kelly Sue DeConnick, hits stores September 28. But for the length of this episode, at least, the show should have been called Beckett, which would have also had the virtue of tipping viewers who know their literary references off as to how cheerful it was going to be.
Fillion didn't disappear entirely from the action. He had a scene where Castle's knowledge of that primitive instrument the typewriter came in handy for the case at hand, and at the climax, Beckett's boss, Captain Montgomery, suddenly called him in out of the shadows, as if he were a dog, to protect Beckett while the good Captain was getting himself killed over her. Turns out that Cap was part of the conspiracy and could take credit for the fact that the huge network of master assassins that seemed to be involved hadn't taken her out ages ago. Those who'd picked up signals from the media atmosphere that there would be big revelations coming down in this episode, and who hoped that they'd be related instead to Castle and Beckett confessing tender feelings about each other or at least knocking boots, were fated to be disappointed.
Trying to reach out to Beckett, Castle tells her, "I'm your partner. I'm your friend." "Is that what we are?" Beckett says, her glower firmly in place. Fillion, looking absolutely miserable, replies: "I don't know what we are. We kiss, and then we never talk about it. we nearly die, frozen, in each other's arms, and then we never talk about it. So, no, I've got no clue what we are." This episode left you with the feeling that the people who work on Castle have no clue what they are, either. Since this was their big finish to the season, it must reflect some version of their idea of the show at its best, but what can it mean that this version of the show can barely accommodate its own hero, and can't allow him to demonstrate any of the qualities that are the strongest temptation the show usually provides to get anyone to tune in? At the end, Castle is last seen, still looking distressed and sleep-deprived, sprawled across Beckett's body, after she's hit the dirt after being seen through the scope of an assassin's rifle. This is actually the opposite of a cliffhanger, since the point of a cliffhanger is to make you want to see what happens next.