What Castle’s Best Episode can Teach us About Writing

If you’ve been living under a network TV rock, or perhaps have ventured into a futuristic world of streaming-and-premium channels only, perhaps you haven’t seen or heard of Castle. In such an unlikely event, here’s all you need to know: Castle is a procedural drama about a detective and a crime author teaming up to track down murderers. It’s one part odd couple, one part buddy cop, and two parts Murder She Wrote.

Now, onto the point of the post.

She’s armed, he’s dangerous

At its inception, Castle was an above-average cop show, carried almost entirely by the insanely likable leads- Nerd King Nathan Fillion as author Richard Castle and newcomer (to being in a starring role) Stana Katic as Detective Kate Beckett. It didn’t stray too far from other cop shows, feeling like a slightly better version of Acronym:City. (Wait. What do you mean they’re all different shows?) Over time, Castle was able to set itself apart from its competition as the insanely likable leads got even more insanely likeable..er. But the show itself stayed pretty much the same. Every now and then, they’d throw in an X-Files style episode, but none of them ever actually ended up being supernatural. Kate would be right, there’s no man behind the curtain. A trick of the light, a madman playing a prank.

And then came “Disciple.”

Coming in season six, “Disciple” is past Castle’s heyday. In fact, most Castle fans will tell you the show’s run its course, and is now overstaying its welcome. But the show was able to provide its fans one hell of an episode before its creative mojo went kaput.

What “Disciple” does that aspiring writers could learn from is simple: It ups the ante. Their X-files episodes always ended up being much ado but nothing. The show isn’t actually a Sci-Fi, after all. There’s real world rules to follow. This time, it throws the rules out the window. But it knows how to do so. It doesn’t throw in dragons and magic sorcerers attacking New York, (though now that I think about it that would’ve been awesome) but instead it provides us an only-barely Sci-Fi concept. One that requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but not enough to completely jar a viewer.

The concept of the episode is this: A serial killer is using the handiwork of a prolific plastic surgeon to turn his victims into doppelgangers of the main cast. The result is spooky and dark in a way the show had never been before. And as the two-parter unfolds, it only gets spookier and darker. And, in contrast to every other X-files style episode they do, the science fiction aspect is proved, not dismissed. The plastic surgeon really can create any face she wants, as long as her cadaver has the proper facial structure. And by the end of the episode, she’s about to operate on Kate.

After six years, Castle only really convinced me of a main character being in lethal danger twice. Once in the season 3 finale “Knockout” (where two characters actually get shot) and then again in season 6’s “Disciple.” By upping the ante by making an episode that was darker, scarier, and bending the rules a little bit, they managed to create real tension again. For a moment, Castle became not just a better version of Acronym:City but showed us that there’s all the talent involved the show to make it a classic, had they gone this route earlier.


Or maybe not. You see, part of the reason why this episode works so well is it plays on six years of built up expectations from Castle fans. After six years, we all expected the sci-fi element to be a red herring. There’d be some explanation that settles everything in a nice little bow and the doppelganger corpses will be fake outs. So as the episode went on, the viewer is on edge waiting for the rug to be pulled out- for the metaphorical Scooby Doo moment. But it never comes. And when the episode embraces its uniqueness fully, you realize how special it is. And you get hope that maybe its a sign of changes to come.

But Alas, as the show went on, things went back to normal. And as good as they are at the procedural formula, it’s a formula that runs stale rather easily. “Disciple” may well be the last great episode of the series, depending on how Season 8 unfolds. And it stands as a lesson to writers everywhere: Don’t be afraid to change things up in your work, as long as you do it tactfully. Throw us a curveball every now and then. Let us think a story will go one way, or that a plotline is a red herring, and take advantage of our presumptions to fool us.

But don’t spend six years building up to it, please.

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