Ever played one of those room-escape games before? The concept is this: People pay other people to lock them in a single, four-walled room and only let them out once they’ve successfully solved a series of puzzles. True colors quickly begin to show as the clock ticks down. Who’s the hysteric? Who’s the methodical one? Who’s ever-so-slightly claustrophobic? Castle and Beckett face a similar kind of duress in this week’s episode, though there’s nothing recreational about their predicament and bragging rights aren’t all that’s at stake.
But first, a victim. Emma Matthews, a young, attractive, and on-the-rise television news producer is gunned down in her own apartment, a symbol not unlike a bull’s-eye sketched on her vanity mirror in her own lipstick. The only conflict her work pals can think of is a tense relationship with the office jerk. Standard work politics since she took his promotion, but Buckley the Jerk does drive the same color and type of vehicle that a neighbor saw driving away from the deceased’s home.
Too keyed up by a professional opportunity to be haunting cases at the precinct, Castle doesn’t even try to ingratiate himself in the investigation. Instead, he heads off to an address texted to him by the alleged assistant of one Stephen King, hoping to discuss a possible collaboration. Martha and Alexis warn him that prank retaliation is headed his way since the rivalry between a Red Sox fan and a Yankees supporter will never die; Castle remains buoyant and undeterred. He’s relieved of consciousness immediately on his arrival to the address, and you’d think that Richard Castle may have built up an immunity to knock-out drugs by now. (Alexis, accurately: “I mean the guy’s abducted what, like twice a year.”)
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He wakes in a grammar school classroom surrounded by three men he’s never seen or met before in his life. Judah, Todd, and Simon come from different backgrounds and have different jobs, but all four men claim they were summoned to the address by a text. If you’re going to be living out a real locked-door mystery, you’d do worse than having your own personal mystery writer locked in with you. Castle immediately goes into survey mode, noting the steel door, false window, and camera recording their every move. Someone’s playing a game, and it’s lucky for the pawns that that person clearly wants more than their deaths.
The group learns quickly that the hints in the room aren’t meant to help them but to confuse them, with disastrous consequences. When one of the men rashly breaks out the too-conspicuous fire ax from its glass casing, a single bee is released. It stings Todd, who goes into anaphylactic shock. Castle uses the code spelled out in the classroom’s alphabet border to open the cryptex left by their captor (“Play Or Die”), but the epi pen in its casing is poison in disguise. (What kind? Doesn’t matter. Just that “XXX” generic poison from ‘30s cartoons.) Another clue solved leads to the antidote, and not a moment too soon.
Always a sucker for backstory, Castle tries to find the point of connection that he and his fellow prisoners have to share. But these guys are civilians and haven’t even had the simple luxury of working eight years of cases with the NYPD’s finest, Capt. Katherine Beckett. They want action, not talk, and flail about trying to open the door. The head of the ax (rubber, by the way) comes off and reveals a metal piece that fits the lock. The door stays firmly in place, but a chamber opens. It houses a single handgun and another note: “Last one standing will be freed.” Castle checks the barrel and they’re looking at the musical chairs of bullets. The men share stiff glances. Judah is the first to break and reach for the weapon, but Castle isn’t going down like that. “We have the power not to play,” he reasons. Then he addresses the camera. “You hear that? We’re not going to play your sick little game anymore. You lose.” The TV in the room flicks on, showing a live feed to an identical room. Three women pace: Judah’s girlfriend, Simon’s wife, and Beckett.
Ryan and Esposito don’t know it yet — they don’t even know that Castle and Beckett are missing — but they happen to be working the case already. One half of each of the couples in the classrooms has a temporary tattoo of the crime scene symbol emblazoned on their shoulder. Buckley the Jerk’s gripes about Emma’s work ethic give Rysposito a lead on that front. He’d walked in on her digitizing home videos of two children solving puzzles and ciphers for hours in separate, identical classrooms. The boy and girl are each wearing a medallion bearing that symbol. (What does that symbol mean? To my immense disappointment: absolutely nothing.) The little girl stops her work and looks into the camera. “I’m scared,” she says. “I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
NEXT: Twin dilemma
The men and women in the rooms in the present can’t hear each other, and they can only see each other when their captor sees fit. Naturally, Beckett is the most rational one in her classroom, with Judah’s girlfriend, Tricia, a close second. Simon’s wife, Meadow, has no chill, first almost lighting up with a peanut-laced cigarette that would have surely killed her and then grabbing hold of the handily supplied gun and making a bid to be the sole survivor. Her husband gets a load of that when the feed comes back to life. Emboldened, he snatches the other gun. Todd is suspiciously without an emotional counterpart in the other room, but the rest bizarrely let it slide because he’s a minister. He steps in front of the other and appeals to Simon’s faith. Simon fires, but the chamber is blocked. The bullet travels backwards into his chest, killing him. Meadow, disarmed and restrained by Beckett, sees Castle on the monitor holding the gun over her husband’s dead body. Beckett refuses to believe what she’s seeing and keeps her focus on getting free.
The experimentation logs are little more than creepy documentaries until Vikram (like honestly, does he work there or not?) finds a helpful detail in the footage. The Northcliffes are married psychologists who conducted research on separation anxiety in the ‘90s. Their secretary confirms that the children in the marked footage are the Northcliffes’ twin children, Faye and Brandon. Both kids were traumatized by their experience. Their bond was strong, yet their parents forcibly kept them apart for their work. Faye had recently committed suicide, and Brandon had long since split and gone off the grid. Young Emma was also a participant in the study and presumably the cat burglar who stole the video tapes from the Northcliffes’ home the night before she was killed. She was seeking retribution for herself and the other scarred children by exposing the research. But what relief could her “proof” really bring them? If the Northcliffes were using this research to get ahead in their field, those tapes had certainly been seen by others in their profession already. Would anyone have even cared?
The classrooms spark a memory in Tricia; she’d heard of those studies before, and Beckett sees the similarities in their circumstances and wants to know details. Separation and then elimination is the clear goal for the puppet master. Castle works out that the more important member of the couple is marked with the symbol, while the “leverage” partner is clean. Their captor only wants one half of each pair to leave the room alive.
But the killer shot himself in the foot by having a Castle in one room and a Beckett in another. They diffuse the emotional powder keg set out for them (minus one casualty) and band their groups together. The men jimmy their door open right before the ladies (hell yes) blow theirs up with a homemade bomb. A nondescript hallway leads them to another room, with a single open door tantalizingly in view. Castle and Beckett warn the rest not to charge ahead, but they’ve apparently learned nothing and do. Another steel door slots into place, and a countdown clock starts ticking down exactly five minutes. “Of those who remain, only your better half can survive,” the last clue reads. There are three levers and six people left in the room. Half to hold the door open, half to escape. Todd cites his faith, taking position at one. Beckett and Castle take the others, because they’re doing this together or not at all. Tricia, Judah, and Meadow leave, pledging to get help. And Brandon Northcliffe’s favorite movie is Saw.
Without sharing a word, Castle and Beckett both realized that “Todd” is not who he claimed to be. (Rysposito did, too, when they found the elder Northcliffes tied up and gagged in front of their own live feed of the proceedings, A Clockwork Orange-style.) The fact that the minister, a.k.a. Brandon Northcliffe, didn’t even bother to hire a wife or a girlfriend to sell the whole thing should have been enough, but his sheer lack of fear in the face of the last few traps sealed the deal. Plus, Brandon’s favorite movie is Saw. He does his Bond-villain confessing at that point, raving that Emma’s plan to release the tapes simply wasn’t enough. He’d collected representatives of the institutions that failed him and his sister during their childhood ordeal (including the 12th precinct) and had planned to rip them from their soulmate to show the world “the monster [my] parents created.” Again, inviting a decorated cop to your own murder scheme is some Darwin Award-level stuff, so surprise: Brandon doesn’t exactly get his way. It’s a massive plot hole in an episode that also trades in a pretty simplistic and damaging portrait of mental illness. Beckett muses during the traditional post-case Syrah that Brandon’s failings are a result of his neglect, but that’s the most thought he or the other survivors are afforded.
And while I’m on the subject of plot holes, let’s get back to this secret marriage debacle. Last week, Castle’s spy stepmother, Rita, hadn’t clocked that Caskett were back together. This week, a psychotic recluse picks Castle and Beckett for his soulmate challenge, and Beckett is not at all concerned as to why he’d pay no mind to their public breakup. I’m getting whiplash over here, Castle. Please choose a lane, and stay there.
Odds & Ends
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