No, Castle fans, you didn’t accidentally tune into a syndicated rerun tonight. “PhDead” is just the first episode in this new Caskett dynamic, and even Castle agrees that it strongly resembles an old one. A bombshell landed in the couple’s happy home in the two-part season opener; Beckett pressed the pause button on their marriage in order to avenge her former D.C. colleagues. Now Castle is waking up in an otherwise empty bed and putting all his faculties to work to spur Beckett into realizing how crazy she is about him. It’s vintage Caskett. And I’m so sorry, Rick, but it kind of feels good to get back to basics.
In the cold open, a man in a prison-issue orange jumpsuit careens through a wooded area in the dark until he can’t escape the blinding spotlight that corners him. “You got me. I give up,” he surrenders, but surrender not accepted: In the harsh light of day, Ryan, Esposito, and Beckett find the same man impaled on a branch. His jumpsuit would suggest that Rikers is home, but no one has gone missing; and they can’t even find a fingerprint match for him. Nothing about him says “I’m in the system.” John Doe, it is.
Perhaps our John Doe’s life wouldn’t have veered so far out of control if he’d had a “home operating system” like Castle ordered from, let’s face it, probably SkyMall. Castle’s loneliness is driving him to extreme acts of diversion, like staging his own remake of Her with his new AI pal “Lucy.” Lucy should absolutely be a continued presence in this season, because a) having someone to talk to will keep Castle’s personal breakdown just on the right side of the cute/sad divide and b) she may actually be on to something. “How’d you get her in the first place, Rick?” Lucy wonders as he bemoans the absence of his wife, and boom, the man’s got a plan.
Castle may not be endorsed by the 12th precinct, but he’s still one of the only civilians in New York who can sweet talk his way into Lanie’s lab, unzip the body bag of an unidentified homicide victim, and escape with only a few exasperated words thrown his way. Fueled by his renewed determination to woo his lady again and buoyed by the millennial knowledge of PI partner Alexis, Castle beats the precinct to identifying their John Doe. His tattoo is of the Hudson University mascot; Peter Garber’s not a hardened Rikers criminal. He’s a co-ed without a record, just an invitation to a Halloween rager. Beckett shows up to the school to inform the dean and finds her shaking hands with her bow-tied and tweed-jacketed husband. Welcome to the faculty, guest professor Castle.
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The 12th’s first lead involves the clock-and-dagger traditions of ye olde Greek system. Peter was the pledge master of his fraternity and got into it with his brother Scott, when Peter took issue with hazing the new recruits. (Good man.) After Ryan and Espo’s Never Been Kissed strategy fails to unearth any new evidence (“Oh, and remember, fiber’s your friend.”), Castle sends in Alexis in a platinum blond wig and a fitted sweater to pump Scott for information. This won’t be the last time in the episode that Alexis’s feminine wiles are given a workout, and it’s weird, but it’s not too weird. She’s guaranteed to catch the eye of a red-blooded fraternity brother. But Scott and Peter had made up and were totally cool, bro. Scott even used his residential housing privileges to set Peter up with an empty apartment as a “quiet place to study.” Sure.
Every shade of gray (with some fire-engine red accents) is present in Peter’s makeshift BDSM lair, along with a calling card from a jilted lover. “I SAY WHEN IT’S OVER, PETER” is smeared across a mirror in lipstick because the fight between this room and subtlety was already over. Alexis goes undercover as co-ed Clara again to find out who Peter was tying up (or vice versa) on the regular. This time, she’s in a fetching angel lingerie ensemble for a party at the Beta Omega house. Castle is so laser-focused on getting Beckett back that he almost doesn’t follow his daughter into the party and make a fool of himself. Lucky for us, he remembers himself and then does. (“I need to bro down.”) He gets in over his head in a beer-pong match but does manage to get the name of Peter’s lover from his opponent in the process. Beckett catches him in not the finest of circumstances (“I’m not drunk…I’m casin’ the crack.”), but at least there’s canon confirmation that beer pong is also on the list of “Things Kate Beckett Can Do Better Than Most Humans.”
NEXT: Snitches get stitches
Dr. Barbara Lillstrom was Peter’s thesis advisor and is now a prime suspect in his murder, considering she hasn’t been in class for a week. Alexis tracks the psychology professor’s cell signal to an abandoned building nearby. (Will Castle never run out of abandoned buildings?) When she and her dad show up to investigate, they find a famously dangerous psychological test in session. A couple of teenagers in guard gear throw them into the nearest cell so that Alexis can spout off some exposition about the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, where college students were divided into guards and prisoners and receded deeper into those roles than expected. And it’s clear from the behavior of the young woman in the cell next to theirs that the results here are the same. Peter had been head guard, Amy says, but was demoted by “Warden Lillstrom” for being nice to the prisoners. Soon after, he was locked up with the rest of the inmates before making his escape the night of his death. That explains the jumpsuit.
Castle threatens an overachieving guard with academic failure to let them go, and he and Alexis make their way to Lillstrom’s command center. She looks genuinely confused when Castle tells her that Peter is dead, but he still puts handcuffs on her wrists and brings her to Beckett at the precinct. You know, like how your outdoor cat brings you half-dead mice to thank you for leaving food on the porch. Beckett’s reaction is heartening. She doesn’t know anything about Lillstrom or the experiment, but she trusts Castle to identify an unsavory element when he comes across it. Lillstrom gets her own cell, while Castle, Ryan, and Espo head back to the makeshift prison. By the time they get there, every student and shred of evidence is gone. Castle blames his single-minded pursuit of Beckett for the slip.
Lillstrom had more resources than she let on, though, and even Caskett’s no match for the U.S. Army. The professor had been contracting with that branch of the armed forces, which Castle finds interesting since the Stanford trials were sponsored by the Navy. Beckett tests Lillstrom’s resolve by threatening to inform the school that its students were guinea pigs in the development of new techniques for gleaning information from terrorists unless she comes clean on what she knows about Peter. The professor’s crappy judgment has a limit; she never slept with Peter, but she knows who did. Prim and proper Dean Feller was Peter’s BDSM buddy, and she admits the relationship and her frustration with the way it seemed to end in an interview with Beckett. She was on her way to pick Peter up in Central Park that night, she swears. He told her to meet him there and that he’d give her the reason for his disappearance once they were together. He never made it.
“We’re missing part of the story,” Castle says to Beckett, not satisfied with the vague cloud surrounding the case. He suggests that they do what they always do: “go back to the beginning.” Suspicious that he might just be trying to get some private time with her even after she’s repeatedly stressed her need for space, Beckett still accompanies Castle back to the prison. Always one for a fully immersive experience, Castle locks them into the cell so that they can figure out who Peter broke out of it. Beckett spots an air vent above her and steps closer to Castle so that he can give her a boost. They share a moment because of course they do. They still love each other, and Beckett won’t stop repeating that until Castle gets it. But for now, they’ve got a murder to solve, and Peter’s escape can’t have been anything but a “two-man job.”
The person in the cell next door helped him get out and then returned to the prison. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Ryan and Esposito call in poor, fragile Amy, who was the runner-up for the scholarship that the dean awarded her boy toy instead. The motive is there, but Amy claims that a “different” Amy did all the impaling. The experiments that Lillstrom subjected her to warped her mind, she says, and maybe it’s true. Or maybe it’s a convenient excuse.
If Castle continues down this path, then Beckett will be doing a lot of moonlighting. She’s doubling up her captain’s duties with her vigilante justice ones, but at least she’s got a pal in Vikram. The analyst is still by her side and will stay there, because he owes her his life. In between breaks in the Garber case, Beckett and Vikram follow the threads of Allison Hyde’s murder. Vikram finds an unidentifiable man on her hotel security-camera footage and then tracks down the elusive Michael Smith so that Beckett can persuade her old ally to help them find the “ghost” in Senator Bracken’s partner’s organization. Smith is happy with his dog and his park and the nice lady who loves him, so he refuses to get too involved. But he does offer up a scent for Beckett to track. Vulcan Simmons is the drug runner whose murder Bracken tried to frame Beckett for once upon a time. The drug shipments he oversaw didn’t stop after he was killed, Smith advises. Trace the signature of those narcotics, and the living pieces of that organization can be found.
Get comfortable, Lucy. Beckett’s not coming home anytime soon.
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