The trick to doing a good protagonist-in-mortal-peril story is to keep your audience so enthralled by the mystery surrounding the peril that they temporarily suspend the known belief that you would never actually kill off your main protagonist.
Andrew Marlowe and the Castle writers tend to do a pretty good job of that and tonight's episode, "Dreamworld," is no exception. Once we are reminded of Castle's (Nathan Fillion) death sentence, the action picks up and doesn't end until the last, long shot of Beckett (Stana Katic) standing over Castle's hospital bed.
And it's a good thing there's a lot of action between the death sentence and the hospital bed because the writers also need to distract the audience from the exciting as vanilla crew that Beckett is still working with. Thankfully, Hendrix (Jocko Sims) is minimized this time out, though that gives more screen time to big boss Villante (Yancy Arias), who still doesn't hold a candle to the Chief (Penny Johnson).
Meanwhile, computer whiz Richmond (Peter James Smith) also fails to impress with his prowess of reusing the same Big Brother tactics from last week, while Castle knows the trick to decoding the redacted transcript. Not to mention, those who weren't pleased by the lack of Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Espo (Jon Huertas) last week might really be fuming at the even smaller cameo the duo has here.
The saving grace of the temporary DC move continues to be Lisa Edlestein's, Agent McCord. She can match Katic step for step as an actor without overpowering her. Her dialogue is good, too, and the writers give her plenty of opportunities to prove she's got what it takes to be a feasible partner for Beckett. Hopefully, they can find a way to bring her back from time to time after next week, since this whole DC plotline, like Castle's death sentence, was never meant to be a permanent thing.
Much like the case last week, while the support cast might not be much to speak of, the main leads themselves - along with the guest stars who bring the pieces of the case to life - do a standup job. For the longest time they have little to go on outside of the skeletal framework built last week, then slowly but surely a suspect arises. Given Beckett's personal history with corrupt government officials, it's no wonder her instincts are screaming for her to nail Defense Secretary Reed (Glen Morshower) to the wall.
The key to the case is figuring out who "Valkyrie" is and what their connection is to the murdered Bronson. It seems a little gutsy to do an Afghanistan-based story so close on the heels of 9/11, but it's handled with a certain respect and tact and the bad guys turn out to be Americans anyway, so it works. After the sleight-of-hand employed in the season premiere, it's also impressive that the writers are able to keep the twists fresh. First, falsely implicating the Defense Secretary when it's the reporter, Parker (Warren Christie) behind everything. Then, painting Reed as Parker's target when he's really after Reed's wife.
Even though Parker's caught in time to save Castle and Mrs. Reed (Ellen Bry), the ending raises more questions than it answers. Do Beckett and Castle have what it takes to make it in the long run? Will Beckett's black and white approach be satisfied working in the dismal shades of gray in DC? What truly defines a "partner" and should she stick with McCord or go back to working with Castle?
Hopefully, these questions and more will be addressed next week when the scene shifts back to New York and the Feds have to step in on a case Ryan, Espo, and Castle are already working on.
Castle returns next week with "Need to Know" @10pm on ABC.
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