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The Blue Butterfly: Castle goes noir

Posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at 9:55 am

Author: s.e. smith

Last week, the networks dredged up their usual parade of dreck in advance of Valentine’s Day, apparently under the belief that viewers needed Very Special Love-Saturated Episodes to prepare themselves for the upcoming orgy of hothouse flowers, cheap chocolate, and social expectations. Most of them were absolutely terrible, but there was one standout from the bunch; Castle’s quirky and rather delightful ‘The Blue Butterfly.’ The episode joined a long Castle tradition of having some fun with seasonally themed episodes while paying respects to giants of the genre.

Castle seems to be at its best when the producers cut loose and decide to have some fun with the characters and the show, taking them outside their usual environments. Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic both have the acting chops to take their characters in new directions, whether they’re adventuring in steampunk underworlds or uncovering a Prohibition-era secret. It’s one of the things that keeps me tuning in every week—even though episodes don’t always hit the mark, when they’re on, they’re on.

And Castle was definitely on with ‘The Blue Butterfly,’ which brought us a noir twist on the usual narrative, complete with some reworking of the titlecard and credits to keep viewers in the mood. I felt like I should be watching it in an Art Deco theatre from an armchair on the balcony, listening to a full band below, attended by cigarette girls while waiting for the lights to go down and the curtain to rise.

In ‘The Blue Butterfly,’ Castle and Beckett get investigating on a murder linked with a lost piece of jewelry, and along the way, they uncover a complicated fraud that started decades ago. They’re guided by the journals of a private investigator who witnessed the action at the time, and every entry Castle reads draws him, and the rest of the team, deeper into the story. Pretty soon everyone wants to know what happens next, but Castle has a disappointment for them: the journal entries stop before the story is resolved.

This is not just about the mystery, but about a blooming romance between the private investigator and a dame who’s got herself seriously snarled up in the case, as viewers quickly learn. In a series of flashback sequences with Castle and Beckett standing in for the PI and his love interest, viewers got to see the journal entries unfold in real time, while also skipping forward to the future to watch the team try to solve the case. It was a fun way to play with the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Castle and Beckett, which the show has done an excellent job of balancing over the seasons to keep viewers engaged without frustrrating them.

Other members of the crew also took on roles in the noir version, with varying degrees of success. It was particularly fabulous to see Alexis (Molly Quinn) as a femme fatale; she did a bang-up job in this episode and I maintain my belief that she’s a young actress to watch. She clearly had fun in her role, but more than that, she moved seamlessly between her modern day and noir incarnations without a hint of self-consciousness or gawkiness. Watching her career develop should be a pleasure if she continues growing as an actress at this rate; she’s demonstrating that she has a real range, and isn’t just effectively playing herself on screen..

‘The Blue Butterfly’ wasn’t quite pitch-perfect, but that may be what made it work so well. It was richly noir-flavoured and tons of fun, but obviously wasn’t going for full authenticity. The production team brought us smoky visuals and stunning sets and costumes, giving everything a rich, Raymond Chandleresque atmosphere, but they didn’t try too hard; it felt like an homage rather than an attempt at facsimile, and that made it much easier to relax and enjoy the show. Rather than hunting for anachronisms, viewers could simply feel the mood.

What makes these episodes work so well is their rarity; a show trying to do a noir episode every week would feel contrived and somewhat affected. A random fun episode that takes a show totally outside of its usual ken, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. The Castle production team appear to be masters of the art, as I have yet to be disappointed by one of the show’s themed episodes. They manage to be funny, creative, and surprising every time, and it makes me long to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room.

Some shows have tried and failed at this—see the musical episode on Grey’s Anatomy–while others have managed to master the art of playing with the setting and characters while staying true to the soul of the show. Castle is already meant to be a bit off-beat, and that may be what makes its outside the box episodes work so well; they fit in with the overall aesthetic and charm of the production.

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