Castle S02E16, “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice”, March 8, 2010 IMDB
Sooner or later it seems every police or lawyer show does an episode about BDSM. Castle, about a bestselling mystery writer who uses his connections to ride along on police investigations, is no exception.
We open with the discovery of yet another dead sex worker, typical for this genre. She’s in lingerie, hanging from custom bondage cuffs, and slathered in caramel sauce.
In the narrative logic of Castle, the murder of a person is less important than the series’ leads flirting. As the investigation proceeds, BDSM figures in two ways.
First, it’s a topic for the homosocial bonding between Castle and the other (all male) detectives. They research online and call what they find “nasty”, and Castle chimes in to say, “That’s illegal in twelve states.”
Secondly, it’s a topic for detective Kate Beckett and writer Richard Castle’s ongoing flirtation. Beckett proves to be knowledgeable about kink culture and equipment, and the costume design often puts her in a black leather jackets and gloves. She mentions that she knows about “clubs”, though she seems to confuse them with “houses of domination.” Castle quips at her: “You know, you should moonlight. Seriously. You would make a fortune.” This is another backhanded compliment at women in authority positions.
The victim, Jessica, turns out to be a PhD student who is studying professional dominatrixes. Later we learn that she is also working as a pro domme, alias “Mistress Venom”, though this appears to be part of the study and not a matter of economic necessity.
For unclear reasons, Beckett pretends to be submitting her boyfriend, Castle, for discipline. The house of domination is presented as a place of glamour, where Beckett is at ease but Castle is uncomfortable.
Castle: “This place looks like a law firm.”
Beckett: “What did you think it was going to be, torture wheels and women in corsets?”
Castle: “Well, yeah.”
Beckett: “That’s in the back.”
Beckett: “Do you think we could gag him?”
Castle: “Remember my safeword is ‘apples’.”
Note that “safeword” is used without any explanation, as if assuming this concept would be familiar to the audience or understandable from context.
The dungeon owner goes by Lady Irena, who fits the stereotype
Irena: “Don’t let the leather fool you. I used to be a partner at a law firm.”
Irena: “When you dominate and manipulate men in every boardroom and courtroom that you’re in, this just seemed like the natural progression.”
Irena also flirts with Castle, putting him on the defensive.
Irena is does reveal that “Mistress Venom” was Jessica, then refuses to divulge information about her clients.
Later, Beckett comments, “She wants to protect her clients. What about her girls?”
They find out one of Venom’s clients was nicknamed “Sam I Am,” a Smart Assed Masochist who provokes people into punishing him. Beckett suggests that Castle is a SAM himself.
When interrogating the SAM suspect, Beckett plays up her dominatrix image, zipping up her leather jacket and barking orders as soon as she enters the room.
Suspect: “It’s fantasy.”
Beckett: “But the fantasies weren’t enough. And so you had to make your dreams come true.”
Suspect: “That’s not possible.”
Beckett: “The more she said no, the more you became obsessed. You didn’t want to be the submissive. You wanted to dominate her and the ultimate domination in murder.”
This is a stretch as a theory of the crime, as a SAM wants to push just to the point of being punished. However, the SAM turns out to be another red herring suspect.
The suspicion turns back to the dungeon owner for seeing clients off hours, or threatening the dungeon’s reputation, but the killer ultimately turns out to be Jessica’s obsessed, codependent roommate. She was the origin for Jessica’s interest in sadomasochistic relationships to begin with. Instead of kink, Jessica’s murder turns out to be more about an obsessed lesbian, which is more misogynistic than kink-phobic.
There’s almost nothing in the way of actual BDSM play, which is to be expected in a network TV show. The sexuality is displaced onto ogling the outfits worn by the pro dommes.
Dominatrixes are an easy sell. They are, according to the popular view, beautiful and glamorous women who make ridiculous amounts of money by exploiting weak men. Like the medieval story of “Phyllis and Aristotle” or “Mounted Aristotle”, the dominatrix simultaneously defies and upholds conservative gender roles. The dyad of dominant woman and submissive man is threatening, but can easily be managed with humor. This means power and violence of the pro domme isn’t “real”. The viewer can console themselves that, as provocative as this is, it’s ultimately all just a joke. The man can walk away at any time, and if he doesn’t, that’s his own weakness and foolishness; he deserves what he gets. A male dom and female sub dyad can’t be managed in the same way. It’s too real.
The B plot of the episode concerns Castle’s discomfort with his studious teenage daughter flirting with being a cheerleader. Wearing a friend’s uniform, she says, “It’s totally not me, and I like it.” She concludes her arc by saying that cheerleading is too demanding a lifestyle, especially with all the other things she wants to do. It was a fun place to visit, but she wouldn’t want to live there.
Castle doesn’t have anything substantial to say about BDSM or sex work.