Who would want to murder a beauty contestant? Maybe the question should be, who wouldn’t want to? Either way, Castle and Beckett are on the case.

This week’s murder centers around a dead beauty contestant, Miss Illinois to be exact, whose body is discovered during rehearsals for the big show. Where is Sandra Bullock when you need her?

As the morning begins in the Castle loft, Alexis finds herself faced with a major dilemma. Her boyfriend, Ashley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager’s Ken Baumann), has gotten into every college he’s applied to. The problem is, his dream school is Stanford, which is all the way across the country. If he goes, he’ll be leaving Alexis behind, and if he stays, they can continue to be a couple, but Alexis doesn’t want him to give up his dream for her. Castle offers his daughter a little fatherly advice, reminding her relationships are hard but that she’ll figure it out. The moment is then interrupted when Beckett calls to tell Castle about the dead beauty contestant.

M.E. Perlmutter (played by Arye Gross) is on the scene when Castle and Beckett arrive. (We haven’t seen him for over a year, last year’s 2×22, “Food to Die For.”) The victim was found on a light trestle but was actually strangled to death with her own sash. Talk about poetic justice. A black sequin is found on the victim’s body, which gives the team someplace to start.

Castle and Beckett speak with Victor Baron (guest star Michael McKean) of “Baron’s All-American Beauty Pageant,” and his wife Kayla Baron (guest star Teri Polo). Mrs. Baron is, of course, a former beauty queen herself. While interviewing the Barons, Beckett realizes they’re on camera. Apparently the Barons record everything. It’s a great way to get a backstage look at the darker side of beauty pageants.

An interview with another contestant reveals the victim, Amber, got into a fight with a man backstage in the dressing room. The loud arguing scared her, keeping her from checking in on Amber to see that she was okay. She just assumed maybe Amber was arguing with her boyfriend, but after a call to Amber’s father, they discover Amber didn’t have a boyfriend. Amber’s father also tells them, if anyone knew about Amber’s personal life it’d be her pageant consultant, Justin Hankel (the highly underrated Better Off Ted’s Jonathan Slavin).

Castle and Beckett interview Justin, who tells them he has a rule about his contestants not dating and says Amber was no exception. But Justin is sure something was bothering Amber recently. When he went to pick her up for a fitting just a few days before, he could tell she’d been crying and she’d seemed off ever since. When he questioned her about it, she told him someone had been trying to take advantage of her but wouldn’t tell him who.

Esposito gets hold of a video of the dinner with Baron from the night before, the last dinner Amber attended before turning up dead the next morning. In the video Amber is scowling at pageant host Bobby Stark (guest star Sasha Roiz), but that’s not the important part. Esposito points out that Stark’s jacket is made of black sequins.

The broken sequin found on Amber’s body is a perfect match to Stark’s blazer, which is enough evidence to bring him in for questioning. As soon as Beckett gets him in the box, it’s obvious the guy is a little off his rocker. Stark has three restraining orders against him from various women, which proves he doesn’t know how to take no for answer. And unfortunately for him, he’s pretty sure he spent the evening with a woman but doesn’t remember with who or where he was the night of Amber’s murder.

Upon further examination of the video footage from Baron’s dinner, Esposito notices Amber had her violin with her. But the violin wasn’t discovered with or near the body, nor was it up in her room. Beckett hopes Stark was the one who ditched the violin after murdering Amber, and if someone saw him, they’ll be able to connect him to her murder once and for all.

Back at the Castle loft, Martha is reminiscing about her beauty pageant days, something Castle didn’t know about her, when a very sad looking Alexis returns home. She’s upset because Ashley chose to stay in New York to go to school, and stay with her, rather than following his dream of going to Stanford. While she knows their chances of maintaining a long distance relationship are slim to none, she doesn’t want him to regret not following his dream just so he can stay with her. So, she does the selfless thing and breaks up with him, even if it means breaking her own heart in the process.

The next morning Castle discusses the situation with Beckett, who thinks Alexis’ decision was very practical. But Castle is quick to remind Beckett that relationships are not like math problems, something easily solved by practical thinking. He doesn’t want his daughter missing out on her soulmate because she’s afraid to risk her heart for fear it’s not practical. Beckett is impressed by Castle’s answer, though he doesn’t seem to notice.

Meanwhile, Captain Montgomery has a problem of his own. It’s his 30th wedding anniversary and he doesn’t know what to get his wife. He solicits advice from Esposito but none of his suggestions seem to work for the Captain.

Unfortunately Bobby Stark alibis out, but Ryan has found the missing violin. After having it fingerprinted, all clues point to Miss Georgia being the killer. But, Miss Georgia didn’t kill her either, simply stole Amber’s violin in order to sabotage her. In the process of ditching the violin, Miss Georgia stumbled across some nude photos of Amber, photos with a note attached, revealing Amber was being blackmailed.

Beckett notes the photos of Amber look like they were taken by a professional. According to Beckett, it happens all the time. Young, desperate girls wind up posing for photographers for a little extra cash and a promise that the photos will never see the light of day. Sounds almost like the voice of experience there, Beckett.

Esposito goes to have another chat with the pageant consultant, Justin, who remembers Amber having a photoshoot with a photographer by the name of Dax Lattimer. Lattimer doesn’t have a criminal record but does have a fondness for taking dirty pictures. Lattimer also alibis out but clearly remembers the session with Amber. He also remembers her having her boyfriend with her at the time. He’s able to give Ryan and Esposito a possible first name but not much more than that.

Beckett calls Amber’s father to ask if the name Jeremy rings a bell. He tells her Amber used to have a boyfriend named Jeremy Kyper, but Amber broke up with him the year before because she felt he was holding her back.

While Ryan is off checking up on the ex-boyfriend, Beckett fills Castle in on her beauty contestant ex-roommate. During the little share fest, Alexis’ boyfriend, Ashley, arrives to have a chat with Castle. Ashley needs some advice as to what to do about Alexis, especially since she established a no calls/no contact policy. Ashley only chose to stay in New York for Alexis, and while he realizes that’s why she’s angry with him, he’s now changed his mind and wants to go to Stanford instead. Only, he can’t tell Alexis because of the conditions she’s set between them, so Ashley has to do the next best thing – beg Castle for help. Before Castle can explain to Ashley why that would be so inappropriate, Ashley asks him the million dollar question, “Have you ever been crazy about someone who’s determined to push you away?” Cue Beckett, who interrupts the conversation and has Castle stammering to boot. Castle knows all too well what Ashley is describing, but quickly uses the moment to escape talking about it further. Ashley takes his leave, hoping Castle will help him in his quest to win Alexis back.

Ryan turns up a new lead on the ex-boyfriend, Jeremy. The man moved to New York just the month before to “make something of himself,” which puts him in the area at the time of Amber’s murder. Castle and Beckett head straight to Jeremy’s apartment, only to find the door unlocked. They let themselves in, instantly spotting the same nude photos of Amber on his wall. As Castle nears the closet, he notices something is off, and when Beckett pulls it open, Jeremy’s body is hanging on the back of the door, making it obvious he’s not the killer either. In fact, cause of death determines he was murdered before Amber.

Castle heads home to a moping Alexis, who is really missing Ashley, and decides to tell her about Ashley’s visit to the precinct. He tells her that Ashley is going to Stanford but wants to continue a long distance relationship with her, then offers her a little advice of her own to help her make up her mind. He doesn’t want her to miss out on something great because she gave up too soon, or because she couldn’t see the entire picture. Of course, in typical Castle fashion, this sparks some insight on their case.

The next morning, Castle has another look at Amber’s photographs. His theory is that Amber was murdered not because of who was in the photo, but because of where the photo was taken, which leads the duo to the Barons. The photos were taken at their Hampton house, something Castle was able to determine from a photo spread the couple had done for a magazine. The painting above the bed in Amber’s photographs happens to be the companion piece to the painting Victor Baron has in his office. His wife, Kayla, easily ID’s the photo as their house in the Hamptons and starts berating Victor for letting this happen again. Victor obviously has a fondness for the ladies, something his wife doesn’t seem one bit surprised by. But Victor maintains his innocence. He wasn’t blackmailing Amber, Amber was blackmailing him in order to help her win the pageant. Victor also has an alibi for the night of Amber’s murder. After the pageant reception dinner, he had drinks with Councilman Bollinger (An excellent call back from Season 1’s “Hell Hath No Fury!”), then headed home about 1AM. Kayla was with him the entire time and can vouch for his whereabouts. However, Victor did tell Candace Ford, the pageant manager, about the blackmail scheme and asked her to handle it for him.

Candace admits to being angry with Victor for nearly ruining the show and everything it represents, but she didn’t kill Amber because of it. In fact, she has an alibi for the night too, he just doesn’t remember her. She spent the evening in a hotel with pageant host Bobby Stark. The hotel is able to confirm Candace’s story, and Victor’s checks out as well, leaving the team with no suspects.

Castle and Beckett go back to theorizing with what they know so far, and then it dawns on Castle. Everyone described Amber as cold and calculating. Everyone but her pageant consultant, Justin, who had told them Amber had been very broken up over the blackmail scheme. Why would she be broken up if she was the one doing the blackmailing, not the other way around? Justin thought that Amber’s ex-boyfriend, Jeremy, was taking advantage of her and using her to blackmail Victor so he confronted him. Only Jeremy was drunk and came at Justin, so Justin killed him. He then staged it to look like a suicide in fear of ruining his chance at a pageant comeback by losing Amber as his client. When Amber found out Justin killed Jeremy, she threatened to turn him in so killed her too.

Captain Montgomery congratulates the team on solving another case, then has some surprising news for them. The Captain’s wife arrives to take him to dinner and he announces his gift to her – he’s retiring next year. His wife is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, but Ryan and Esposito look sad at the thought of losing their captain. The crew wishes the Captain and his wife a happy anniversary, and as soon as the happy couple is out of sight, Ryan and Esposito blame Castle for the adive he gave Montgomery. Poor Castle isn’t sure what to say, but thankfully Beckett lets him off the hook, filling him in on the Captain’s little secret. Apparently the man announces his retirement every year but never follows through with it. Beckett’s not worried, Captain Montgomery’s not going anywhere. Why do I feel a horrible sense of foreshadowing here? Beckett then asks Castle about Alexis’ decision with Ashley and he tells her Alexis decided it was worth the risk, she’s going to just keep showing up. Beckett agrees with that choice and the pair share a look and smile before heading home.

When Castle enters the loft a little later, he’s surprised to find Ashley there with Alexis. Alexis looks very happy and can’t wait to tell her dad the good news – she’s going to Stanford! Alexis has taken so many extra classes each semester that she now has enough credits to graduate in the fall, making her eligible for early admission to college. And she of course wants to go to Stanford to be with Ashley. In fact, she can join him as soon as January. Alexis looks absolutely thrilled at the prospect, while Ashley looks increasingly uncomfortable by Castle’s reaction, and poor Castle looks absolutely horrified at the thought. His only reaction is to repeat the word “what” in various pitches. I bet Castle is really regretting his great advice now.

Next week is the season finale, already, and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to be intense. From the looks of the promo alone, I can already tell it’s going to be the darkest episode of Castle yet, but also one of the best so prepare yourselves now. We’re gearing up for a very long summer.

Things We Learned From “Pretty Dead” Episode:

* Beckett’s former roommate was a beauty contestant, giving Beckett a deep dislike of them.

* Even Captain Montgomery is not above taking jabs at Castle’s failed marriages.

* The secret to a successful marriage? Keep showing up.

* For a guy with two failed marriages under his belt, Castle has some sound relationship advice to offer.

* Beckett wants to get Castle a subscription to a girlie magazine for Christmas.

* Captain Montgomery is like the Brett Favre of the NYPD.

Written by Stephanie Guenzler. Find her on Twitter @pure_believer.