It’s been a running complaint of mine that Elementary has a murder problem. Despite being in a position to tell a range of mysteries and “cases” that could require Sherlock and Joan’s expertise, the show consistently goes to murder as its go-to, to the point where the absence of a dead body at the end of the teaser is a shocking occurrence.
“Dead Clade Walking” is sort of such an occurrence, although really there’s a dead body at the heart of the story: Instead of a human, however, it’s a dinosaur. The first of Sherlock’s cold cases—which he gave to Joan earlier this season—to be used by the series, it focuses primarily on dead bodies from the past. The Nanotyrannus skeleton is one of them, and the victim of the unsolved murder, Doug Newberg (spoken of only in the abstract), is another, but we don’t start with the aftermath of a grisly crime. Rather, the episode is interested in how the weight of an unsolved crime has affected Sherlock, and how the mystery of how the dinosaurs died could drive an academic to murder two men—they had to get a fresh kill in there somewhere—to destroy a monumental fossil discovery.
It’s one of those plots that falls squarely into Scooby-Doo territory, with the story eventually circling back to the museum curator introduced at the beginning of the episode. However, this is also a case where the episode is largely disinterested in the result, to the point where it feels incidental to the episode as a whole. Although a noted black market smuggler lost his life in the episode, and an innocent man died for a fossil he didn’t even know he had in his possession three years earlier, Jerome Thomas’ guilt lacked any specific, episodic catharsis. Rather, it was symbolic of the weight Sherlock feels when he faces an unsolved case, the kind of weight that he’s facing as he works with his sponsee, Randy.
Elementary hasn’t introduced a recurring “villain” figure this season, resisting the connected cases that built the myth of Moriarty in season one. The value of such cases is being able to chart an ongoing investigation, and the weight it has on Sherlock and/or Joan as they go about their daily business. In “Dead Clade Walking,” the show finds a similar engine outside of the criminal cases entirely, reframing Randy as a case of a different kind. Like his cases, Sherlock is forced to analyze the situation and consider the most logical or rational response; unlike his typical case, Sherlock is forced to foreground compassion over logic or reason. It’s a thematic extension of Sherlock’s conflict with Bell, and a key test for the character’s evolving relationship with both his own addiction and the people around him; it’s also a test that will never exactly be solved, and will always take priority over whatever else Sherlock may be doing (like practicing drilling holes in skulls).
There are moments when Elementary can get a bit on-the-nose with its thematic work, like the transition from Martin Luther’s reformations into the discussion of dead clade walking that was a bit too writerly to keep from calling attention to the artifice of the show’s procedural storytelling. However, as much as Sherlock’s struggles with Randy are outlined in dialogue, Jonny Lee Miller often does his best work when Sherlock is fighting himself rather than others. The scene where Joan prepares dinner as Sherlock effectively reasons with himself is a great reminder that Joan doesn’t serve as an antagonist or even a catalyst for Sherlock in most cases: She is a sounding board, someone whose presence prompts him to take certain things into consideration. Some of this reflects her former role as his sober companion, and the sort of unspoken understanding they have; some of it, however, simply reflects Sherlock’s insecurity about his addiction, and the pressures of being responsible for someone else in the same situation.
As disappointing as it was to see the show shoehorn in a fresh dead body, it was refreshing to see the episode end with a combination of meaningful stakes and meaningful character growth. There’s a tendency to use resolution as a way to build character, taking the “solution” of a case as the way you demonstrate that Sherlock has, for example, conquered his reservations about being a sponsor. It would be easy to give Sherlock a clean “win,” but addiction isn’t easy, and Elementary has committed to that with impressive consistency. And so Randy doesn’t come to Sherlock after having taken his strong advice to heart and dumping his user ex from his life—he comes to Sherlock after getting high, realizing his mistake in ignoring Sherlock’s advice, and needing someone to support him. The lesson isn’t that being a sponsor is easy or that Sherlock was “right all along,” but rather that being a sponsor is a case you never entirely solve, one that will always be with you.
I imagine that we won’t be seeing Randy every week, and that some episodes will go by without mention of Sherlock’s new sponsee. This makes sense, as it’s likely Randy will have good days and bad, and it’s not as though the show has Sherlock attending meetings in every episode. However, while murders have become a consistent presence in the series, I hope the show will continue to have episodes like this one that find their center outside of them. The show is generally good at finding the human angle on what can often be corpse-riddled hours, and Sherlock as a sponsor has proven to be another compelling tool in their arsenal in that regard. “Dead Clade Walking” feels too typical in many ways, but the exploration of Sherlock’s new responsibility helps the episode feel constitutive to the second season’s broader thematic and character goals.
- Help me out here, because it’s late—our apologies—and I’m just getting back from vacation: Why does Sherlock have a three-year-old cold case in New York? Was he investigating New York cases then? When was he in New York versus London? Do we have a clear timeline?
- Similarly on the “it’s late” pile, I imagined the “Magpie” was a canon reference, althought it might just be really British. Google wasn’t entirely conclusive at this hour.
- Jane Alexander makes a brief cameo as Sherlock’s dirty-letter pen pal, a fun little cameo that I expect will join Sherlock’s colorful collection of informants rather than turn into a major character arc. They’ll be like the equivalent to The Good Wife’s judges (and yes, before you go check IMDB, Jane Alexander plays a recurring judge on The Good Wife).
- Does Joan’s Hat have a Twitter account yet? If not, why not?
- Clyde Watch: I think I might be putting myself on watch, after I posted a picture of my cousin’s turtles, and multiple people tweeted “CLYDE” at me, suggesting my concern over Clyde’s too rare appearances has become a thing associated with me. Still, this episode involved dinosaurs, we could have used some forced perspective on Clyde here.
- On that note: I definitely typed “Dead Clyde Walking” a few times as I wrote this.