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Elementary aims high and falls short on adaptation

Tackling The Hound Of The Baskervilles is a tall order; maybe too tall

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Elementary

"Hounded"

Season 4 , Episode 16

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Ah, The Hound Of The Baskervilles. We knew this day would come. (Again.)

It’s perhaps the most famous story in the canon; it’s so quintessential to our conception of Holmes and Watson that it’s often tackled in standalone—it’s somehow become the litmus test by which to measure an iteration of our daring duo. (A very interesting, if not completely successful, adaptation was produced by the BBC in 2002 as a TV movie, starring Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson. One imagines it was designed as something of a backdoor pilot for a film series, testing the waters for a new era of Sherlock Holmes. Turns out it was slightly before its time.) Holmes and Watson standing on the moor in search of the impossible Hound has become one of the most enduring images of them: deerstalker, mist, and a case to pursue.

The story definitely has enough Gothic appeal to make it evergreen; it offers one of Conan Doyle’s most vibrant supporting casts, and it hasn’t aged out of danger and into coziness in the way some Holmes stories have. Family blood still curdles, and being chased through the wilderness at night has lost none of its terror. Still, the case itself is kind of an oddball—some fascinating family intrigue and perplexing happenstances that eventually reveal an eight-step attack-dog strategy—and Holmes and Watson spend most of the story apart. Holmes, at his most enigmatic here, gets in some great detective work, and is actually on the receiving end of some of Watson’s righteous anger about being cut out of the action. Though Watson shouldn’t really complain; those Gothic undertones mean that atmosphere requires some feet on the ground, which makes The Hound Of The Baskervilles an excellent showcase for a smart, sympathetic Watson. (Ian Hart was so good in his Baskervilles turn that he actually got to reprise Watson in 2004, alongside Rupert Everett’s Holmes.) With the right cast, and the right tone, this story still carries the same thrill it did a century ago.

I’ve talked a lot about the ways in which Elementary adapts canon material; how it often draws on themes rather than direct plots, and how it usually handles the oblique better than the direct. Elementary already touched obliquely on it with “The Hound Of The Cancer Cells,” which was less an adaptation than a wink at the canon. “Hounded” tackles the story head-on.

Honestly? It’s not great. Once again, the elements in direct translation fall flat (a glowing dog as a red herring). Also in keeping with tradition, the subtler elements work much better; the scene of Joan and Sherlock breaking the crime scene together in the north-Manhattan woods without a cop in sight was nicely played and staged—it’s as close to the natural wilderness as New York’s going to get, and their dynamic felt nicely insular with just the two of them. But it felt like this episode set up a lot of promise that never panned out. Sherlock’s discomfort with the Baskervilles gets a smart update, so that rather than an Englishman’s wariness of American brashness, we get some tantalizing hints of Sherlock’s discomfort that the Holmes and Baskervilles are close enough to warrant a favor in the first place. But Thomas Everett Scott—a solid casting choice for the sort of man you might like enough to protect from supernatural dogs—hardly appears, as the episode gets cluttered with GMO researchers, GMO detractors, patent thievery, cousins, and robotics.

And as always with this show, the beats that relied on acting and character were solid. Joan and Sherlock have reached a plateau in their relationship; while it means there’s less of the conflict that made their initial dynamic so fascinating (and while the show tends to gloss over chances at current conflict at this point in order to tidy up subplots), it also means that we get some great, lived-in partnership beats in passing. Sherlock’s look to Joan after Henry Baskerville interrupts Sherlock’s griping is nothing short of sublime. And Sherlock’s quiet, achingly tentative interventions with Hawes are a necessary callback to Sherlock’s struggle with sobriety, and a great showcase for both Miller and Jordan Gelber, who brings a melancholy that undercuts Hawes’ wryness and reminds us of the fallout for someone who suffers trauma and still has to handle a high-pressure job. It’s really nice work, and episode writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe gives it just enough breathing room that we can sense the ways Sherlock can inhabit this kind of concern in a way that would have been impossible for him four seasons ago.

But we’ve reached a point where whatever is putting pressure on the show to maintain its format (network? Showrunner?) can easily squeeze the life out of it, and that has maybe never been more obvious than in “Hounded.” The source material is so well known, the missing pieces so glaring, they highlight the ways in which the show’s gotten locked into its formula. Why adapt this story at all if Henry Baskerville will barely appear? If Joan will barely get involved? If Sherlock loses a chance to match his courage against the determination of whoever holds the Hound’s leash? This series has wonderful leads, an eye for casting supporting players, and the production values to make a solid go of a mystery that’s measured more in atmosphere than in ground covered. (There’s usually no point in quick-fix quarterbacking a particular episode, but in cases where the source material is so clear, there’s an uncanny valley. There’s a version of this episode that takes all the existing pieces and still makes a more faithful and more satisfying episode: Joan keeping watch over Henry and quietly doubting his sincerity as the patent theft is discovered; GMOs as updated uneasiness of new-money encroachment on the establishment; Sherlock withholding his conclusions until the last second and dealing with Watson’s anger, a reminder he’s as prone to hubris as his old family friend Henry.)

Instead, we have a glowing dog, a stolen-patent robot, and a whole lot of business as usual. This was a perfect opportunity for the show to highlight its strengths against a well-loved backdrop, but it turns out directly adapting such a famous story just seems to have shone a light through the show’s weak spots. To accept that as the status quo for the show would be to give up on its potential; the scenes with Sherlock and Hawes alone are enough to prove there’s a fantastic drama inside all this, yearning to get out. But if Baskerville Hall can’t get the job done, what can?

Stray notes

  • I love that Joan made sure the homeless man she interviewed got to a shelter—and that Sherlock never questioned why she’d take time out of the case to do so. Given her biological father’s current rough circumstances, this was very smartly done character beat on both sides.
  • Line that was better than it had any right to be of the week: Joan’s “Me? Where are you going?”
  • Would Sherlock call it “whoring”? Every so often this show falls into really lazy habits in which it tries to remind us of Sherlock as a sexual character by having him use dismissive language about sex workers, and it seems so jarring for a man who we know has sought their services in the past with enough regularity that one would expect him to use the more respectful terminology he definitely has at his disposal.
  • The episode was once again too busy for its own good, but I like that the GMO detractor, rather than being the punchline of fat jokes (which this show has definitely done in the past), got a moment of humanity to be hurt by them, instead. It’s always more satisfying when the show plays with tropes rather than buys into them.
  • I’m very happy that this show followed up on Hawes; that was a big moment, and though he’s never been a major character—and even set the stage for his potential departure with this episode—it was nice to see the show revisiting the consequences of trauma on someone’s peace of mind. (Here’s the obligatory parenthetical where we all sit around and think about how Joan was kidnapped and they’ve never shown her so much as balk at a dark parking garage.)
  • Lucy Liu appeared on a recent episode of Girls as a detective in a show-within-the-show where Adam Sackler snagged an acting job as a homeless man; she gets some exposition out of him and then tries to convince him to find a shelter. Either one of these is winking at the other, or we’re entering the part of Peak TV where tropes just bleed across universes.
  • If you’re looking for an adaptation of this story that’s actually successful and satisfying (and no, Sherlock‘s attempt also doesn’t count), check out the BBC Hound Of The Baskervilles, if for no other reason than to revel in the Gothic trappings and in Ian Hart’s Watson; a sharp, worldly, sympathetic doctor whose best friend happens to be a genius disaster.