Procedurals with larger casts often divide their storytelling into two separate cases, allowing the narrative to spread out both thematically and geographically in a given episode. It’s a way to differentiate between episodes, creating different teamwork dynamics and allowing the writers to break many smaller stories as opposed to one longer one.
Elementary isn’t realistically able to work the same way, given that it only follows four characters, but it’s found a solution in the character of Joan Watson. While not a detective or a consultant in the traditional sense, “Flight Risk” sees the character head out on her own mystery of sorts, characterized by the same deductive reasoning central to Sherlock’s investigation of a downed aircraft. Building on recent storylines wherein Watson used deduction to read and dismiss a potential suitor or diagnose a former friend’s patient with a rare condition, “Flight Risk” gives her a more complicated mystery: Sherlock himself.
In an episode where the central storyline never manages to find something to hang its hat on, Watson’s search into Sherlock’s past gives the episode its momentum, officially introducing the piece of “mythology” the show has thus far avoided. Rather than present the villainous threat of Moriarty, however, the show is heading down the other logical path: Irene Adler, the woman who broke Sherlock’s heart, and sent him into the tailspin that landed him in rehab. While far from a revolutionary development—as a tortured romance is a well-accepted, clichéd backstory for an abrasive personality broken by a past life—it works primarily because it is discovered rather than told. Watson’s desire to know more about her boss feeds into our own, and her reasoning leads the episode into fruitful territory.
What works best about Lucy Liu’s performance is that she never seems disengaged. As Watson become more involved in Sherlock’s methods, spending time at crime scenes and observing his behavior, you can see her role in those methods increasing. She’s not simply standing back and allowing him to “do his work”: She’s confirming his deductions, correcting his mistakes (like with the insulin pump), and also watching his behavior. Sherlock is her mystery, ultimately. It’s her job to ensure that he is on the road to recovery, and that means learning enough about him to detect when something is off (like his anxiety over flying manifesting in his emotions toward the plane crash). Her labor is not dramatically evident, but Liu is doing a nice job of communicating that labor through the way she looks at Sherlock during investigations, or the way she embraces the opportunity to speak to either Sherlock’s father or the man hired to play Sherlock’s father.
The Watson/Holmes relationship has some degree of observation tied to its origins, and to its adaptations; just look at what the BBC’s Sherlock did with Watson’s blog, wherein the narrative framework of Conan Doyle’s books—Watson sharing his observations about Sherlock with the reader—manifested within the series’ narrative. But whereas that show tends to treat Holmes as somewhat of a novelty (even becoming tabloid fodder), Elementary is allowing the mystery to remain more grounded. This is partly a function of longer-form storytelling, wherein the details of Sherlock’s past must be spread out over a large number of episodes, but it also seems a conscious choice to embrace a more human Holmes through Watson’s engagement with him. Her initial altercation with Allastair (a strong turn from Roger Rees) is a rather charming prank that plays on the writer’s decision to veer away from the sexual dimensions of this relationship, but their following conversation is a nice bit of exposition about Sherlock that the episode earns through the mystery structure. With a single truth and a stray receipt, Watson meets what Sherlock would term a “friend,” and learns about the woman who contributed to his current condition. Regardless of where the show heads with Adler—more on that in the stray observations—this was a sharp, engaging way for the story to move in that direction.
It also called attention to the fact that the central story was neither sharp nor engaging. While Sherlock’s fear of flying—or rather his hyper-anxiety due to the sheer volume of deductions he makes while flying and their potentially catastrophic implications for the plane’s fate—gives Watson her angle into wanting to learn more about him, the actual mystery lacks a clear consequence. Yes, a murderer was on the loose and needed to be stopped, but each new part of the story came and went without anyone or anything to connect with. Reiko Aylesworth—barely recognizable with that haircut—felt wasted in her role as an NTSB agent, the class action lawsuit was a red herring without adding any particular meaning to the case, and many of the major reveals were staged in highly descriptive sequences where Sherlock runs down every detail with little additional function.
It does raise the question, though: If we take “Flight Risk” as an episode with two stories, which would we consider the central one? In terms of time, the “murder of the week” is given more to work with, as multiple characters are introduced and disposed of over the course of the hour. However, after largely treating its secondary stories as small-scale character building to this point, Elementary seems to have reordered its priorities. Watson’s mystery might be given less time, and it follows less traditional procedural logics, but there’s elegance to Sherlock’s initial deception and Watson’s later realization (spurred on by her discovery of the scar) that elevates the story. I never cared who killed the people on that plane, or how they did it, but I did discover I cared about how Sherlock Holmes hit rock bottom.
It’s plausible I would have cared about this three episodes ago as well, but the writers were probably right to hold off. “Flight Risk” marks the point at which the show’s formula feels well defined, which is the perfect time to stealthily allow the B-story to gain further prominence. While far less complex than the necessary twists and turns of a plane crash-turned-murder, the brief period of uncertainty as to what name Allastair gave Watson—even if one assumed it to be Adler, as I had—demonstrates a sharp variation in pace and a good sign for the show’s future. As much as an episode where both stories fire on all cylinders might be the ideal, “Flight Risk” fits the bill for this point in the show’s run.
- I will admit that Sherlock is my only engagement with Irene Adler, and one I found somewhat uneven if undeniably compelling (which sounds like a contrived attempt to mask a skeevy comment, when I read it back). Other than presuming CBS will use the recently unemployed Janet Montgomery—as we’ve been speculating since Made in Jersey was canceled—are there any specific expectations here for those more familiar with the character?
- “There’s a story here, Watson, and we can help tell it.” I really like this quote from Sherlock, and it suggests that an episode not centered around a murder might be just as effective as one where every potentially interesting non-murder has to magically turn into one by the time we leave Act One.
- After complaining about casting for two weeks in a row, it was nice to see Reiko Aylesworth and Roger Rees, the two guest actors I recognized (from 24 and Warehouse 13, respectively if not exclusively), in roles where there was never any chance they committed the murder.
- “I am about to disabuse you of several notions” is something I need to work into regular conversation more often. It’s sure to go over well.
- I was fastforwarding through the commercials, but were there any for Flight during the first commercial break after Sherlock discussed pilots having a drink? Would’ve been some good placement for the film.