When the final arc of Elementary’s first season began, it didn’t announce itself as such. The show had seen false fronts for Moriarty in the past, and so the arrival of yet another—F. Murray Abraham’s Daniel Gottlieb—felt like the show stretching its red herrings too far. As it turned out, it was the beginning of a final set of episodes that would culminate in a big Moriarty reveal and a pivotal turning point for the show (and a better episode than my review probably gave it credit for, frustrated as I was by the constant teasing).
By comparison, there is never any doubt that “The Man With The Twisted Lip” signals the beginning of the end for Elementary’s second season. After disappearing for a long stretch following his earlier appearance in New York, Mycroft shows up at the Brownstone early in the episode, insisting that Ms. Hudson—who also finally reappears, if for too brief a period—stay for dinner. For Sherlock, Mycroft’s return is a threat to his sense of equilibrium, and specifically a drain on Joan’s attention. For the audience, meanwhile, Mycroft’s return is a promise to pay off the shadowy phone call that accompanied his disappearance, a promise that he would find another way to get Sherlock out of New York and back in London.
The task in front of “The Man With The Twisted Lip,” then, is to find a way to turn a half-season of fairly typical procedural storytelling since Mycroft’s exit into something that has led to this moment. The show has been solidly entertaining since November, but it has lacked any sense of momentum: Whereas the first season had the evolving relationship between Joan and Sherlock to mark off meaningful milestones outside of “mythology” episodes, that relationship has settled into rhythms that may have been too comfortable. I admittedly didn’t review two of the episodes since Mycroft’s last appearance, but I still find it difficult to think of what has transpired in the twelve weeks since then—this is perhaps typical with a procedural, but it goes against the series’ interest in character development and the audience’s investment in these relationships.
In the process of trying to avoid writing off half the season, the episode makes an effort to reframe a consistent critique in these reviews—which Genevieve intelligently explored two weeks ago—as a key character development. When Sherlock fears Mycroft’s arrival could pull Joan away from him, he suggests “shared custody,” a remark that Joan rightfully takes offense to. It frames her as a child, for one, but it also suggests that she remains almost a tool for Sherlock to use (a “salve,” as Mycroft puts it). In the opening meeting, Sherlock reflects on his lack of a peer, citing Moriarty—if not by name—as the only person he’s ever been able to fully open himself up to. As much as he can give parts of himself to Joan, he can’t give her everything, which works to retroactively explain some of the ways he has resisted her becoming a larger part of their partnership. As much as he makes consistent progress, the episode suggests there’s a limit to how far Sherlock can go, one that he’s coming up against as their partnership hits a wall.
It doesn’t entirely explain why the show hasn’t done more to expand Joan’s character, but even there the episode makes the case that Joan has struggled to emerge out of Sherlock’s shadow as long as she’s sharing a home with him. Indeed, as convenient as the Brownstone is, it is a remnant of their former relationship of addict and sober companion, and means any attempt she might make—with Mycroft or otherwise—to have a personal life is stifled. Although I’m still not entirely sure I buy Mycroft and Joan as a romantic couple, the episode effectively uses the idea of it as a way to explore Joan’s need to have a life of her own independent of Sherlock. It’s an unusual situation for someone to be in, and by and large the episode has Joan confront it as a mature woman who understands her situation, wants to be respectful to her partnership with Sherlock, and also imagines a way to move out of the Brownstone, gain some distance from her partner, and find a life on her own.
And then she gets kidnapped.
It’s a frustrating development. The episode had done some nice work sketching out Sherlock’s inability to relate to Joan on the level that would allow their relationship to mature, and the groundwork had been laid for Mycroft’s shady business dealings out of Diogenes to become another rift between them. And while I suppose Joan getting kidnapped while she is investigating a case is better than her getting kidnapped solely as a pawn to get to Sherlock, it has the same basic effect: Joan is put in jeopardy, Sherlock has to confront his partnership insecurities to save her, and the show looks to the chaos of crime syndicates in lieu of a mature, adult resolution.
It’s not a bad—or atypical—development as far as the basic structure of the season’s conclusion goes. Sherlock’s pickpocketing of a small amount of heroin is the closest the show has come to threatening his sobriety since the reveal of Moriarty’s identity, and it comes not out of a great tragedy but simply through that sense that he’s on the edge of being forced to confront things about himself that might become more acceptable with drugs involved. And while Joan being in jeopardy strips the character of agency in a way that frustrates me, it also sets up Mycroft and Sherlock being forced to work together to rescue her, a dynamic that continues to compel in Jonny Lee Miller and Rhys Ifans’ scenes together. I’m intrigued to see next week’s episode, and even if the cynic in me refuses to believe that Joan’s life is actually in danger, the results of the efforts to capture her promise considerable uncertainty—like how the show intends to play out the specific details of Mycroft’s shady dealings—despite a fairly certain outcome.
I just wish it didn’t feel like those uncertainties were painting over more nuanced character details. As the episode progressed, I felt the same about the murders-of-the-week, a drone pilot and an innocent bystander who were gunned down by an unmanned drone piloted by a rogue security contractor chairman protecting his company from a scandal that if leaked would threaten their attempts to go public. Every time the story would pop up, it would feel like it was getting in the way of Joan and Sherlock having a real conversation. Although I appreciate the resistance of anvil-like parallels within the case and the situation at hand, and the episode worked hard to make the lack of such conversations a retroactive plot thread in the past twelve episodes, all the talk of surveillance robot mosquitoes and assassin robot mosquitoes felt like it was coming out of a different show entirely than the one its characters traditionally occupy.
I wouldn’t say the same for Joan’s kidnapping at the hands of some sort of nefarious agency, but it signals a clear shift. Whereas the Moriarty case felt intensely personal for Sherlock and derived from an extended backstory, Watson’s kidnapping is a much more blunt way of raising stakes, lacking the same gradual development and instead forcing issues to the surface that in all truth have not been all that central in the episodes that preceded this one. The choice to travel from zero to 60 in the span of this hour makes for an adrenaline rush of interest in next week’s continuation, but it also makes it tougher to gain the necessary context to see this as a character-driven—rather than plot-driven—way to bring Elementary’s second season to a close.
Although last season taught me that the ultimate value of a kickstart episode like this one is determined more by what comes after it, I think there’s reason to be skeptical with how this one will play out, exciting as it may end up being.
- “It is a term of never use it again, or I will kick you in your soft parts”—Joan rightfully telling off Sherlock for his “shared custody” nonsense. I’m open to discussion that Sherlock’s relationship with Joan should have evolved more by this point and this represents a purposeful regression to force the issue, but I buy that kind of reluctant self-sabotage as he struggles to open up to others.
- “Your apologies always seem to come after you’ve already got what you wanted”—This is the kind of conversation that I think the show probably could have explored earlier, and one I really wish the show had been able to explore without the kidnapping to deal with.
- Since someone asked in the comments: Yes, I thought the choice to cast Garret Dillahunt as the killer in the previous episode was by far one of the show’s most egregious cases of casting a way too recognizable actor as a suspect. Be glad Genevieve was kind enough to take over so you were spared another treatise on the subject.
- I always enjoy glimpses of off-screen action, so Sherlock cleaning off bat guano from his search for a lost cat belonging to a member of Everyone fits the bill nicely.
- Clyde Watch: It seems as though Ms. Hudson and Clyde aren’t both allowed to appear in the same episode. I wonder if there’s some behind-the-scene tension. Has there been any reptile-based blind items in the gossip rags recently?