Earlier today, CBS ordered two additional episodes of Elementary for this season, bringing the total to 24. This is just a few weeks after the network announced the show would take on the coveted post-Super Bowl slot in February, potentially exposing the series to a much larger viewership. It’s a supreme vote of confidence in the show, although it raises the question: Has Elementary earned it?
A cynic would suggest that CBS’ bullishness is the result of financial potential: Given that CBS produces the show in-house, there is great financial incentive both in syndication and in international sales should the show be perceived as a success. However, at the same time, the show has delivered a fairly solid set of episodes—with a few hiccups—that demonstrate the kind of slow but steady storytelling a procedural needs in its first season. It may not be enough to suggest Elementary is a surefire hit that will run for 10 seasons, but nothing we’ve seen so far has suggested a show with an identity crisis or any one particularly glaring flaw.
“One Way To Get Off,” like those other episodes, works from a solid foundation to tell a story with a basic purpose. The episode becomes a testament to the dangers of poking around in one’s past, captured in Watson’s investigation into the mysterious Irene Adler, Gregson’s career-defining murder case being thrown in doubt by a double-murder with the same M.O., and eventually the killer being revealed as a confused son who discovered his mother’s affair and sought to learn more about the serial killer father he never knew. Once the theme is introduced, the theme is all-encompassing, eventually bringing us around to the point where Sherlock sees the value in closing a door in his past: Irene Adler, it turns out, is dead.
Or is she? One of the other themes operating in the episode is the fact that closure is something that can be deployed as easily as it can be achieved. When Gregson’s former partner—played by Callie Thorne—planted that coffee mug to help the two convict the man she knew was behind the murders back in 1999, she was giving Gregson a sense of closure. It gave him the chance to close a case that had been haunting him, that had been haunting her, and to put it behind them. It wasn’t truly closure, of course, but for her, the lie ended the struggle. Was Sherlock’s admission regarding Irene a true self-disclosure reflective of his belief that we should reveal our pasts to help us come to terms with our demons? Or was it rather a lie designed to provide Watson the closure she desires, her investigation into his past reaching a point where she will stop digging and return to the comfortable status quo he abandoned when she confronted him about Irene?
While the actual mystery component of “One Way To Get Off” was undone as soon as the son—Sean—was randomly given a speaking line to deliver a piece of information that could and should have been discovered through a simple check of a city database, the story works because it’s all about investigations. Sean discovers his father’s identity because he’s the one who knew where his mother hid her diary, and went looking for it after her death. Watson takes a trip to Hemdale, Sherlock’s rehab facility, and solves her own case when she discovers Edison, the beekeeping groundskeeper with whom Sherlock was close and who collected Irene’s letters. And the weekly mystery, of course, consists of a series of small investigations that one-by-one lead Sherlock to the conclusion that Wade Crewes had convinced his son to continue the murders in order to be cleared of suspicion and released a free—and much more literate—man.
That conclusion is unsatisfying both for the lack of mystery, and the fact that Sean’s absent from the remainder of the episode means he never gets to explain his own side to the story: His arrest is Sherlock explaining the case rather than Sean explaining his actions, meaning that I never bought him as a murderer—even a coerced murderer—in a way that would give his fate any meaning. While the episode essentially fleshed out Gregson’s back story, giving him a former partner that could recur and laying out the origins of his ascent from detective to captain, nailing Crewes through his son felt like a cheap ending to the story. It made thematic sense without any emotional resonance: Gregson’s reputation isn’t important enough to the viewer—or vulnerable enough at this early stage in the series’ run, if we’re being realistic—for his potential disgrace to make up for a lack of characterization for either perpetrator.
And yet the episode works nonetheless, because each individual part of that investigation felt satisfying. Sherlock’s discovery of the sex slave in the contractor’s basement was a procedural beat designed to clear a potential suspect and clear the way for the case to be reopened officially, but it was a good piece of detective work fleshed out enough to resonate. The brief interlude into Victor Nardin’s apartment was ultimately a dead end, another frame job, but the way those pieces fell together regarding his blindness was satisfying. At no stage did it feel like the show was placing arbitrary blocks on Sherlock’s investigation, or that the writers were introducing twists and turns in order to slow or quicken the pace of the episode. Instead, it was a game of cat and mouse: The mystery evolved as the episode went on, and Sherlock—partnered with both Gregson and Watson at various stages—evolved with it.
“One Way To Get Off,” in other words, had more than one way to solve a mystery. It actually solved several, compartmentalizing the case into a collection of smaller puzzles—the initial crime scene, the sex slave dungeon, the interrogation tape, Victor’s apartment, the second crime scene, etc.—that could each be solved and take the case in a new direction. Each mystery was solved differently but effectively, involving different characters and never becoming so flashy or distracting that the grounded theme of digging into one’s past was entirely lost. It’s a strategy that never feigns complexity but never reduces itself to simplicity, keeping the viewer focused enough on the mystery at hand that any narrative machinations are less persistent in their annoyance. Even after acknowledging to myself that Sean’s appearance signaled his status as the likely killer, I nonetheless found myself wrapped up in the next set of mysteries because their solutions did not feel dependent on my anticipation for the big reveal at the end. Rather, I simply enjoy watching these characters solve the problems put in front of them.
If Irene Adler is definitely dead, Elementary has swerved away from its mythology in a major way, and this does raise questions about how the show intends on moving forward in regards to evolving its procedural structure. If Irene Adler is actually alive, Sherlock’s lie about her death nonetheless allows the show to put a pin in that idea, keeping it for the next time the show needs something to spice up an episode during a sweeps month. However, regardless of any of this, “One Way To Get Off” proved that even if the mystery isn’t a mystery, and the conclusion doesn’t feel as conclusive as it maybe should, Elementary works as a show focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
- I enjoy that Keith Szarabajka, who played Wade Crewes, has a resume consisting primarily of crime shows and cartoon/video game voiceover work.
- Stephen Henderson’s turn as Edison the groundskeeper adds one more to his impressive and growing collection of guest-starring turns on shows shooting in New York City (with the most recent being The Newsroom).
- I sort of enjoyed how the series didn’t even bother trying to de-age Callie Thorne and Aidan Quinn in the interrogation footage, perhaps because one does not need to de-age Callie Thorne in any capacity.
- While I didn’t think of it while watching the episode, the fact that the killer in the opening sequence didn’t have neck tattoos would be a sure giveaway that Victor wasn’t the killer, even if we didn’t make that presumption immediately when a new suspect was so casually introduced halfway through the episode.
- Since we’re talking about CBS procedurals: Is anyone still watching CSI? I ask because I got caught up in this week’s Warrick Brown tribute hour, and it remains a compulsively watchable show once you get hooked up in it.
- “I left some urine in your room.”