“It’s a simple matter of perspective.”
Sherlock says this to Mycroft as they’re investigating the disappearance of Pierce Norman, a banker who—we learn—has been framed for the dissemination of a list of tax evaders and terrorist bankrollers. And it’s true: the entire premise of Elementary is built around the idea that Sherlock has a distinct perspective on the world that enables him to find summer houses based on only four images of a location (three of which he had only recollection to draw on).
By comparison, Elementary has never had such a distinct perspective. It remains a show that the audience sees through the lens of the crime procedural, in which—and I promise I won’t even dwell on this point—a Swiss German-accented Michael Gaston is inevitably part of the case and where there was simply no universe wherein Joan Watson was going to be murdered by a group of French mobsters after being taken hostage. Although Mycroft’s return has significantly accelerated the show’s storytelling in a serial direction, the death of Joan Watson was never in the cards based on the simple matter of how television works, a perspective most audience members have access to (and which, often to this show’s detriment, is the resting perspective of your average television critic).
“Paint It Black” is an episode interested in the question of perspective. During Mycroft and Sherlock’s opening argument, the characters are framed between the bannisters on the stairs, not so subtly symbolizing the division between the brothers.
It also calls to our attention that our perspective on this conflict is different from Sherlock’s: We have reason to be suspicious of Mycroft that Sherlock does not, and so we’re not nearly as surprised as Joan is when Mycroft calls on what appears to be —steering back toward the canon—British intelligence in order to take out the French mobsters.
“Paint It Black” is a relatively slight hour in and of itself, which is not to say it was a bad episode. Rather, it functions as clear setup, working to catch Sherlock and Joan up on the details regarding Mycroft that we’ve been speculating on since that shadowy phone call. We have the privilege of hearing the phone call with his superiors in this episode, in which we are once again reminded that Mycroft had tried to have Sherlock removed from New York earlier this season, and in which we can deduce that the English man on the other end of the phone was not the same as the French men he had negotiated with initially. We’ve got all the evidence we need to deduce—at least from my perspective—that Mycroft is a British spy who was working undercover with the French mob, an assignment he was hoping to escape from should he complete this particular task (and an assignment that Sherlock threatened by nature of his deductive skills).
As much as that reveal matters to the audience, though, Joan and Sherlock spend the episode slowly gaining perspective. For Joan, it’s time on her own with her French kidnappers, completing some emergency surgery on a shooting victim and then watching as her captors murder him in front of her rather than getting him proper treatment. It’s here where the episode is basically filling time: the men responsible are mostly dead by the time the episode is over, and the lesson would appear to boil down to “mobsters don’t value human life like you do, Joan.” The scenes serve primarily to plant the seed of doubt regarding Mycroft’s motives in Joan’s head, which is a pretty slight development given that Mycroft—by all accounts—has every intention of filling Joan in regarding his work after episode’s end. I wrote last week that seeing Joan stripped of her agency to become something Sherlock and Mycroft are forced to save was frustrating, but that the ultimate impact depended on how the storyline was resolved. In the end, it felt like Joan was isolated to serve as a catalyst for Sherlock and Mycroft’s team-up, and a way to help keep Lucy Liu a bit less busy and allow her to step in as director. The result, though, was an episode that was never about Joan in the least, a kidnapping of narrative convenience more than narrative importance.
It also wasn’t a particularly meaningful episode for Sherlock, at the end of the day. It’s certainly an indictment of his perspective, insofar as his contempt for his brother blinded him to the truth about his allegiances. Sherlock spends the episode making brilliant deductions about a case, working his way through the details and even dipping into his bag of torture implements he first flashed back in “M.,” but he can’t apply those same deductions to his brother, or to the case in front of them. He doesn’t realize that when he tells the NSA he and Mycroft are working for a friendly government, he’s not lying (even if it’s unlikely the British had any intention of passing along their find to the U.S. government). He misses it because he loses perspective with his brother, missing things that he would have otherwise seen, and in the process setting up a different kind of showdown than the one that opens the episode.
What it means is that “Paint It Black” was a trial run. Joan gets suspicious, but then she’s immediately clued in on the truth, while Sherlock has one altercation with Mycroft—about his connection to the French mob—before then setting up another altercation with him over his ties to British intelligence. It’s a delay mechanism, one that in this case turns the actual events of this episode into a couple of slight shifts in perspective. They’re good shifts, shifts that promise complex character interactions in the subsequent episode, but which also make the episode feel less substantial than it might otherwise.
It is engaging to see a mystery solved, and watching Mycroft call on his assassins and emerge as his true self was exciting, if also somewhat predictable (although the show left the “Mycroft is evil” option on the table for at least a while, and one could argue it’s still on the table if we want to get really cynical about it). And it was meaningful to see Sherlock go to the NSA with his tail between his legs, before then going offscreen to the NYPD and playing no part in the final sequence. But all of that is setting up interesting dynamics in the future, rather than playing them out in this particular hour.
Instead, “Paint It Black” was primarily about seeing Sherlock and Mycroft interacting, and I’d be interested to rewatch the episode and know that is its main focus. As it was, I found myself disappointed that the entire kidnapping plot was effectively resolved (presuming, of course, that Mycroft changed the names on the file before handing it over to the French), as it made it all seem so very functional and low stakes. But once you know that, there is some strong Mycroft and Holmes banter to be found as the latter suffers his way through the former’s assistance. There’s also some interesting consideration with Joan’s role in Sherlock’s process, there’s plenty of dismissive remarks thrown in Mycroft’s direction, and in general lots of interesting dynamics working toward no particular goal other than establishing those dynamics exist.
In that sense, “Paint It Black” is a functional success, establishing what it needed to establish. At times it becomes too functional—the Joan storyline is a complete bust—and in others it feels like nothing but a tease of what’s to come, but at this stage in the season there’s room for a transition hour. It’s just now that much more important for the show to stick the landing, and ultimately disappointing that Joan’s kidnapping is just a transitional piece the show casually threw out as though the character had no greater role to play.
- I had a director once—playfully—chide me for never mentioning the direction for another show I cover (that he directed for), and I’ve rarely mentioned it here either, so it’s a little disingenuous to pay more attention to it when Liu is directing (which I was made aware of through Twitter). I thought it was fairly solid, although to be entirely honest I actually thought Liu’s own performance was a bit off in the captivity sequences. Not sure if others felt the same way, or maybe I was just overfocusing on it.
- Every crime procedural under the sun has used Michael Gaston, but Elementary is probably the first to give him a ridiculous accent. Remind me to take a weekend and watch every episode of a crime procedural in which he is featured—for the record, this includes five separate episodes of Law & Order.
- “You’re not sure you can do what needs to be done without her”—I thought it weird the episode introduced this point fairly bluntly in Sherlock and Mycroft’s opening conversation, but then it never came up again. They’ll be picking up that conversation in one of the last two hours, I imagine.
- “My father is a Lovecraftian horror who uses his money to bludgeon his way to ever more obscene profits”—so, we’re meeting Mr. Holmes in the third season, right?
- Whereas The Good Wife recently wrapped up its NSA arc, I imagine this might not be the end of Sherlock’s run-ins with the NSA.
- CLYDE WATCH: If they wanted real stakes, they’d have Clyde get kidnapped instead of Joan, right?