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Elementary pokes the surveillance state in the hunt for “Lady Frances”

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Elementary

"The Ballad Of Lady Frances"

Season 5 , Episode 17

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“’Now Watson,’ he added as our client hurried away, ‘he will set the regular forces on the move. We are, as usual, the irregulars, and we must take our own line of action. The situation strikes me as so desperate that the most extreme measures are justified.’”

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”

Not too long ago, Elementary lifted some elements of “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” for an episode about those who prey on vulnerable women. “The Ballad of Lady Frances”—on the surface a much more direct lift from canon—has a story with a two-act red herring that’s largely spoiled by any promo photo featuring a guitar (and with a villain spoiled for those who’ve read Doyle’s original story). What the case leaves us with, then, is an opportunity to look at how this show revisits elements of the same canon.

Short answer: Hilariously. The Carfax aspects of this case are definitely surface-level in comparison to “Be My Guest,” the last outing that borrowed from it. By and large, it gives us something so coveted it’s worth killing for, and someone expendable in the pursuit of greedy ambitions. The sense of obsession is also here; it was nice to spend most of an episode on a single object, and that helped build up enough of the crucial mystique around Lady Frances that by the time someone casually used it as a murder weapon, we were sufficiently taken aback. (Not by the murderer—he was the bad guy in the story, too—but it brought home just how ruthless a guy we were looking at.)

But the second, and more satisfying, preoccupation of this episode comes from the sense of being watched. (That, too, calls back a little to “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”; the story opens, as many Doyle stories do, with Holmes using his powers of deduction to blithely pry into Watson’s daily affairs.) BulletPoint is the most obvious example of surveillance—no surprise, given Sherlock and Joan’s increasingly fraught relationship with the surveillance state. Sherlock even gets a prescient bite in at the politicians in the room when he learns how deeply the mayor’s office is involved with this city-wide bugging system: “That’s okay, then, because governments never abuse the surveillance of their citizenry, do they?” Of course they do. Of course Sherlock and Joan ferret it out.

It’s oddly satisfying that even in a case where surveillance footage is painted as absolutely necessary to administering justice, we also get acknowledgment of wider unsavory implications. One of BulletPoint’s operators altered audio so he could scoop the hitmen and get to the goods, and it triggered an investigation that revealed he’d invented several other shootings to help bolster support for the Councilman—as close to a condemnation of private-org surveillance as public-service tool that we’re likely to get in under forty minutes. It’s left unspoken whether the good eggs at BulletPoint are enough to guarantee ethics in something that’s fundamentally questionable; I think that’s for the best.

But there’s also Shinwell, who’s under such scrutiny from Joan and Sherlock that it’s a wonder he’s as willing to deal with them as he is. (“We can’t just do nothing” has become their very weird rallying cry for them considering how often Shinwell is begging one or both of them to do nothing.) Despite the time apparently devoted to his training in the arts of infiltration and espionage to make him independent, both Joan and Sherlock have repeatedly refused to respect Shinwell’s wishes on things like, I dunno, not going around in broad daylight investigating a shooting.

Are we meant to consider this as something he has to put up with in exchange for help with his daughter? For their professional mentorship? Is the show never going to acknowledge that Shinwell’s lived experience as a member of this gang includes things they don’t readily understand and he isn’t obligated to explain? There’s a reason Shinwell didn’t share anything about the shooting with them; at this point, honestly, it’s astonishing Shinwell trusts them with anything at all.

I’m genuinely torn by the way Shinwell has become something of a joint project. On the one hand, the nature of the Holmes/Watson partnership is that eventually all roads lead to the brownstone; Sherlock brought Kitty home, and so in some ways it seems like fair play that Joan’s now brought Shinwell. However, since the first season, Elementary largely defaults to Sherlock as the primary POV character; he gets such a disproportionate amount of emotional involvement in other things (family, romance, This Time It’s Personal cases, friends from his life before the partnership) that Joan’s relationship with Shinwell stood out as her first chance in a while to have an ongoing subplot with someone who both held his own as a character and emotionally challenged her.

Sherlock’s involvement in Shinwell’s life (which sometimes puts Sherlock at his patronizing worst) more and more seems to come at the expense of Joan and Shinwell’s relationship, which was sharply sidelined here in favor of...more Sherlock and Shinwell, including a fairly high-stakes reveal. I can see how, episode-to-episode, this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Cumulatively, though, Shinwell’s becoming a Sherlock story. The not-quite-cliffhanger we get at the end of this episode suggests that Sherlock may have pried a point of no return. At least, it should be; I don’t know if anger at Sherlock can hold for very long.


Stray observations

The Shinwell Situation feels kind of exacerbated by scenes like the early-morning conversation where Joan handwaves a “Whatever you need” in response to what should sound like either a startling secret of Sherlock overstepping himself. And yet, how far we’ve come that Sherlock shares his plans with Joan even that much, and Joan trusts him as much as she does, I guess? (I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of a man who very clearly doesn’t want them anywhere near this entire thing.)

The music studio was Phantom Of The Opera-level sinister; really nicely shot and staged.

“I’ll play umbrella and catch whatever’s falling. You two just work the case.” Captain GrumpFather is on the job!

“Since you’re going to return it anyway, just...surprise me.” How did we not get to find out what wallpaper he chose? Was it deliberately hideous, or did he actually pick something she might like to prove he knows her taste? The man’s bought clothes for her; wallpaper would be a trip.

I’m also going to assume Joan can detect the audio differences in gunshot playback and actual gunshots even when startled out of a deep sleep, because it is the only reason to stagger downstairs in mule slippers and without any kind of weapon whatsoever.

Playing the audio of a guy’s murder to his wife to see if she can ID him and only showing us the pained-screaming part is kind of brutal.

John Michael Hill once again giving Marcus a level of sincere decency deeper than his screen time, where you actually believe that the only reason he wants to go into someone’s house without a warrant is to be the most helpful possible person on the planet.

Gregson’s pointed reminder to the Councilman’s representative that the NYPD Are Doing Good Things And No Councilman Should Be Suggesting Otherwise In His Campaign Speeches is...interesting, and something of an odd thing for him to say, even though (especially because?) it’s so neatly justified by the Councilman being crooked anyway.

Line of the week: Gregson’s face when Sherlock asks if he’s heard of Eric Clapton.

Honorable Mention: Mark Boone Junior’s “Not holding it like you mean it, no.”

Costume note: We know this is a smooth-sailing episode for Joan and Sherlock because their white-collar shirts echo each other, neatly buttoned all the way up under tailored jackets. All business, no drama.