Elementary’s first season was an origin story. In 24 episodes, it told the story of how Sherlock Holmes met Joan Watson, tracking their relationship through the early days of sober companionship, the tentative first days of a detecting partnership, and finally to the friendship around which Elementary hopes to build 200 episodes in the years to come.
This origin story worked in part because of the performances from Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, but it also worked because it was consistently evolving. Sherlock and Joan began on two opposite ends of the spectrum, but over time they began to move closer and closer together: As he began to gain greater empathy for his fellow humans, she became more in tune with his analytical approach to life. They were learning from each other, which made even the most procedural of stories told in the first season one chapter of an ongoing negotiation between the two characters. When they caught the villainous Moriarty at season’s end, it reaffirmed how much each of them had changed, and how much their friendship was responsible for that change.
The problem Elementary faces in its second season is that Sherlock and Joan’s relationship isn’t really changing anymore. Inevitably, the two characters will continue to negotiate the terms of their friendship as they solve crimes together, but despite being in perpetual motion toward the other the two characters shall never meet. Sherlock will never become as empathetic as Joan, just as Joan will never become as coldly analytical as Sherlock; the first season necessarily evolved the characters such that they could enter a working arrangement, but that natural, serial character development is no longer something Elementary can count on. By building a sustainable dynamic that I’d be happy to watch every week, the series’ writers simultaneously created a problem of developing forward momentum.
“Step Nine” attempts to solve this problem by asserting that there are more origin stories to be told. After quickly reaffirming that Sherlock and Joan serve as valuable assets to the NYPD as they team up to solve a case involving pigeons and murdered U.S. Attorneys, the series jets off to London to meet two characters from Holmes’ past. Gareth Lestrade was the detective who took public credit for Holmes’ work with Scotland Yard, while Holmes’ brother Mycroft represents the tense relationship between our protagonist and his family. Acknowledging that the speed of Sherlock’s transformation must slow down, the episode instead poses a question: Given how Sherlock has changed, how does he reflect on the relationships he had back when he was a rather vicious ass of a human being?
There was the potential for this question to turn into an overly trite examination of how far Sherlock has come. The episode opens with Lestrade as a raving lunatic threatening a funeral with a grenade, and we learn he has been laughed off the force once his secret weapon—the fact that Sherlock solved all his cases and let him take the credit—moved across the pond. Sherlock arrives in London to help find Lestrade before he hurts himself, accompanied by a slightly overstated belief that Lestrade was an addict whose drug of choice was the fame made possible through Sherlock’s detective work. My fear was that the storyline would be about Sherlock teaching Lestrade that he was a good detective all along, rehabilitating his reputation and leaving behind a fully functional detective.
“Step Nine” tells a more nuanced story, one where Sherlock attempts to make amends for having failed to treat Lestrade as a partner (by rarely if ever helping him understand how he was solving cases) but ultimately finds that Lestrade is too far gone. Sherlock can’t resist involving himself in Lestrade’s case against Pendry because he could sense something was wrong and that Lestrade’s hunch was correct, but he does so with the awareness that he is on some level responsible for Lestrade’s plight. It’s an acknowledgment of his actions having impacted another human being, and when Lestrade takes credit for Sherlock’s work on the Pendry case he feels a different “cocktail of emotions”: anger and exasperation, which aren’t new, and then finally worry. Rather than Sherlock’s new empathy fixing his relationship with Lestrade, it instead gives him new perspective on past failings, not so much closing the book on Lestrade as it is writing new, complicated thoughts in the margins.
The series’ decision to travel to London opens the conversation regarding its relationship with the Holmes canon, giving us the iconic 221B Baker Street and introducing characters like Lestrade (who I’d be interested to see return in the future, but who may well be best off left to live on without Holmes). However, it rightfully treats this canon as history rather than an alternate reality, values that inform who Sherlock is but do not define who he will become. It resituates season one itself as “history,” never once mentioning Moriarity and largely camouflaging the expository dialogue intended to fill viewers in on how Joan and Sherlock came to be partners. Despite its return to London returning to history both for Sherlock the character and Sherlock Holmes as a property, it resists dwelling on those moments, spinning the referential web into new momentum rather than a one-off trip down Conan Doyle lane.
The introduction of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft is the season’s most substantial development, and it seems logical both because the series has been hinting at Sherlock’s complicated relationship with his family throughout the series and because introducing estranged family members is a common tool for ongoing series to introduce a new dynamic—or, to be more clear, an old dynamic that we’re only now being introduced to. Mycroft comes with built-in history of a shared childhood spent in different boarding schools, two extremely different relationships with their father, and one or two—okay, seven—instances of Sherlock sleeping with Mycroft’s fiancé to prove that she was only interested in the family fortune. For someone that we—including Joan—had no idea existed until Sherlock walked into a renovated 221B, the stories we hear fit perfectly into the man Sherlock became.
Rhys Ifans is an inspired bit of casting, just as capable of matching Jonny Lee Miller’s bitterness as he is able to speak honestly and openly with Joan about his illness. It becomes a story about two brothers who want to make amends but don’t know how, about another person struggling to get closer to Sherlock and become someone he cares about. But whereas this could have also seemed trite if executed in the wrong fashion, that Mycroft and Sherlock end up bonding over the former blowing up the latter’s remaining possessions with a homemade explosive device constructed based on instructions found amongst those possessions effectively disarms any sentimentality. As Sherlock notes, it is a rapprochement and not a reconciliation: Rather than suddenly returning to a previously blissful state, they are simply acknowledging that they never had such a state in the first place, and begin to feel different and—most important to the season ahead—something new.
There are moments when the expositional burden of “Step Nine” gets in the way of the storytelling: While it’s logical for Sherlock and Joan to have to be filled in on Lestrade’s case or for Mycroft to run down his recent medical history with Joan, there are moments when it feels like we’re being told a great many things instead of seeing them for ourselves (particularly when the writers are leaning on the addiction metaphor with Lestrade). However, once the episode reached its conclusion I had seen a compellingly told procedural case centered around Lestrade, a range of interesting shades to Sherlock’s character, a lot of potential in Mycroft, and plenty of evidence that the dynamic between Joan and Sherlock remains vibrant and interesting even when the show has ceased being focused exclusively on their evolving relationship. As a London-set prologue before the series returns to its New York roots, it was a strong starting point for the season to follow.
- I’m going to be giving side-eye to anyone who informs me they’ve purchased a 3D printer for a while.
- Sherlock’s claim that Joan wanted to sleep with Mycroft so she could pretend to sleep with him was both a typically self-involved thing for Sherlock to believe and a great way for the writers to establish for potential first-time viewers that there is to be no expectation for a romantic relationship between the two leads. I appreciate the reassurance.
- Shooting in London was worth the extra money: some great location work, and Sherlock’s use of the CCTV’s to communicate with one of his informants was an inspired engagement with the location (and a clever interpretation of a canonical character).
- Speaking of which: I couldn’t find any sort of canon reference related to “Geezer Bob,” but I might be missing something. Any ideas?
- I was sort of obsessed with the abandoned theater that Lestrade and Holmes used as a makeshift brainstorming session—I’m curious if that was a set built in New York or whether it was a location/stage the production had access to in London.
- I’ll admit to having been not all that familiar with Sean Pertwee’s work, but he made for a great Lestrade in the context of this particular interpretation.
- I always enjoy when procedurals open with the tail end of a case we never get to see, as it implies there are day-to-day lives we miss out on. The carrier pigeon pursuit was a good example of this.
- “Fatty, this is Watson. Watson, this is Fatty.” Ah, brotherly love.
- Some people have asked in the past what episodes from season one are crucial if you’re interested in catching up. There are two schools of thought. To get the full S1 arc: “Pilot,” “M.,” “A Landmark Story,” “Risk Management,” and “The Woman”/”The Heroine.” However, if you simply want to get a feel for Sherlock and Joan’s dynamic, I’d suggest “Pilot,” “The Leviathan,” “M.,” “Details,” and then “The Woman”/”The Heroine.”