While Sherlock Holmes is intended to be one of the world’s smartest detectives, there’s one variable that makes the audience likely to solve the mystery in “The Rat Race” before he does. Sherlock eventually figures out that “the secretary did it,” as Donna Kaplan somehow managed to plot the death of multiple corporate employees such that her own boss would rise in the company ladder. However, an eagle-eyed viewer could have made the same observation by noting that Donna, a nondescript role in the beginning of the episode, was played by Molly Price, whom I recognize from Third Watch and her recent stint on Shameless. It’s the first mystery of the season that goes beyond dull to damaging, the conclusion so blatantly foreshadowed by a combination of exposition and casting that it’s hard to even consider it a mystery.
The question is whether that truly matters. As much as the mystery is a disappointment, “The Rat Race” is Elementary’s best episode yet in terms of emphasizing its evolving character dynamics. The mystery may seem perfunctory, but that allows for Sherlock’s drug problem to return to the surface, and leaves room for a more substantial B-story through which Watson starts to discover how her time with Sherlock is—for better or worse—changing her perspective on life. While shaggy in terms of its episodic plot, pivoting wildly to position the characters according to the writers’ wishes, those positions explore ideas that have to this point in the series’ run been taken for granted. The result is an episode that, while perhaps less forgivable later in the season, feels like a step forward, even if the viewer ends up five steps ahead of Sherlock when it comes to the mystery at hand.
Building on a conversation in the comments last week, it was interesting to see Sherlock start the episode with a “civilian” mystery looking into a missing executive for a Wall Street firm. The idea of Sherlock stepping in before the police are allowed to was a nice little inversion, at least until the point where it just became another murder partway through the episode. The in medias res opening—can we cut it out with those, television?—certainly suggested something more than just a businessman with a taste for high class prostitutes, but the speed at which this becomes a typical mystery was a disappointment.
However, if you break the storyline down, you can understand how this design serves the writers’ needs. The low stakes of the early investigation ensure that Sherlock and Watson’s banter doesn’t seem in poor taste, allowing the introduction of Watson’s suitor to avoid the baggage of a murder hanging over the occasion. Discovering the executive’s body, meanwhile, marks a shift in their banter: Suddenly, the situation is more serious, especially given the nature of the man’s death. It’s the first time drugs have been actively involved in one of the show’s cases, and the moment is handled well on all fronts: Jonny Lee Miller sells the way Sherlock tries to brush it off but is nonetheless affected by it, while Lucy Liu shifts into “sober companion” mode without losing the increasingly personal nature of their relationship. From that point forward, the episode is less about banter and more about how their partnership helps each handle the problems they might face in their daily lives (with even the innocuous “ambush setup” taking on a more serious tone).
This manifests most obviously in the episode’s climax, wherein a text sent from Sherlock’s phone doesn’t feature the requisite acronyms, alerting Watson to the fact it was sent by Donna and not Sherlock (and confirming he was in danger). It’s a silly bit of cyclical storytelling, but it does transform a piece of the early light banter—Sherlock’s indecipherable IMLTHO—into a key to the mystery, which speaks to the episode’s larger trajectory. The bantering about Watson’s hairstyle adjustments or the tricks for convincing someone to let you into an apartment without a search warrant can seem like a short term distraction, but it’s building the dynamics which will allow the show to get away with the occasional weak mystery. While the show isn’t yet at the point where it can coast by on the dynamic, the writers are smart to acknowledge that dynamic wherever possible, and allowing it to play a role in the central mystery is effective (if, yes, also a bit cheesy).
“The Rat Race” also allows Watson’s B-story to expand into different, more meaningful territory than one might expect. Rather than Sherlock getting in the way of her relationship, which we saw with her ex-boyfriend back in “While You Were Sleeping,” Sherlock’s methods lead her to investigate the relationship more carefully. The idea of Sherlock rubbing off on Watson is central to the evolution of their partnership, and nicely establishes the way it changes how she sees people, and how her sense of trust shifts when she’s watching for lies and performing some casual internet stalking. The actual story—a secret, nefarious green card marriage—ends up a bit hokey, but I appreciated that the narrative wasn’t about Sherlock’s meddling so much as Sherlock’s more indirect influence on his new partner.
The episode’s other intervention was in the reveal of Sherlock’s drug problem to Gregson, finally giving Aidan Quinn something to do. While last week’s episode hinged on Sherlock’s interaction with the killer, here, it was more about his interaction with his partners, and his final scene with Gregson hits the right tone. Sherlock’s vulnerability feels real, but the scene avoids becoming too maudlin by having Gregson reveal he’s known all along but chose to keep it a secret. There’s a paternal quality to Quinn’s performance in the scene, and it reframes the relationship along those lines: Gregson’s willingness to bring Sherlock on despite knowing about his time in rehab shows that he, like Watson, wants to assist in his rehabilitation. In addition to the earlier scare at the crime scene, Elementary is not letting the drug angle fade away, instead using it to facilitate productive character building. I don’t know how long the show will be able to use it in this way without it become a cliché, but it was effective here.
“The Rat Race” will fade away in terms of its mystery, with Price’s Donna lacking the energy of the Balloon Man and the twists and turns proving more functional than memorable. However, the Gregson and Sherlock scene seems as though it will be foundational to whatever relationship they build over time, while Sherlock and Watson’s influence on one another is steadily moving along with each episode. While subtle, what I like best about this dynamic is that it doesn’t seem dependent on outright conflict. Sherlock is annoying, but Watson’s commitment to him doesn’t waver, and you get the sense she’s doing more than just putting up with him. While still a bit rough around the edges, I feel the same way about Elementary. Rather than simply putting up with the show, it’s growing in ways that have increased my investment in the characters and their future, an important first step for any procedural.
- Do we think the company name, Canon Ebersole, was a reference to anything or anyone in particular? I thought of Christine Ebersole immediately, but it may just be a random pairing of words.
- Seriously, though: Is there anything more jarring in a procedural than a recognizable actress sitting silently as a random background character in a boardroom sequence? She might as well be wearing a funny hat and a t-shirt that says “I did it.”
- It’s interesting that Gregson is really the only element of the show that registers as a distinct, clear piece of adaptation. Looking over the character’s Wikipedia entry offers some insight into his dynamic with Holmes in this episode in particular, and I’ll be curious if the role expands (as it well could, since Quinn is capable of rising to the occasion).
- Speaking of Aidan Quinn, it’s probably cruel of me to always remember him first as the father in the Project Greenlight movie, right?
- Another mention of Sherlock and Watson becoming a couple, and another outright rejection of the idea. Do we still think that well is too deep to be ignored? Or are they going to be able to resist and move forward with a purely platonic relationship?
- It was brought up in the comments last week that Sherlock might face immigration restrictions on employment, but it appears that Elementary will be glossing over this bureaucratic nightmare, which I’ve experienced personally. Someday, television will document our struggle.