“The Red Team” begins where “M.” left off: a shot of the wall above Sherlock’s mantle, focused on a small piece of paper with “Moriarty” written on it. The difference, of course, is that the wall is now filled with other pieces of paper, a sprawling theory that after five days without sleep somehow involves Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s a week after the events of that episode, one where Elementary finally went down the rabbit hole of serialization and introduced the one figure we knew would have to be introduced eventually.
Moriarity remains a name in “The Red Team,” an idea that will be put off for another day (most likely one that will happen to fall during May Sweeps). While Sherlock took a week to obsess over the mysterious figure responsible for the death of Irene Adler, he’s now back to what Elementary as a television show requires: solving mysteries. However, the return to episodic storytelling does not ignore the events of “M.” more broadly: Elementary may not have suddenly become a serialized show about one man’s search for revenge, but it has committed to following through on the interpersonal ramifications of what happens when one man commits to—without committing—an act of revenge. Coming off of the series’ most impressive outing to date—which Caroline Framke so kindly stepped in to cover while I was in Los Angeles—“The Red Team” sends two contradictory messages: Elementary is still capable of being the same enjoyable crime-solving show it was before Moriarty, and Elementary is unquestionably a different show because of the events that took place in the previous episode.
To address the former point first, the episode was still willing to be a light-hearted crime show at points. It seems like a conscious decision after the darkness that claimed Sherlock when we last saw him, but it also helped make this episode enjoyable in ways that need to be acknowledged. When Sherlock introduced himself and Watson to “Bill,” whom we later learn was an Army intelligence officer, it encapsulated a lot of what the show does at its sharpest: “My name is Sherlock Holmes; I am a temporarily suspended consultant for the NYPD. This is Joan Watson; she keeps me from doing heroin.”
I don’t normally like to break down a joke in such detail, because I’ve been told it sucks the fun out of everything, but this is a rare case where a show that doesn’t have to necessarily make me laugh successfully did so. The first point is designed to call attention to the character’s willingness to advertise the fact that he’s suspended, something that filtered throughout the episode (like when he tells the long term care facility worker that he’s “usually” with the NYPD). Sherlock isn’t the kind of person who suffers from denial, believing that his suspension didn’t happen: instead, he simply acknowledges the fact of the suspension while ignoring its ramifications, investigating crime scenes, collecting evidence, and inserting himself into the case at any point. It’s not a complicated joke, but it offers a brief but meaningful reminder of how he’s confronting his now damaged relationship with Gregson and the NYPD in the wake of his homicidal intentions, and it made me chuckle.
I damn near chortled at the second part of this introduction, which caught me off guard. We can chalk this up to the fact that Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu have good chemistry, and that the show is willing to commit a bit more to a “joke” in the traditional sense than it was early on (where the banter was a bit more fueled by Sherlock’s eccentricity and less by what would be more traditionally considered a sense of humor). For the record, I’m aware I’m sucking much of the humor out of the show by writing sentences like that about the humor on the show, but I do so because it didn’t feel like a joke for the sake of a joke. Thinking back earlier in the series, Sherlock has been introducing Joan as any number of things: valet, assistant, etc. For him to be so blunt is a reflection both of his desire to disarm his assailant with honesty and the fact that he’s now more willing to be honest about the nature of their relationship at the exact time where Watson has begun lying to him about the reality of her employment.
I draw this connection not to suggest that this single joke was intended as the code with which the rest of the episode’s meaning is unlocked, but rather to note that even something this small felt distinct to this episode taking place at this point in time. Although the rhythms of the show went back to normal, shifting away from the personal stakes of “M.” to an accidental murder that spawned an elaborate conspiracy theory/“involuntary tontine” involving an Army war games team who discovered a fatal flaw in national security, the smaller details of the episode reflected that Sherlock nearly killed someone, that Watson lied to Sherlock about his father’s wishes in order to keep working with him, and that Gregson has lost all trust in Holmes in the process.
It’s the latter point that the episode deals with most effectively, precisely because it deals with it. As the episode unfolds, it seems like it’s going to be about rebuilding Gregson’s trust in Holmes. Sherlock becomes more active in the investigation as it evolves, initially accused of trespassing but eventually playing an active role in deducing that the killer was one of the team members seeking to ensure the secret never got out, and then convincing Gregson he was the one who could neutralize that killer during a hostage crisis. Sherlock moves from an unwanted consultant to a key component in the case, and it seems as though the narrative of reconciliation is complete: I had every expectation that Sherlock would walk into that bar with Gregson and they’d have a heart-to-heart and everything would be back to normal.
This isn’t what happened, of course. Instead, Gregson punches Sherlock in the gut, reinstating him as a consultant but telling him in no uncertain terms that he will never trust him again, at least not in the same way he did before. The scene gives the writers the ability to continue to tell the same kinds of stories it has been telling, as Sherlock is once again the genius the NYPD is most likely to call if they have a case needing to be solved. However, the scene also forces the writers to reshape the relationship between these two characters based on the events of “M.” Instead of ending on a celebratory return to the status quo, the episode ends on Sherlock quietly stewing—there’s an unintended soup pun here I’m apologetic for, Clyde—about the loss of a friendship that he valued more than he would admit.
What makes “The Red Team” a strong continuation of “M.” is that it allows the ramifications of that episode to be decided by characters; even if Watson and Gregson’s decisions to return to their respective working relationships with Sherlock are necessary for the show to continue, and thus useful for the writing staff, those decisions have been allowed to maintain a level of personal struggle and reflection. Joan’s decision weighs on her, just as Gregson’s decision to reinstate Sherlock is coupled with intense doubt and frustration with Sherlock’s behavior. As much as Clyde the tortoise and a collection of more light-hearted moments suggest that Elementary is still able to be a fun mystery series in the shadow of Moriarty, it also suggests that it isn’t the same fun mystery series as it was earlier this season, which is exactly how a procedural should manage this kind of narrative moment.
- Somewhat unrelated to this episode: I had the opportunity to be in the audience for the series’ panel at the recent TCA Winter Press Tour (which is why I was away earlier this month), and spent time awkwardly eavesdropping on some of the post-panel scrum, and I got a good vibe from hearing creator Rob Doherty, Miller, and Liu talk about the show (which is all you can really get from one of those panels).
- I particularly liked when, asked about Moriarty’s role in the series, creator Rob Doherty suggested, “you want to dollop Moriarty out appropriately.” I like any showrunner that uses cool whip terminology to refer to storytelling.
- I’d be curious to know more of where the genesis of the war games storyline comes from—I don’t know if I entirely followed the logic at times, at least in terms of who worked for who or why during the various investigations, but it fit the conspiracy theme nicely.
- I hope Clyde is recurring.
- Thanks again to Caroline, and before her Les Chappell, for filling in while I was in L.A. I hated missing out on the show’s big serialized moment, but I was happy to see the conversation continue both in the reviews and in the comments in my absence. And a belated congrats to those who called the Moran/Moriarty switcheroo in the comments before the episode aired: I had a smile on my face watching the screener, knowing that many of you had been a few steps ahead of the game. Well played.
- It seems weird, but I’ll be back in just a few days to chat about the post-Super Bowl episode.