There is an intense spatiality to crime procedurals. While the interpersonal conflict between a detective and a suspect may form the basis for the psychological battle of any investigation, it is the spaces the investigation occupies that offer the clues to lead us to the suspect’s identity. As an episode like “You Do It To Yourself” moves from the warehouse where the body was found, to the office of the man who was killed, and finally to the Chinese gambling parlor where the murder took place, the spaces hold the clues. The people, meanwhile, are just the bodies necessary to offer Sherlock and Detective Bell access to analyze the space accordingly.
While crime procedurals are also invested in temporality, emphasized through flashbacks and the linear progression of an investigation, I find it interesting that Elementary seems to rarely flash back to things people have said. Instead, it flashes back to details that Sherlock or Watson has remembered, items or details that were rarely the focus of the action and wouldn’t generally be noticed. The show’s memory is spatial more than emotional: Rather than remember something her ex-boyfriend Liam said while visiting him at Rikers, the important memory for Watson is that he had no visible signs of being in a vehicular collision (and thus likely didn’t perpetrate the hit and run for which he was accused). Similarly, Watson remembers the lack of red eye in a photo on the mantle, while Sherlock remembers the ugly aquamarine gym membership on the T.A.’s keychain and the mix CDs said T.A. made for Trent Annunzio’s “wife”—read: hostage—Jun during their affair.
This spatiality is interesting to me precisely because it is asked to carry a considerable burden in “You Do It To Yourself,” given that there is no real suspect. Trent Annunzio—as the title spoils if you were paying too much attention and thinking about how similar titles from earlier in the season, like “Child Predator,” did much the same—had himself killed as an elaborate revenge scheme. The episode reveals him to be an abuser and a cancer sufferer, who chooses to end his life committing one last act of abuse on Jun by framing her lover for murder, ensuring her deportation. It’s a vicious act, making Annunzio one of the purest “villains” the show has delivered, but it’s a performance without dialogue: Richard Topol might play the role, but the character never speaks, meaning that his story is told through characters’ memories and the traces he left behind in the spaces he occupied.
What makes the script by Peter Blake—who was the executive producer on the final season of House, writing its series finale—interesting is that it so consistently compromises the characters’ memories. When Ramirez is found to be the shooter, he reveals he was hired to do the job by someone he never met. While O’Brien confesses to organizing the murder when confronted by police, he does so in ways that offer no tangible details, When Jun reveals brutal details of Annunzio’s abuse, she doesn’t have the evidence she believed she did in order to back it up. It is not until Sherlock discovers the second sex offender, the one with a penchant for surveillance, that the detectives finally get the spatial proof—tape of Annunzio trying to hire someone to kill him—necessary to turn Sherlock’s theory into hard evidence.
It created a challenge for director Phil Abraham, best known for his recent directorial work on Mad Men after spending years doing cinematography for The Sopranos. Elementary has kept up its visual appeal to this point, building on Michael Cuesta’s strong work in the pilot, but this week’s felt particularly well done in part because of the spatial burden Abraham takes on. There’s this great tracking shot early in the episode, as Sherlock and Watson walk down the hallway in the Chinese gambling parlor. It’s shot from behind a grate of sorts that moves along the wall, and at first it felt like a case of style for style’s sake, an effective way to differentiate the shot and reveal the grittiness of the space. But then, when deducing that the gunman had to have been unmasked when he entered the parlor, the length of the hallway becomes a key detail, one that the audience was made aware of by the length of the shot in question. The episode depends on details like this, such as the cramped and dark nature of Annunzio’s office—which leads them to the gambling parlor, in a roundabout way—as opposed to the bright office across the hall. Without the ability to embed clues into actors’ performances of dialogue (since all such dialogue is either absent or discredited), Abraham—along with the set designers/set decorators/editors/etc.—is tasked with embedding those clues into the spaces of the episode instead.
Abraham is successful in this endeavor, particularly since space becomes so central to the episode’s resolution given the role of proximity in Annunzio’s choice of hitmen and the idea that Sherlock couldn’t make this discovery until he moved his old information to a new location (in this case the bathroom, revealing a new portion of the Brownstone set that houses so many of the show’s “Eureka!” moments). I may be reaching too far in identifying spatiality as distinctly important in “You Do It To Yourself,” given that it has also been present in other episodes, but the way the mystery removed other potential avenues for deduction from the equation highlighted the continued role of space in these investigations.
There are consequences to this, of course: Because the central mystery ends up relying less on characters and more on Sherlock’s analysis of the evidence at hand, Jun’s deportation struggle was too quickly introduced and resolved to have any emotional impact (even if Sherlock does express a rare case of regret and emotion as he realizes his accusation may get her deported and her daughter taken away). The mystery becomes a primarily intellectual exercise, something that I personally appreciate but that could end up feeling slightly empty for others.
Where “You Do It To Yourself” adjusts is by giving Watson an origin story, and using it to fill that emptiness at episode’s end. Watson’s visits with Liam are themselves a small mystery, a way to reveal more about her back story—in this case why she became a sober companion after leaving medicine, inspired by her junkie ex-boyfriend—and separate her from Sherlock so that, when they reconvene, he has a reason to update her on the case and remind audiences where things stand (this is a broadcast crime procedural, after all). But it also creates separation so Sherlock will fill it, as he does when he joins her at the free clinic to wait to see if Liam, newly freed from jail based on Watson’s Sherlock-aided investigation, will seek treatment. It’s the first moment where Sherlock has reciprocated her presence in his life, actively seeking out an opportunity to be there for her instead of the other way around. But rather than through a phone call or a specific action, Sherlock shows this through his presence, sharing the space of the clinic with her in the way she shares his home.
It’s the emotional note the mystery lacked, and that the show is smart to relocate to its ongoing character dynamics. “You Do It To Yourself” offers a distinct mystery structure that avoids the predictability of previous cases by lingering on actual uncertainty before digging deeper in search of an answer, pivoting and twisting in ways that feel less like red herrings and more like natural roadblocks. While the show uses Sherlock’s lingering illness to justify his inability to solve the case more quickly, it results in a well-paced—and, if you’ll excuse the terrible, awful pun, well-spaced—episode that demonstrates the versatility of the series without blowing up the crime procedural rulebook.
- Speaking about place and crime shows more generally, I’m wondering if CSI’s explicit focus on forensics has changed how detectives engage with crime scenes on television. I’m also reminded of what is easily the greatest—and filthiest—spatial crime scene investigation in television history.
- While never developing into an overall theme, the racial dynamics of tonight’s episode were interesting. I noticed that the killer was clearly identified as African American during the teaser (racializing the crime before we understand it fully), and was interested in how the episode dealt with the Orientalism of the Chinese gambling ring and the way Jun was effectively used as a sex slave. The episode didn’t end up dealing with these questions in any detail, but at least the writers avoided the explicit Orientalism of Sherlock’s “The Blind Banker.”
- It was nice to see a T.A. featured on a television show who didn’t end up being a total creeper who sleeps with his or her students (although Bell sure did jump to conclusions about his lust for revenge and murder). My profession does not fare well in this medium.
- Interesting division of labor with Bell going solo with Sherlock early in the episode and Gregson coming in later on. I like the dynamic with Bell—there was a nice moment where he tried to play Sherlock’s game and dramatically reveal how he knew about the Mahjong titles—and am interested to see if the writers try to sketch it out in any more detail in the future.
- And yes, much as Erik predicted in today’s “What’s On Tonight?” I had Radiohead stuck in my head while writing this review.
- After complaining about last week's Microsoft Surface product placement on Suburgatory, I couldn't help but notice its obviousness here, but at least Sherlock didn't talk about how much he loved it. And it's a bit more convenient for bathroom use than a laptop, so there was logic there.