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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An ambitious Elementary makes the most of Schrödinger’s Watson

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“So how about you tell us the truth, and we’ll all just agree that you’ve suffered enough?”


There are some very interesting interrogations in “Pick Your Poison.” Marcus offers a carjacker this absolution and has to ask Joan if she’s written any black-market prescriptions lately; Sherlock calls Shinwell on his skills as an informant. Joan gets the episode’s centerpiece, a case-wrapping interrogation that’s both brutal and revealing. And it’s not surprising the murderer doesn’t have a word to say about it; everywhere you turn in this episode, there’s somebody who just can’t keep up the ruse any more. The hapless carjacker caves as halfheartedly as he lied, a crooked doctor still informs her patient that his mother’s been poisoning him, and Shinwell’s unable to play it cool to anyone. Even Sherlock can’t hold back from Joan for long; he spills the beans almost immediately that he’s trying to get Shinwell rejected as an informant. And Joan is furious. I guess. We actually don’t know; she turns out to be the mystery at the center of her own episode.

That’s nothing new. Even in an episode that begins with Joan’s identity being stolen, she ends up fighting for narrative space. What she gets is largely worth it; what’s missing is weirdly obvious. She’s certainly onscreen a lot, but in terms of characterization and narrative, she’s often Schrödinger’s Watson; it can be hard to tell if she’s present or not. (Sherlock explains why Shinwell’s unfit, Joan gets cut off before she even can get a rejoinder in, because evidence arrives. Sherlock gets his say, and Joan gets exposition, and it never gets less frustrating to suddenly skip past a crucial conversation where Joan can’t get a word in edgewise.)

Maybe that’s what makes Joan and Sherlock’s first fight about Shinwell feel so rich by comparison. Both of them are poking the bruises of the personal weaknesses that have been a preoccupation of the season. For Sherlock, the way to do good is to stop doing the potentially harmful things you were doing and create as much distance as possible so rebuilding can begin: “I thought he would find a clever way to extricate himself” is the highest praise, and highest frustration, he can express. (We have plenty of evidence how badly Sherlock has done when he can’t create that distance either physically or emotionally.)

But for Joan, throughout this episode and particularly in this moment, things are more revealing. She’s so often relegated to the Contained One that it can be hard to gauge her reactions. But when she fires back at Sherlock, “He is getting his life straight—he’s finishing what he started,” it’s no wonder Sherlock looks so antsy. That doing good means seeing something through is a loaded idea for Joan, particularly in an episode that nods so directly to her former profession. Sherlock has repeatedly seemed nervous about her commitment to working with him. We don’t know if she misses the old job, or is unsettled by the idea of a potential future being ruined (until someone checks, she’s both affected and unaffected by her medical-license limbo), but we know Sherlock’s thinking about it in this moment. And later, maybe, we know Joan’s thinking about it, too.

We’ve had a few instances of Joan squaring off against morally gray business. Once or twice, it’s looked like she’s going to take the bait. I don’t know if a big shift in that direction will ever happen; it seems unlikely (no one’s ever looked in that box long enough). In the meantime, a lot of the glimpses of morally gray Joan Watson come from small acting choices Lucy Liu makes. And one of the best things about the final interrogation scene in “Pick Your Poison” is how utterly unconcerned she is with Ethan’s mother; so much so that her about-face startles us. She seems vaguely understanding about his motive against his mother. She’s even conscientious enough to explain Ethan’s medications and symptoms to him—old habits from an old job, maybe. Turns out her concerns just lie elsewhere, and he doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. When Ethan asks her to intercede for him, the camera begins to edge forward as Liu delivers a chillingly soft “About what?”; a Hannibal Lecter moment before the trap springs.

Ethan killed a doctor who, despite her criminal side gig, still exposed his mother’s deception to him, because despite the danger, it was the right thing to do. That’s what Joan—two for two on projecting her concerns onto other people—can’t forgive. It can’t be a coincidence that in the same episode in which she defends Shinwell onscreen and off, her disgust at Ethan centers around how he repaid a favor: “She had to know what she was risking, but she tried to save you anyway, and you killed her for it.” Joan’s been the point person on cases before; it’s never cut this close to the bone.


That said, if Joan got to become the point person on this case because Shinwell’s arc was being shifted toward Sherlock, that’s going to be a bummer. Shinwell and Joan have an interesting and imperfect relationship that could both prove really fruitful and stand some immediate improvement, which is a lot of narrative potential to just drop. But perhaps inevitably, given Sherlock as the gravity well of the show, the episode ends with Shinwell edging closer to Sherlock. He doesn’t actually exchange any words with Joan at all this episode, which really shows when there’s so much Shinwell-adjacent discussion and plot.

Presumably, this is all in parallel. Sherlock taking Shinwell under his wing is, to him, cutting off a cycle of potential harm and beginning something new. For Joan, their potential alliance robs her of her chance to be Shinwell’s sole mentor—to see this through. It’s telling that neither of those views gives Shinwell a sense of any self-determination in all this, but I think “Shinwell Isn’t Being Given Much Credit” has been the subtitle of the entire season. (Last season’s was: “Don’t Worry, This Probably Relates To Sherlock’s Dad Somehow.”) There’s still potential to bring back some of that subtlety about the kinds of doors that close on someone after the prison pipeline, and how he’s ended up struggling as much against other people’s prejudices as his own demons. Joan’s oblivious optimism on his behalf has grated on him (and us, honestly) in the past; “Pick Your Poison” at least sets us up to make that problem relevant again.


Of course, this, too, could go sour. If Sherlock ends up using Shinwell as leverage against Joan, or even if things go well but Joan gets cut out of this new dynamic, the foreshadowing here suggests the fallout could be major, and for better or worse, we have no idea what she’ll do. (She knew what she was risking, but.)

Stray observations

  • Whenever Marcus texts Joan “Just you,” how often should we assume Sherlock is just pacing outside, desperate for the dirt?
  • “Don’t step on another agency’s toes—let us do our jobs.” The last few episodes have been low-key brutal about Sherlock sticking his nose in. I appreciate a Holmes universe in which some people do not care whatsoever about his deductions and just think he’s some rude stranger.
  • I appreciate Sherlock’s supernatural sense of smell; not sure I’m willing to give a pass to all that gloveless door-opening at a murder scene from a guy who also gives us a monologue about screwing up at the scene of a crime he didn’t commit.
  • While I think this episode was likely spoiled just by virtue of having watched other TV before, Joan’s monologue was enough payoff for the ol’ Munchausen by Eyeliner.
  • I’m not hung up on the timeline of this show (someday someone will supercut every reference just to prove Elementary has been about time travel all along, and they will be right), and it’s not like Arthur Conan Doyle paid attention to dates, so maybe it’s homage. But Joan claims she hasn’t practiced medicine in ten years. Earlier this season she’d been a detective almost five years; it’s been established before that her last patient died in 2010. What if we are being Westworlded?
  • Love that Sherlock’s bustle about his cold case wordlessly gets subsumed in helping actual point person Joan.
  • Though the show’s predilection for slightly mournful closing-scene cuts can occasionally confuse the text (see last episode), there’s a sort of treasured-mixtape quality to them that keeps growing on me.
  • Line delivery of the week: “Now that I know him better, I’m surprised he didn’t step into an open bear trap and then fall down a well.” Jonny Lee Miller, visibly delighted with this one.
  • Runner-up: “And how many games you figure we’re going to get in, what with how soon I’ll be dead and all?” Ellis plays Shinwell as straightforward as possible. We knew Joan could tell his threats were bluster. We know from how fast he picks up on Sherlock’s discomfort about the table—and makes Sherlock tell him—that he’s probably the best communicator in that house whenever he’s in it. And in this one line, we know his gratitude hasn’t made him a pushover, and that that’s probably the sort of thing that’s going to keep him alive as an informant. (She said, gritting her teeth and hoping Shinwell survives the season.)
  • Line delivery of the week, honorable mention: With “So Joan’s identity was stolen by a doctor,” Aidan Quinn aims for Walken and gets there.