Sherlock Holmes knew that Thomas Gregson—Tommy to his family and neighbors—was separated from his wife. He observed new patterns of behavior: earlier arrivals, later departures, and the absence of homemade lunches. And yet Sherlock never told anyone about his suspicions, nor did he speak to Gregson about them, because that isn’t the kind of person he is. While Sherlock may be in a strong position to deduce secrets people are keeping, he isn’t the kind of person who would use this skill in order for him to help those around him.
“An Unnatural Arrangement” is another case where this basic fact about Sherlock, understood based on where Elementary began, is tested. It may not be Sherlock’s instinct to help Gregson in the wake of his separation, but the longer he spends with an emotional Gregson the more he finds himself offering his assistance. Gregson’s personal life is unveiled through no fault of his own, his wife Cheryl (Talia Balsam) the victim of a violent break-in due to an erroneous Google Maps-equivalent streetview error as opposed to some kind of vendetta. However, once it’s revealed, it presents Sherlock with a friend who wants his help, and potentially even needs his help, and Sherlock is compelled to act. Even though he acknowledges that any actual comforting would be best left to Joan, and even though he frames all of his support within his previously stated belief in the uselessness of marriage, he nonetheless snoops into the past of Cheryl’s suitor in the interest of offering Gregson peace of mind.
“An Unnatural Arrangement” is at its best when it’s spinning off into character development. The episode first presents itself as a boilerplate “Gregson Episode,” using the would-be killer’s break-in to shed light on a character that we really don’t know all that much about. Although we got a glimpse into his past with the arrival of his former partner back in season one, it was Bell who got the more substantial family storyline, and so this is the first we’ve seen of Gregson’s wife, home, or even life outside of the precinct. Nothing we see is groundbreaking: Gregson works too much, putting a strain on his relationship in the wake of their kids heading off to college and leaving them with an uncertain future. This in and of itself is fairly uninteresting, but the way it reframes Sherlock’s perspective on Gregson’s marriage is a nice bit of shading, and returns to a relationship the show largely looked past in the wake of Sherlock’s actions in “M.” The episode doesn’t necessarily acknowledge this history, but Aidan Quinn and Jonny Lee Miller do some fine work in that sequence to sell the characters’ rapport.
The episode is also a fine example of how Sherlock and Joan’s evolving relationship can be worked into an otherwise unrelated storyline effectively. The little throwaway regarding the night detective’s falafel stand robberies—a case he offers to Joan but which Sherlock solves—gives Joan a legitimate complaint, and nicely dovetails into the thematic exploration of partnership. It was the kind of thematic point that I didn’t feel last week’s hour managed to make: Whereas that story attempted to add wrinkles to the characters’ past to artificially complicate their relationship, here we see a natural complication to their “even” partnership in the second season. Sherlock is more experienced and more skilled than Joan, and if they treat every case like partners chances are he will solve them. While Joan may find moments where she is separated from Sherlock to work on her own, each week’s cases will largely be an uneven collaborative experience, one where Joan is an active participant—she picks the lock at Dustin Bishop’s apartment—but also unlikely to be the one who makes the big discovery. Given their relative experience levels, she would logically be his assistant, and yet the show has been careful to avoid such terminology.
Instead, Elementary has focused on the two as partners, which becomes Sherlock’s understanding of the value attached to—if not the institution of, then certainly the experience of—marriage. The episode does a nice job of filtering Sherlock’s perspective on his partnership with Joan through his experience with Gregson, and his gesture of giving Joan his cold cases offers both a potential engine for story development—we could see the cold cases return in the future—and another strong moment of development within their partnership. It is possible the trunk never returns again, and that it remains a symbolic gesture, but Cathryn Humpris’ script did a nice job of integrating the gesture into the web of character interaction that was ultimately the goal of the episode’s episodic escapades.
Those escapades were a bit all over the map. The need to keep Gregson at the forefront of the narrative for as long as possible required the creation of a random stalker whose motives the episode never bothers to explain. I recognized Sarah Wynter’s name in the credits and presumed she must have something to do with the solution given how late she showed up, and the actual conclusion lacked much weight when you consider we never met the character who shot the people involved. Was the motive simple greed? Why was she greedy? What did she need the money for? There was brief mention of the need to take whatever teaching jobs came available, suggesting she needed the money, but what was the logic behind this crime? The episode never explores that question, largely constructing the narrative to feed into the character work.
In past weeks, there has been some discussion in the comments over whether this is something that one should hold against an episode of a procedural. Given how often the procedural cases are similar to one another or to the basic generic forms of crime procedurals more broadly, shouldn’t we celebrate when that results in meaningful scenes between our regular characters? I agree that we should, certainly, but I would simultaneously argue that a thinly constructed procedural case represents a missed opportunity to amplify those meanings. At the core of Beth’s crime is the idea of a partnership, in this case between Beth and two soldiers and then again with Beth and her husband (with whom she reconciled for reasons the episode never explores). Who were these people to her? What was the arrangement of their partnership? How could we understand those partnerships relative to Sherlock and Joan’s, or Gregson and Cheryl’s?
These sound like bad English paper questions, but they’re questions that could have fleshed out the procedural story so that it too had a greater sense of resonance and meaning. The way the case in “An Unnatural Arrangement” folded in on itself to serve the need to investigate Gregson’s personal life was just that—an unnatural arrangement, built around mistaken identity, which then devolves into a run-of-the-mill, motiveless crime which ends more because it has to than because of any sense of urgency or meaning. Elementary has proven itself capable of developing strong characters and using its basic narrative framework to craft entertaining television, but there remains room to explore how it could play with and expand that framework to achieve similar and potentially more ambitious goals.
- It’s been a while since a piece of casting has immediately spoiled the guilty parties, but it happened twice here: I also recognized the man playing Jim Monroe (although I don’t know where from), and presumed he had at least some larger role to play in the story.
- I liked Balsam’s performance, particularly when Cheryl was giving her account of the break-in and providing details that you’d likely only get from a police officer’s wife.
- “I refer to most of the detectives here as ‘Not Bell’”—Sherlock, nicely acknowledging that the lack of named characters within the NYPD fits with Sherlock’s character patterns.
- Seriously, though: Why did Dustin Bishop shoot himself to try to claim that he was the one who broke into Gregson’s home? Did he just want the attention? What did he want it for? Are we going to return to the crazy stalker sending Gregson emails?
- “Holmes and Watson are running down some Holmes and Watson things”—I hope that’s the episode description for an upcoming episode.
- “You’re conscious, excellent, we’re going to Queens!”—I loved the speed at which Miller performed this line, and the way Liu spent much of the sequence with toothpaste in and around her mouth. The show is always good at showing us daily life happening in the Brownstone, even if they’re delivering exposition while brushing teeth/bringing lunch/etc.