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Elementary: “Dead Man's Switch”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “Dead Man's Switch”

As his one-year sober anniversary approaches, Sherlock explains that he abhors the idea of a chip being bestowed to honor the occasion. He suggests that soberness is not something we celebrate, but rather a state of being: “One is either in it or out of it.”

One could argue this is an apt turn of phrase for a television series, especially one that has suffered from some erratic scheduling this spring: the challenge facing a procedural like Elementary is that while it might be easy to jump back in, it’s also easy to forget about it when it’s gone, and there’s always a concern of “out of sight, out of mind” with a show in its first season.

However, “Dead Man’s Switch” is more interested in how this relates to Sherlock’s ongoing battle with sobriety, which really provides the series with its central premise. Although Watson may have graduated to his investigative assistant rather than his sober companion, their friendship is still built on that initial relationship. And yet the show doesn’t always necessarily dwell on Sherlock’s addiction as though it is his single defining characteristic, just as comfortable exploring a range of neuroses and quirks that distinguish the character.

Although “Dead Man’s Switch” brings back Sherlock’s sponsor Alfredo and uses the one-year anniversary to force his addiction to the surface, one never gets the sense that it hasn’t been a part of every previous episode. What Sherlock suffers from in this episode is not a crisis of sobriety but rather a crisis of conscience, one that he has been suffering from throughout the series’ run. Jonny Lee Miller gets to play a rare scene of outright vulnerability from Sherlock, vulnerability that is palpable precisely because it was his and his alone: no one but him knew that he had broken out of rehab to get high during his first days there, and that what others were celebrating as his one-year anniversary was really a day too early.

In a previous scene, Alfredo had said to Sherlock that this anniversary wasn’t about him, and that his refusal of the chip robs the people around him—other addicts at meetings—of a sense of hope. However, what Alfredo understood as a selfish act was actually to Sherlock a selfless one, as keeping his brief, distant relapse to himself was only harming his own state of mind. He didn’t want to disappoint someone like Alfredo, but he specifically didn’t want to disappoint Joan. Earlier in the episode, Sherlock had avoided the subject with Joan because he claimed that their relationship had evolved, and that she was no longer his sober companion and thus should not feel obligated. But Sherlock’s disclosure acknowledges—as Joan had already surmised—that just because she is no longer his sober companion doesn’t mean that they still don’t share a meaningful connection on this subject.

As Sherlock notes, his hesitation to tell Alfredo was in part a result of believing he should tell Joan first, even if telling Joan was a immeasurably hard thing for him to do. It’s in many ways a parallel to Sherlock’s scene in the police station after witnessing a blackmailer being murdered: trapped between a desire to report the crime and a desire to protect the blackmailer’s victims from a potential failsafe—hence the episode’s title—he chooses to confide in Gregson because he believes that he is someone he can trust. Similarly, he chooses to tell Joan about his relapse because he knows she is the first person he should talk to, someone who will understand the complicated response he has to the event and who will help him put it into perspective. While Sherlock’s independent streak often results in a lone wolf style of investigation, there are nonetheless moments when Sherlock needs someone else, and those are often the moments when Elementary is at its most effective.


“Dead Man’s Switch” ostensibly tells the story of a complicated blackmail scheme in which a blackmailer is murdered by one of his victims who became his accomplice who then tried to become a blackmailer himself, with a few other red herring accomplices thrown in for good measure. But it’s really about the fact that it’s Alfredo who brings the initial client—his own sponsor—to Sherlock, and that Sherlock is forced to confront time as a marker of progress. The idea of a failsafe places a clock on the investigation, suggesting that they needed to discover the identity of this accomplice before the blackmailer’s death became public (at which point the failsafe would allegedly release the tapes of young women being raped which was what brought the situation to Sherlock’s attention). And yet the countdown to what I expected to be the end of the episode, a race against time to discover the failsafe’s identity, ends halfway through; the investigation becomes more complicated, the murderer turns out to also be the new blackmailer, and what had been established as the temporal code for the episode became a more traditional investigation.

And yet the episode was still counting down to something. It was counting down to the moment when the clock turned to midnight and it was officially Sherlock’s one-year sober anniversary. While not an episode that I would label as being intensely serialized, without ties to the Moriarity mythology or Irene Adler or any other larger case, this nonetheless felt like an episode where Sherlock’s complexity as a character was the real takeaway here. With a few meaty scenes between Sherlock, Joan, and Alfredo, Elementary acknowledges that on some level the blackmail investigation was just a way into Sherlock’s psyche during what is a monumental point in his recovery. It is a reminder that even when an episode isn’t about his addiction, and even when Joan is no longer his sober companion, and even when Alfredo doesn’t pop up in every episode, those things are always there, a part of who he is and a part of what Elementary has become.


This doesn’t necessarily distinguish Elementary from other shows in the same vein: it’s similar to House’s leg injury, for example, in that it is always present and occasionally elevated but never entirely gone. However, the one benefit Elementary has is that Sherlock is always capable of relapsing should something go wrong. The episode is so kind as to point this out at episode’s end, when Joan’s gift gives Robert Frost the last words of the episode (from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”):

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Although Elementary will be airing new episodes until its season concludes on May 16th, the end of “Dead Man’s Safe” is a suggestion that there is a story in Sherlock that we as an audience could be involved in for some time beyond that. And unlike a personal crutch like The Mentalist’s Red John, Sherlock’s story isn’t something the show would have to unnaturally string along to avoid providing a sense of closure and “fixing” the broken character at its center. Rather, as an addict, Sherlock will always struggle with sobriety in a way that defines him but does not confine him or the show around him, a strong statement for the character that elevates an otherwise “procedural” episode.


Stray observations:

  • My one major complaint about the episode is the way it loses focus of the blackmail victims: I was glad Eva was given a few lines, and appreciated the cello connection to tie into the show’s music, but having no resolution on her story was a consequence of shifting focus to Sherlock’s disclosure late in the episode.
  • This was a great week for the production design team: both the blackmailer and failsafe’s apartments were superbly squalid, and the water stain on the roof of the prison ceiling completely and wholly transfixed me. It makes me wonder if the ceiling stain pushed them to shoot from such a low angle, or if the desire to shoot from the low angle inspired the ceiling stain. Either way, definitely noticed the production design this week more than others.
  • Speaking of design, I’d love to see a behind-the-scene feature on the creation of that decomposing corpse, by which mean I’d like to listen to it and avert my eyes.
  • Appreciated Ato Essandoh stepping up into more of a prominent role with Alfredo here: the show is building a nice stable of recurring figures, and here we saw Essandoh asked to go toe-to-toe with Miller and it worked nicely.
  • I’m going to take Sherlock’s idea to create a makeshift sensory deprivation tank in the trunk of Alfredo’s car as a Fringe reference.
  • In an episode with a storyline about a character who files nuisance lawsuits under pseudonyms, Charles Augustus Milverton still sounds like the fakest name of the bunch.