“I am my mother’s son.”
Sherlock’s life is awash in missing women. Irene; her disappearance left him with a mystery that drove him to distraction, only for her to reemerge as Moriarty, a consummate schemer out to conquer him and make him question his life as a detective. Joan; her kidnapping has been strangely under-addressed, but led to some of Sherlock’s most emotionally intense moments of the second season as he was faced with losing his closest loved one. And his mother May, who until this episode has been mostly notable in her absence—the mother whose disappearance allowed for the filial damage that left the Holmes men differing manifestations of smoldering wreckage.
“Who Is That Masked Man?” begins with a missing woman (of sorts), and personal involvement pops up again and again. Sherlock namechecks his own great love. Sherlock suggests one of the victims called 911 because the murderer was “someone he personally cared for”; Soleil still has some connection to Morland; Eklund’s murdering in an attempt to provide for his family after he was gone. Hell, Xi Hai Ching went to the hospital mid-rendezvous to support his mistress’s nephew.
The episode’s real villain was heartless to those he was obligated to care for and protect…also, there was that nursing home manager. Yeah, Morland did not acquit himself very well by telling Sherlock his mother was an addict as veiled retaliation.
Episodes like this really bring home how important Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are to the show; even an infodump can feel like a party, and their psychic partner powers are going strong this time around. In scenes like the nursing home lobby, their rapport gives life to what otherwise would be setup; it’s so much better when they have something to chew on, and Sherlock talking about his mother was Miller at his best—an understated, suffering Sherlock. Bonus: Liu manages to make her interjections sound not like she’s just clarifying for the audience, but that Joan is giving permission for Sherlock to be honest about his feelings.
However, the case largely highlighted how much more I wanted of this seemingly crucial emotional arc. In particular, I wish that there had been a beat or two of Sherlock processing this new information about his mother outside of how it reflected on his father—not least because Sherlock is right that Morland’s motive in sharing it must have been at least partially revenge, and that his actions toward May were at best complicated and at worst callous.
(Sidebar. One of the things that makes beats like this so unsatisfying in ways that sound like nitpicks but are just increasingly odd lapses of continuity: a lack of personal conflict in a way that isn’t explosive and game-changing. Imagine the conversation we could have seen between Sherlock and Joan as he tries to hash out how Morland could possibly have given up on his mother, while Joan argues the needs and boundaries of someone who herself has had to walk away from a partner who’s an addict. Their perspectives would have led to some fascinating discussion. If the show is missing anything, it’s that sense of breathing room for both its leads to just be characters together. This show has been such a slow-burn portrait of addiction; just let Sherlock and Joan unpack this for forty minutes. Literally no one is here for the cases.)
That missing beat ends up leaving us with more questions than revelations. Sherlock is right, on the surface, that this is about Morland demonstrating his failings; that Sherlock knowing this about his mother is functionally null because it makes him no less an addict and makes his mother no less dead. But for someone who clearly feels that his relationship with his mother was unfinished—and someone who relapsed last season and is currently trying to handle sobriety again—is there no sense of connection to his mother over such a significant thing? Is it comforting, or does it multiply his grief? Does it make him feel anything except angry at his father? Miller does amazing work in the scene, of course, but the focus at the end of the day is still on Morland, and not on this thing that resonates so much, and even in its revelation means so much. Is this all just a hint that the secret point of this season to make us sympathize with whoever tried to kill Morland? (Don’t worry, it’s working, I’m just asking.)
- Joan’s “What’s your excuse for killing people?” barb after she half-defends Eklund for acting from financial concern for his family: another step in that race to the bottom, or just a reminder that Joan sees shades of gray in places where Sherlock insists he sees only black and white?
- A thing I’d like to address, with the giant caveat that I lack the necessary perspective to do more than take note: I appreciate that a Triad story did not require disproportionate emotional labor from Joan based on her heritage. (There could have been no worse opener to that crime scene than both men looking at Joan expectantly; the show neatly avoided this.) But while they clearly wanted to sidestep stereotypes, so that the nursing-home manager was the big bad rather than Triad members, I’m not sure how I feel about some of the smaller beats—mostly because they highlight the show’s ongoing Joan Problem. This feels like a case in which her approach would be informed by her experiences, but since the show has largely sidelined Joan’s family, there’s a sense of so much missing here. Does Joan think about nursing homes as a general evil, or as one her ill mother might someday need? Has her stepfather’s public chronicle of her sexy Asian-ness made her sensitive to any assumptions of cultural affinity here, which is why she declined to make any non-English inquiries? This episode spent a whole B-plot on Sherlock learning something about his mother; for Joan, her family history is notable for its absence.
- Despite the tantalizing hints that Someone Is Behind All This, I hope it’s not May-who-escaped-her-fiery-death-and-is-plotting-revenge. Obviously this is a time-honored trope, but this show has mysteriously fridged one Sherlock loved one who turned out to be a criminal mastermind. That worked very well. We do not need another.
- Soleil’s mother was assassinated and she’s opening her home to strangers? Man, they must raise them to be trusting in Canada. (It takes a lot of the fun out of Joan’s attempt at subterfuge to realize that they’re robbing a seemingly-nice woman of her memories of her mother, doesn’t it? Does the show count this as a beat in his downward spiral? Normally we only know these things are signposts if Joan doesn’t approve, and that wasn’t here, but I…have questions.)
- Line that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: Since I’m always a sucker for the phrase that caps it, it was inevitably going to be: “I’m pretty sure that when we look at all the recent deaths at Willowbrook, we’re going to find a pattern of charitable giving and dirt naps.”
- Best line delivery: Elizabeth Sung. “That’s what I said!”
- Accidental laugh-out-loud: “Did you give me this just to be horrible, or…”
- Regarding John Noble’s entrance into the brownstone: I’m iffy about Morland’s presence this season, but when you hire John Noble, you know he’ll make walking into a room and turning around into an event.
- Show-canon callback: Sherlock back on the ground, sniffing stuff.
- Story-canon callback: “There’s no such thing as a master of disguise. If there was, I’d be one myself.”
- First her stepfather, then Soleil/Morland. How many more references to Joan as a “beautiful Asian woman” does this show think it needs before that starts to count as characterization for her?
- Can we get a whole show about Bai May-Lung? Awesome, thanks.