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Elementary keeps it in the family

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Some episodes of Elementary are quietly devastating character studies that bring years of history to bear. Some episodes of Elementary will let you know whodunit in the title.


And honestly, that’s fine. I was vociferous about “Miss Taken” because there was so much to talk about—a ton of great character work and an excellent mystery on one side, and on the other the sort of disservice to Joan that seems to be an unfortunate side effect of trying to do some service to Joan. This episode stirred no such feelings, because it doesn’t really have to; it exists largely to let us spend a little time with Bell, and to remind us that legacy is the name of the game this season.

Despite its relative static, the procedural element was at least attempting to give us another case in which everyone involved had some weight. After establishing the three men in Ellen’s life who could have done her harm, the rest of the case is just pinball. (Does it seem like the sort of case that Bell and company could solve perfectly well without our consulting detectives? It does; even if we’re going to pretend cops don’t know how to parse recognition in someone’s voice—something I’ve come to accept is entirely a Holmes/Watson skill in this universe—things like the photograph on the desk and the pet-store chemicals in the suffocation bag are the kinds of clues that shouldn’t need Holmes and Watson for a solve.)


But given that the family legacy has come looking Sherlock—and even for Joan, so far as it goes—so definitively this season, it makes sense that we get an episode that touches (however briefly and strangely) on nature vs. nurture. It’s an oddly decisive battle between the two main suspects in this case; the son of Ellen’s father’s victim came clean and became genuinely connected to Ellen, while Ellen’s brother was so concerned with the bloodline that fear of it seemed like a good enough reason for murder. Nature for the…win?

And it’s interesting to see where the emphasis falls about the perpetrators on any given episode of this show. In theory, we’re looking at something deeply unsettling: a man whose childhood was ruined by his father, unblinkingly taking up what he’s internalized as the family legacy to punish his sister—something so intimate that Sherlock can’t stop looking at him when they finally get him in the box, palpably waiting for any sign of remorse. Though the episode’s obligatory twist beats kept this dynamic from moving to the fore in any interesting way, there’s the hint of something larger here. Sherlock has struggled deeply with hurts inflicted by his family, and is fairly violent about rejecting comparisons to his father. Will this season prove that his father’s faults are too ingrained for his son to shake—or, even worse for Sherlock, will he find out that it was actually admitting his father back into his life that was the beginning of some deeper fault line?

The other dark thing about this case touches on a more widespread phenomenon in crime TV. One of the casually darkest things this show has ever brought us is a throwaway line during the discussion of secret pregnancy as motive for murder: “Husbands have sent their wives down here for less.” It’s quietly chilling that the pregnancy turns out to be the motive, after all. And this is a remarkably visceral murder for Elementary—less because of the murder scene than because we relive Ellen’s final moments so many times. (Line of the week goes to, “Oh my God, No. Stop it. No! No!”, which had to hold the crucial clue without sounding, for the first dozen playbacks, that she was using her brother’s nickname.) The most satisfying part of the big reveal was that the episode had been perfectly aware of the disquiet the clip causes; the thing that snaps Nolan is listening to his sister’s final panic over and over.

Amid bouts of shrieking-victim voicemail, the relative comedy of Marcus studying for the exam feels both nicely light, and a little slight. It’s the usual dilemma of supporting characters on this show; as usual, the immense skill and charm of the actors sells it. (Jon Michael Hill sketches Bell with such deft strokes even when he only has a few lines of exposition—give him lines like, “I dunno man, dummy groping isn’t on the test,” and of course he’s going to nail them.) One could wish for more from Marcus (and Gregson, and Alfredo, and Ms. Hudson), but at this point it’s sometimes a matter of picking your battles. Is Marcus close to his mother? Is this at all motivated by his own ambition, or just a family obligation? Is Marcus’ mother getting any help from his brother Andre? Does his brother still exist? Who knows. The episode is content to spin out (and then neatly wrap up) something we know is going nowhere; Bell is clearly not leaving Major Crimes any time soon, so the idea that the sergeant’s exam actually looms in Bell’s immediate future never really enters our minds. Instead, we get to enjoy a little of his wry humor, as far as it goes, and the knowledge that Sherlock still cares.


And actually, given how hard “The Burden Of Blood” leans on the family legacy, Sherlock’s helpful selfishness toward Marcus might turn out to be the key element of this subplot when the chips are down; I wouldn’t be surprised to see something just like it again soon, from Sherlock’s flesh and blood, with some very different results.

Stray observations

  • I remain deeply unconvinced that Marcus would be so quick to accept the ethical runaround of this bounty.
  • I remain absolutely convinced that Joan is by now perfectly happy to orchestrate the ethical runaround of this bounty.
  • The C-plot—the brief did-they-didn’t-they of Joan and Marcus—got a lot of emphasis in the previews, and an edit that suggested they did. It’s an interesting choice for an episode that comes so close on the heels of the “Chapter 32” shipper meta-reference. Luckily, the show skirts any actual entanglement; if either of them get an ongoing personal subplot, separately or together, platonic or romantic, they deserve better than Default Dating Each Other. (Joan already had to handle that once, and it was a disaster; we do not need that again.)
  • Related: Joan’s reaction to Sherlock’s burst of protective/jealous outrage is exactly the door-slamming that hilariously invasive high dudgeon deserves: “The Captain requires our presence at a homicide in Queens—if you’re not too SPENT, that is!”
  • I like that the past season or so has subtly established that Gregson has a preference for Joan when he’s dealing with both of them. (Some of that, of course, is that they hash out a ton of exposition on the side while Sherlock’s discovering things, but I appreciate that Aidan Quinn always gives it just enough shape that you feel like he really would seek Joan out for stuff rather than constantly dealing with Sherlock, which—fair.)
  • There’s a particular cant of Jonny Lee Miller’s head that suggests Sherlock at his most quietly dangerous. I don’t think this episode necessitated such intensity, but it’s always nice to see that behind the bouts of hypersocial theatricality is the man who was willing to ice-pick a man in the gut, and it lends some really interesting weight to little beats like, “You’re lying. Do it again. Tell us where you were Monday night.”
  • It pairs wonderfully with Lucy Liu’s “Oh, I wouldn’t” face that’s somehow nothing but politely angry edges with increasing misanthropy behind it. (Joan’s turning that one into a real workhorse, and we’ve seen her getting increasingly steely, first with Holmes Sr. and then with the last few cases; it would be amazing if there was some kind of payoff for this later in the season. I know Sherlock has worried before that in practicing his methods she’ll become too much like him, and it would be amazing to see some of that struggle play out.)
  • Line delivery better than it has any right to be of the week goes to Lucy Liu, from behind a door: “Yeah, but I couldn’t find it, case closed!”
  • Sherlock’s best line in an episode that touched more than once on his malevolent whimsy: “Perhaps he thought a talking dog was commanding him to offer her spirit to the gods.”
  • Best line delivery of the week by an alive person: “But now that you do, it’s exciting.”