Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Elementary knows that for Sherlock, hell is other detectives

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Okay, so, you’ve already made one miscalculation—how is the rest of your math going?”

One of Elementary‘s earliest selling points was that this Sherlock was an antidote to the Smartest Guy In The Room Syndrome that so many Sherlocks carry with them unexamined (and so many other TV know-it-alls have borrowed). That doesn’t mean that Sherlock can’t be brusque or arrogant or selfish; he’s frequently all those things, sometimes simultaneously. It means that Elementary, at its best, forces Sherlock to confront the difference between a knee-jerk reaction and a conscious choice.


In general, the show isn’t currently at its best; the spark and depth of earlier seasons has settled into a comfortable but largely uninspiring routine. Luckily, we still get moments that give us a glimpse of our consulting detectives as people, warts and all. “High Heat” is mostly a filler episode—and is, honestly, kind of an odd step back from the building plot after such an intense cliffhanger in the previous episode—but it asks Sherlock to look at himself and make some choices that hit close to home.

Sometimes quite literally, as it turns out; Sherlock’s still got the bruises left over from the beating he received at Shinwell’s hands, and Jonny Lee Miller gives him a restless energy that suggests Sherlock’s determined to exert control anywhere he can as if it can make up for the thing that’s currently out of his hands. It’s no wonder his unwitting membership in NYOOPI, “the lowest form of fake credentialism,” hits him so hard: both a blow to his self-imposed exceptionalism (not wanting to be a part of any club that would have him), and that Joan’s acted for the partnership without consulting him. The fact that it’s something so far in the past and he’s only now learning about it seems to only make the sting sharper—though that might just be that it’s an allusion to a time he was dismissive of the partnership, coming at a moment he’s trying everything possible not to admit to another failure.


It’s clear that Sherlock’s fixation on the embarrassment of NYOOPI—made up of lesser detectives, bad detectives, detectives who might miss details that one’s erstwhile side project is beginning to seriously resent your interference—is just the revelation that wandered in front of him while he was desperate for a coping mechanism. He’s lost any sense of control over Shinwell, and he’s afraid he’s made a grievous error that betrays his code of honor with the police. NYOOPI’s the world’s most serendipitous inside job. An actual reason to punch down; his lucky day.

Joan tells him he doesn’t want to belong because he’s a snob, and while this is a very weird position for her to take (more later), it doesn’t help that Sherlock’s explanation about needing private-eye qualification tests is peppered with turns of phrase like “to keep the riffraff out.” However, that’s not really what this is about, for either of them. For one thing, Joan’s defensiveness about NYOOPI is coming from the same place as her burying herself in work: she feels responsible for Shinwell. Presumably, anyway. (I understand why we didn’t see that conversation in real time, but there’s so much left unsaid in the fallout that I wish there’d at least been a sense of whether they’d been keeping their distance by mutual decision, or whether that’s the aftermath of a blowout fight; director Michael Hekmat keeps them moving at a notable distance, two repelling magnets, and that’s interesting but not as illuminating as I’d like.)

This episode also suggests that at least some of that tension between them is that Sherlock’s jumped tracks entirely and is opting to occupy himself with unrelated casual sex and self-defense practice while Joan is, essentially, trying to overwrite the past in the present; she can’t help Shinwell if he doesn’t want to be helped, but dammit, she can help all those nameless people with their third-tier cases! (Sherlock’s unwilling to lower himself to such run-of-the-mill private eye stuff, of course, until he has the chance to solve a murder that offers him room to pass judgment.) It’s interesting, in a season that’s largely taken their partnership as a given, to watch them pulling apart a little in a crisis—Sherlock to distance himself, Joan to balance the moral scales.

But, as this show can do well, Sherlock’s worst impulses run aground on the world. He’s not the only person who’s upset with a problem organization and hoping to effect change from within, and though he’s not ready to draw any parallels between himself and Shinwell at the moment, Garmendia’s available for a gentler lesson. When Garmendia pleads with Sherlock not to give up on NYOOPI, because if the members scatter, “I won’t know if I could have made them better,” it’s a palpable hit. Sherlock may resent being lumped in with those lesser private eyes (his face at Garmendia’s request to chat “detective to detective” is so dismayed I was waiting for that entire coconut to collapse in his grip), but it’s a necessary reminder that, however resentfully he might consider them, he’s still part of wider communities.


Elementary‘s Sherlock is defined in part by the ways in which he’s not a man who acts alone. This iteration exists in parallel with others, defined in part by the times and ways he accepts or rejects his obligations: to Joan, to Kitty, his family, to the NYPD, to fellow addicts. Earlier this season, we’ve gotten tension from Sherlock rejecting association with some of those groups. This episode gets something of a happy ending because his compulsion dovetails nicely with his sense of obligation—new qualifying exams for everyone! But there’s an undertone of something serious here. Sherlock knows this is a dangerous profession; all it takes is one miscalculation. If he can’t control anything else, he’ll control this as much as he can.

A new set of standards for private detectives isn’t on the same scale as the globe-spanning cases Sherlock and Joan regularly investigate; it’s not even on the same scale as their current conundrum with Shinwell. But it’s something he fixed, and for now, that’s all Sherlock needs. If this episode gives Sherlock and Joan any closure (and honestly I’m not sure it does), it’s that they both seem to recognize the shallowness of this victory; they accept that sometimes you do something just to prove you can. If it has benefits for other people, it’s a moral victory you grow into after the fact. In the wake of feeling like Shinwell betrayed him, Sherlock’s just made himself obliquely responsible for another group of people. It’s a move that gives his guilt away. He’s generally willing to stand alone if he’s right; if he thinks he’s wrong, that’s harder. And in an episode that has Shinwell’s shadow cast across it, I wonder how this hint of guilt will translate when Sherlock and Joan have to face Shinwell again.


Stray observations

  • This episode had a streak of dismissive comments and eyebrow-raising beats around disability, from “A legally blind private eye. No comment” to the generational genetic condition acting as both the big reveal in Kirby’s case and the motive for murder. I don’t know if centering this angle would have given it any depth or context that might help; I just know that as is, it seems disrespectful.
  • While we’re at it, it’s also odd that a white guy opening fire on a group of new citizens as they clutch at Constitutions ends up conveniently absent any political motive.
  • Chernobyl may have been one of the strangest red herrings this show has ever seen.
  • “Well, the night is still young.” Honestly, maybe not the best sexual invite to offer a badly-bruised man who’s dramatically reassessing his life in the bathroom mirror. Read a room, Otherwise Perfectly Nice Lady.
  • Those coroners were Golden Age Law & Order cold-open corpse-discoverers.
  • Great delivery: Jonny Lee Miller’s carefully contained, “Here, have a nightmare.”
  • Better delivery: The symphony of Aidan Quinn on “burnt alive.”
  • So Joan Watson, former surgeon, joined a professional organization without having any questions or concerns about its vetting process and professional standards, and then added Sherlock’s name to it without telling him, as a “favor” after he returned from self-exile? That’s both extremely out of character for her, and almost brutally petty.
  • Not as good as mocking up a park-bench ad, though, which might be Sherlock’s personal-best stratosphere of petty. Can only be topped if Joan leaves that bench in her office indefinitely.
  • Somewhere between petty and extremely telling character beat: Sherlock setting up Joan’s room as the crime scene and viciously murdering several coconuts in it—and then pretending he didn’t know she’d mind. I’m just glad Joan didn’t take the bait to pretend everything was all right; there’s a line, Sherlock.
  • Spivey—a potential tip of the hat to Murder By Decree? (That isn’t the Sherlock Holmes movie in which a mom finally snaps at being asked to do laundry for two grown-ass men and murders him, but it could be.)
  • “But like I said, it was the worst pitch of your life.” And with this, Joan Watson completes her transformation into The Hardest-Boiled Private Eye In The Entire World.