Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elementary: “Lesser Evils”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “Lesser Evils”

“Lesser Evils” ends with Sherlock catching his man, or at least a man. The chief of surgery wasn’t actually guilty of the crime the episode focused on, as Dr. Baldwin wasn’t the “Angel of Death” stalking the hospital. Instead, he used the Angel’s existence to remove evidence of his surgical error, committing the truly evil act trying to cover up his mistake. Whereas the angel was just trying to help people he knew were in pain, channeling Dr. Kevorkian, Baldwin was actively covering his own ass and taking the life of a woman who could have gone on to live for decades longer after recovery.

Elementary buries the lede within this storyline such that a larger crime of benevolence—albeit illegal benevolence—is revealed to be concealing a more insidious crime, a fairly typical case of procedural misdirection. However, in thinking through procedural logic, it’s strange to see an episodic story last only forty-five minutes, ending in a matter-of-fact reveal that it was the Ukrainian janitor—and former doctor—who was the Angel. Rather than building an episode around the killer, the episode becomes an exercise in burning time for forty-five minutes, at least as far as the central mystery is concerned.

This has been clear in previous episodes as well, wherein “mystery” in its purest form has been far from Elementary’s focus. However, this seemed particularly egregious in this episode for two key reasons. While I stand by my personal sense that Molly Price’s role last week immediately identified her as the killer, I should have saved my rant about casting spoilers for this week. The second David Costible—most recognizable to A.V. Club readers from his role as Gale on Breaking Bad—showed up on screen the entire crime was clear. However, in addition, we also learn about the other aspects of the crime early on. Sherlock notes that he doesn’t like to map out his entire theory, but he does it anyway, and then those who recognize Costible know everything: what happened, why it happened, and who did it. At that point, why do we have to wait forty-five minutes to gain a resolution, particularly when that resolution is actually a false one, replaced by a workaround wherein the other recognizable guest actor in the episode—David Harbour, who played 10pm anchor Elliot on The Newsroom—is revealed to be more involved than we initially suspected?

The episode’s B-story would argue that it offers us more of an opportunity to delve into “Joanie” Watson’s medical past, as the hospital setting gives her an excuse to run into an old medical friend Connie—played by Anika Noni Rose—and explore how her new skills of deduction fit together with the life she left behind. Early on, this storyline felt like it was moving with purpose: It involved a degree of exposition, revealing that Watson was only suspended for a brief period and chose to let her license lapse and move into her new field, but it also nicely shifted our understanding of her past life, and watching that play out through a diagnosis built on last week’s discussion of how her perspective is changing while spending time with Sherlock. I also liked that, while it was certainly also a convenient way to move through plot details quickly, Watson’s medical knowledge nonetheless offered a good way for her to be more directly involved in the deduction, with Sherlock’s deductive skills working in conjunction with her medical knowledge. There was also something satisfying about the fact that Watson was not only revealed to be correct, but this was revealed through her deception as opposed to her friend taking her advice (or as opposed to the girl dying during surgery, which was how Connie’s arrival read at first). Just as Sherlock operates outside of the system to more quickly reach conclusions, Watson finds a way to do the same and save a girl’s life.

But then the story becomes too caught up in the cliché, ending with Watson’s climactic deletion of her photos from her time as a medical resident. It reframes the story in more limited terms, reinforcing the sense that rather than seeing something dynamic we saw “The Episode Where Watson Confronts Her Medical Past.” One of the reasons procedurals can work is that these is an undercurrent that there are things that always stick with you: Although I never bought the relationship between Sara and Grissom on CSI, the idea of something that happened entirely off-screen spoke well to the way in which certain things continually bubble under the surface as the characters go through the motions of solving crimes. The final scene doesn’t completely undo the storyline, but it punctuates it with an unnecessary period where an ellipsis had already been established through a solid episodic character study. To drive the “bury the lede” discussion into the ground: If the “Angel of Death” storyline buries the lede, the end of Watson’s storyline uncovers its lede, puts it in a display case, and then forces us to stare at it for sixty seconds in case we weren’t following.

However, at least that particular reveal over determined the meaning of the preceding storyline as opposed to undercutting it. As much as watching these characters hang out will become a necessary model for Elementary as story ideas run low, the mystery still needs to be at least somewhat mysterious. Whether methodology or motive, there needs to be some piece of the puzzle we can guess at, and that is not threaded out successfully when “Lesser Evils” reaches its conclusion. Instead, it follows your basic collection of red herrings without any sense of real purpose, and never properly disconnects the storytelling rhythm from the killer’s identity so as to properly let the viewer ignore the machinations and let this be an episode about Sherlock and Watson’s knowledge and skill coming together. If this was intended as an episode without mystery, the structure of the episode needs to shift; if, however, it was intended to be mysterious, then something needs to be recalibrated in the writers’ room to get the procedural engine in better shape.


Stray observations:

  • It seems weird to see an episode about assisted suicide that never really has a debate about the ethics of it. While the janitor makes a case for himself, it’s largely treated as a confession rather than a justification, and for the show to ignore a debate of this nature—despite referring to it in its title—seems like a bit of a cheat.
  • Casting spoilers operate such that the smaller the role in theory, the greater casting becomes a red flag. Craig Bierko as an executive in last week’s episode makes sense given that’s a position of power; Molly Price as a secretary, or Costible as a janitor, creates greater dissonance and thus greater potential for them serving as the killer.
  • It was nice to see that Sherlock can still learn things from Watson, and that “Joanie” has the potential to become a running term of ridicule (and part of the show’s larger banter, which I’m enjoying).
  • Sherlock’s connection with the morgue employee brought us another beekeeping reference, which is the kind of subtle worldbuilding that could help the show weather weaker mysteries.
  • Another recognizable face that popped up as a red herring, which took me longer to place: Ben Rappaport, late of NBC’s beloved Outsourced.
  • Random note regarding viewing conditions: I was watching tonight’s episode in SD at a hotel, and it was fascinating to see characters walk off-screen while talking. It was novel in an age of high-definition. All of you with 4:3 CRTs have my sympathy.