They are both lying, and in a conspiracy. So now we have the clear problem. Why are they lying, and what is the truth which they are trying so hard to conceal? Let us try, Watson, you and I, if we can get behind the lie and reconstruct the truth.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley Of Fear
Since its earliest days, there’s a lot of talk about Elementary as an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. Some of the objections were fundamental (no lady Watson, full stop). Some were particulars (Sherlock’s far too interested in sex). There was a perception Elementary would be incapable of being a worthy adaptation of the canon.
At its best, Elementary quietly lays those fears to rest, drawing on thematic and tonal threads from the original canon—either stories or apocryphal perception—to weave the weight of what’s come before into something entirely new. This doesn’t always apply, and honestly, that can be for the best. A murderous car doesn’t need a 19th-century equivalent. Spending too long on note-for-note adaptation means you’d end up looking to canon more often than is probably healthy for either the canon or the show. (When Sherlock opts not to tell Joan about her stepfather’s book, are we meant to look to “A Case of Identity,” in which Holmes decides not to tell a woman she’s been tricked into marrying her own stepfather? God, I hope not. A wise adaptation leaves enough room to make its own mistakes without just falling into the ones the canon left behind.)
So, when I say that “Murder Ex Machina” reminded me of The Valley Of Fear, I don’t have to mean the plot structure. In fact, if we’re being honest, the plot structure of this episode was overstuffed in ways that were sometimes interesting but ended up so busy that you can just taste network reps sidling into the writers’ room and adding explanations to make sure nobody gets left behind. (See also: “The car looks gray under sodium light and blue under LED,” “You used logic,” and Sherlock anvil-splaining “the sky is green.”) It’s an episode in which a man arranges for a smart car to kill his hired assassins, knows his company is under scrutiny by law enforcement, and continues to get in his own smart car without any safeguards on his computer, while still being shocked—just shocked—that his own ploy gets used against him.
However, The Valley of Fear is a Holmes story in which he handily solves a crime that doesn’t actually offer any solution; with trans-Atlantic threats, high-ranking shadowy villains pulling strings behind the scenes, new technologies against very traditional spaces, and conspiracies and under-the-table dealing left and right, it’s above Holmes’ pay grade in too many ways for him to really matter. And while “Murder Ex Machina” definitely squeezes a pound of plot into a six-ounce jar, it was interesting to see the forces at play—and just how little solving the case would resolve any of the problems around it. This episode is much less concerned with murder than with Russian “oligarchs” who almost instantly get aligned with Stateside counterparts, Ukrainian assassins who don’t mind implicating their country in a possible revenge kill, the port-rehabilitation plans that forces unions to scramble to make side deals with the investors in charge, the back-room diplomacy in which two people distanced from a conflict hash out the impact of that conflict on two nations, and the arms dealers who profit from nearly any outcome.
This show never stops poking the bruise of white-collar crime, but it’s rarely gone this deeply into just how interconnected are the systems Sherlock so abhors. Sherlock and Watson, who get obsessed with the particulars, are powerless in the face of the big picture. (Only the “Machine Ex Machina” of the title lets Sherlock claim the collar at all, given that the Feds take over the case at the end of the second act.) Though there’s plenty of it throughout—this episode is teeming with people who have to be forthcoming right out of the gate because there’s no time for them to dissemble if we’re going to tie up all the conspiracies in an hour—the strip club scene might actually be the most direct distillation of the episode’s themes. Sherlock’s recall and knowledge of international relations point him to exactly the right person, Olga tells him exactly what he needs to know…and Sherlock can’t affect any of the potential outcomes whatsoever. It’s the luckiest thing in the world that the murderer was someone whom everyone could shrug off with relative ease to continue business as usual.
It’s also fascinating that in an episode where everyone is clearly milling around in a gray area of vaguely-overlapping motives, Sherlock delivers a hard line that I’m not sure we’ve ever heard from him before: “No murder should go unsolved and no murderer should walk free. To think otherwise is to descend into a pit of moral relativism.”
The first half of this is absolutely Sherlock; it’s what’s driven him for a long time. The second half seems…surprising for someone who used much the same tone when he told Watson “Welcome to the grays” in season two. (It’s some hilariously big talk for someone who answers a question about the ethics of his methods in this case with, “Define legal.”) For someone who’s been characterized in the past with bursts of sympathy for desperate people who are disfranchised by the very system this episode explores, this is a hell of a thesis statement. Would he have stone-facedly imprisoned Elissia Bloom and Maribel Fonseca, who went after their abusive coyote in “The Past Is Parent”? Would he have brought Kitty to justice if she’d killed Gruner? (He explicitly told her “I won’t stop you,” and likely no one at the time faulted him for the sentiment, but Sherlock’s in Deep Hypocrite territory with this one, and the show has to know it.)
We have to imagine you don’t drop something like that unless you intend it to go somewhere. Is this episode—and this declaration—setting Sherlock up for the fall he avoided at the start of the season? Will the show ask this question of him with a case that makes him confront this ideal? And now that Joan’s sussed out the danger to Morland’s life, is the show setting him up to force an answer about his own father?
“You heard me warn this man at Birlstone Manor House that the coming danger was greater than the past. Was I right?”
- There were a few examples of moments whose meanings are vastly different depending on how much faith you have in the show’s good intentions. The first is Sherlock’s inquiry into Joan’s sex life. By itself, in the context of this episode only, it was set in parallel with Sherlock’s equally solicitous approach to Mittens in the closing minutes—a wish to connect on a topic where Sherlock’s not sure a connection is possible, to ask a favor of someone he knows he’s not really entitled to ask that favor from. As part of the show’s larger pattern, though, it’s yet another one-sided press a topic Joan has repeatedly tried to make off-limits, which makes it all a bit less charitable. This happens so often that it’s clear the show thinks it’s an ingrained part of their dynamic at this point, except that rather than have it be the one battlefield in their currently-stable marriage of the minds, it’s just Joan enduring this invasion of privacy over and over without any of it ever going anywhere. She clearly minds this, and the boundaries between them have been fodder for a lot of emotional conflict before; I keep expecting them to either pay it off or drop it, both of which are starting to feel like long shots.
- Another such moment is quicker and more ambiguous—and speaks to the rapport between Miller and Liu that so often works to sell moments that go by too fast to matter in the script. When Joan mentions dockworkers, she and Sherlock exchange a few pointed looks. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the script, aside from the fact that Joan remembers a dockworker from the strip club. But the patient who died on Joan’s table was a dockworker. Even if this were a show inclined to let Joan have room for real feelings about anything, this isn’t the kind of episode with that kind of spare time. But Liu and Miller share those two brief looks, for a moment of weight beyond what the scene needs on its surface; the show might not remember, but it feels like maybe they do.
- What Are You Doing of the week: Bringing Mycroft back into the narrative by reminding everyone of the worst retcon this show ever pulled in the most invasive way possible (Sherlock chastising Joan about the possibility she might “sample the carnal wares” of his dad), and having someone interrupt them before Joan can reply. We just talked about this, Elementary. Come on.
- I do appreciate Joan’s big solve, and recognize she had to have alone time with Morland in order to jump-start that process. However, it was kind of all downhill from their first exchange, with Joan’s aggressively blank, slightly murderous politeness: “Good evening.” “Sherlock’s not here.”
- It’s been announced Betty Gilpin will recur as Fiona, which I am mildly interested to see play out. I hope, if they end up at the cat cafe again, she’s with a cat that likes being part of TV filming more than the cat she had this episode. (She handled that cat admirably, but that cat was Not Happy.)
- Best line delivery of the week is Mason, summing up whether Mittens the hacker is capable of murder: “She likes cats, so, sure.”
- Line that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: “As much as I love strip clubs, I have a dinner to get ready for.”
- Joan costume note: Her blouse/vest/ponytail combo over dinner with Morland echoes her very first, equally stilted meal with her mother, with an overlaid echo of the black-and-white high-neck jacket she wore when she came to Morland’s office and laid down the law.
- And for old times’ sake: Night, Clyde. See you in the spring.