We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
Yes yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.—Waiting For Godot
Allistair was back this episode. You might remember him; he appeared briefly in a season one episode in which he did Sherlock a favor by asking Joan a bunch of off-color questions, then later spoke with Joan about what would become Irene’s first mention in the show. (If you didn’t remember, the previouslies reminded you.) He’s never actually been in a scene or exchanged any lines with Sherlock. Yet this week he dies, and Sherlock spends the episode in mourning. And it feels like cheating.
Don’t get me wrong. Jonny Lee Miller has created a Sherlock Holmes that ranks among the best, and this week he offers fantastic mourning in a very tight arc: the initial condescending distance, the forced pragmatism, the belief he can set things right by finding out the What Really Happened of it all, the spiral into acting out, and eventually the acceptance of responsibility and the first steps toward healing. It’s his addiction in a nutshell, mapped over grief. There are echoes of his fixated distraction when staring at heroin at a crime scene, of his determination to find out what happened to Irene, of his own worst fears coming to life as with The Deductionist. And it’s great, it’s really great. But.
Last week, Myles noted the small continuity details that the show regularly includes: Clyde, outfit selection, poor Joan being constantly deprived of the decent nap that is clearly all she wants in this life. However, he also pointed out two related things: firstly, that fan reaction and social media made these the most popular (and the easiest) callbacks to include, and secondly, that sometimes the show shoehorns backstory all at once when it remembers it needs us to care, which seems a shame given the potential many of these characters and backstories carry. It seems strange how rarely we see some of the recurring cast. Ms. Hudson (though rumor has it she’ll return this season) hasn’t come back since her first appearance, which means an awful lot of murder investigations that never overlap with Tuesday; Alfredo’s appeared only once this season; and Allistair, who was presented as an extremely close friend of Sherlock’s, hasn’t been seen since the sixth episode of the show. “No Lack Of Void” is its 44th.
It would be relatively understandable to see characters so rarely in a more limited series, or if the show was so committed to its lead pair (as during most of season one) that their dynamic was the primary fixation of the show. But Elementary has 24 episodes a year to play with, and the recurring cast is still pretty thin on the ground. Even the supporting cast gets short shrift these days; after doing great work in his own feature episode, Aidan Quinn has receded into someone who’s only kept out of Grumpy But Supportive Captain Central Casting by Quinn’s sheer force of will. (His delivery on, “But what I would really welcome,” which somehow manages to emphasize every word but not in a way that can be indicated by italicizing it all here, is priceless.)
And this isn’t just a case of a character showing up after a long absence. “No Lack Of Void” asks us to understand a depth of mourning that makes Sherlock hallucinate the departed—the first such stylistic leap the show’s employed. We’ve been told they’re close, and this episode specifically elaborates that their shared experience has brought them through some terrible events and at great risk. Had we known him better, Allistair would have been a terrible loss, and Sherlock conjuring him to provide some level of connection, or control, could be read as an ex-addict trying to process grief without chemical additives. Given the circumstances, it just seems like kind of a big ask.
Luckily, Watson fares relatively well this week. Last week’s backstory was a bit clunky but gave her an episode all to herself, and this one keeps her visibility high by handing her the meat of the procedural duties, which she ably discharges with some bonus sly physicality (her casual felonizing via the postal service was great). But the actual case, as per usual with Elementary, hardly matters. Besides the metaphorical possibilities in solving a crime about an insidious poison and untrustworthy brothers, either of which might foreshadow events later in the season, this crime plot is second-tier Law & Order featuring a dairy farm and the ol’ most-famous-guest-star recipe—hi, Garret Dillahunt!
Her best moments, as usual, are smaller. Lucy Liu’s work is often underrated, but she’s outstanding whenever she gets an inch of ground, and together she and Miller are able to make the most of every bit of character continuity they’re given. Her scene with Sherlock in which he reveals that Allistair was an addict—framed and lit markedly like the proposal in season one’s “Details,” also directed by Sanaa Hamri —is carried as much by Liu’s subtle reactions as by Miller’s increasingly shaken delivery. The moment when the hyperverbal Sherlock admits, “And in time I would have discussed this with you, every bit of it, I just need to try and…” and trails off, unable to sum up the task ahead of him with anything but a gesture, is gorgeous, but the moment becomes truly heartbreaking when we see Joan’s reaction: the realization that they’ve reached a place in their relationship where she could believe him, but that he’s still self-destructive just often enough that she can’t be sure.
Of course, Joan rarely gets the chance to display such emotional depth on her own behalf as often as she does on Sherlock’s. When she finally lays some home truths out for him—Allistair was an addict, so is Sherlock, it’s one day at a time for the rest of his life and that’s that—it’s a castigation sharply delivered, and Sherlock handles it gracefully: “I took the passing of a dear friend and twisted it into an indulgence in narcissism… My tantrum upset you, and I apologize… I assure you, I’m no closer to using than I was yesterday, or the day before that, or the day before that. If I was, I would tell you.” (Cut to Joan, wearing that same look of wary hope.) And certainly the scene’s written with Joan in the right, and it’s beautiful characterization for Sherlock, but those ellipses separate a monologue with pauses, not a dialogue, and that’s getting to be a pattern. (Her most dramatic beat for most of this season was sleeping with Mycroft, so out of character that even the episode didn’t pretend to understand how it could have happened. Last week Joan got a real plot all her own, and her being in the midst of an emotional crisis and Sherlock supporting her was a level of focus on her that we haven’t seen since “Solve For X”. Why are they so far apart?)
I know that I was also hard on the show’s treatment of Joan the last time I was here, and this episode only reminded me why it’s so disappointing when Joan doesn’t get the narrative weight she deserves: So much of what makes Sherlock and Joan so resonant this episode is how it calls back to these first-season dynamics, giving them some emotional friction to work through and underscoring how far they’ve come, and how far they have to go. (It’s a long way; I love the beats of doubt that still linger.) But part of why it’s so resonant is that those callbacks belong to a season in which Joan’s journey was equal to Sherlock’s. Both writers for this episode have given Joan some of her best moments of the current year: Liz Friedman in “Tremors,” in which Joan confronts what it means to work with a man who’s never going to take the law as seriously as he takes his work, and Jeffrey Paul King in—speak of the devil—“Solve For X.” Both episodes held suggestions of Joan positioned for her own arcs, finding a parallel to Sherlock’s journey out from under the specter of Irene and Moriarty. Instead, this week, Joan remains on the verge where she started, and Sherlock gets an Emmy reel’s worth of quietly devastating grief for a man we hardly knew. No lack of void, all around.
- Thanks to Myles for letting me step in on another episode; this show has such great leads and is always so interesting to deconstruct, it’s always a fascinating hour to write about.
- Anyone want to weigh in on Jonny Lee Miller’s Derry accent?
- Anyone want to weigh in on whether Derry was a monstrous pun, given the procedural plot?
- The ongoing product placement of the crime-solving tablet computer item cracks me up every time.
- I would think that Joan’s the last person who would need to be reminded what gladhanding was, given that we’ve seen her use it to lift watches herself.
- Welcome back and farewell to Roger Rees, who did some great work this week; the last scene at the cemetery was a beautiful capstone that really made me wish we’d gotten more time with him before he was just a hallucination.