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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elementary reminds us its partnership has never not been vulnerable

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Last week’s 100th episode of Elementary had some of what you’d expect from such a milestone: we saw Sherlock revisiting some of his old cases, reminding us of the journey he and Joan have embarked on over the show’s five seasons, and Gregson’s speech acknowledging the unit doubles as a commemoration of the show’s longevity. As someone who spent three seasons writing about the show here at The A.V. Club, it was nice to see the show able to take a deserved victory lap.

However, it was particularly rewarding to see how interested the show was in exploring the ennui that comes with reaching this particular milestone. For as much as hitting 100 episodes is a marker of a show’s success, it also carries a weight: Sherlock and Joan have been helping the NYPD solve crimes for a long time, and with that comes baggage. The episode’s focus was less on celebration and more on reflection, pointing to the gulf between Joan and Sherlock’s perception of the work they do. Sherlock’s reluctance to accept credit for their work reminds us that at no point in Elementary’s run have the show’s writers ever sought to “resolve” the interpersonal challenges that come with this partnership. While the nature of a procedural means that these issues will ebb and flow, sometimes being pushed into the background for an episode or five, at the core of the show is an ever-evolving partnership between two complex characters with different worldviews.

The fifth season has foregrounded this from the beginning, opening by giving Joan a “mid-career crisis,” and we see that continuing to echo in “To Catch a Predator Predator.” Joan’s idea to give Shinwell a job training as a detective reinforces that his arrival in the story echoes that of Kitty Winter, and allows us to divide the show’s arc structures into two forms. In season two and season four, Mycroft and Morland each used Sherlock’s family as a way to introduce conflict, pulling baggage from their respective pasts. However, in season three and here in season five, the show makes Sherlock and Joan responsible for another individual, using their baggage—Kitty as a victim of sexual assault, Shinwell as an ex-con—as a way to generate multiple forms of conflict. The final scene of the episode showcases a very basic form of conflict, as we learn Shinwell’s disinterest in being a detective traces to his continued ties to criminal enterprise as his friend shows up to question him about Joan’s presence in his life. Throughout the episode, though, Joan’s interest in helping Shinwell creates an outlet for her career crisis, and a point of polite disagreement with Sherlock as to the path forward.

Their conflict is not major: whatever elements of last week’s tension may persist, they are not going to fundamentally blow up their partnership, given that the show is not in the business of abandoning its basic structure. But whereas Joan sees detective work as a solution to Shinwell’s struggles to be employed as an ex-con, Sherlock is adamant that this is not the path forward: he knows how to read people, and what it takes to be a detective, and he doesn’t see that in Shinwell. Neither does Joan, really, but she’s projecting herself onto Shinwell, perhaps seeing an opportunity to merge her new career with her old one in her quest for meaning (which he calls her on). In the process, though, she betrays a difference of opinion between her and Sherlock: whereas she frames their work as a “job” in suggesting hiring Shinwell, Sherlock asserts that is in fact a “calling,” a semantic distinction but one that speaks to his unfailing belief in the work they do and its importance. It echoes the conflict of last week, where Joan is willing to accept acknowledgement for work well done whereas Sherlock is satisfied with having completed the work in question. Sherlock wants to believe that Joan sees their work the same way he does, but her actions this season suggest otherwise, which does not endanger their partnership so much as it underlines the philosophical complexities bubbling under the surface.

Shinwell is the easiest entry into these issues, although notably—and refreshingly—he exists more for Joan’s benefit than Sherlock’s, which is a nice reversal from every other season arc the show has introduced. That said, such serial elements are always going to take a backseat to the procedural, and so some of the burden of thematic development falls on the case-of-the-week. In “To Catch A Predator Predator,” Sherlock stumbles his way into a Catfish Vigilante who is shaming sex predators going after underage girls, and the basic themes of identity theft and misrepresentation pick up on elements of Shinwell’s story. Is his discomfort in accepting Joan’s assistance in getting a job tied to his knowledge that he is deceiving her? While Nelsan Ellis is doing good work in the scenes we’re getting, it’s still tough to necessarily read his character arc given its marginalization, and I’ll be interested to see when we see his character be integrated into the case-of-the-week in more detail to bring more perspective to his place in the narrative, and to Joan’s path forward.

While not particularly deep thematically, I appreciated the way the mystery here was structured. Procedural literacy teaches us to be aware of actors we recognize and characters who have dialogue where it might not have been necessary, which combined can sometimes make the reveal a foregone conclusion. But here, we’re given three such characters early on: I knew immediately that we’d be seeing more of Frank Whaley (who I saw most recently in Luke Cage) when he showed up as the adulterer to open the episode, my notes observed the unnecessarily substantial involvement of the victim’s brother-in-law (played by Matthew Rauch, who I recognized from Banshee), and we get a bit more information than is necessary from the True Romantix employee who was eavesdropping on Sherlock (played by Conor Leslie, who I didn’t recognize from her recent TV roles, but I probably should have). The episode then goes through them one-by-one: the adulterer was the vigilante’s next victim, and the brother-in-law was using the vigilante to make money, but both had clear alibis, despite being the ones who most obviously registered as the likely killer. The True Romantix employee, by comparison, came somewhat out of left field, but the episode is clever about how the story connects back to her, and uses Sherlock’s observation about her drug cocktail to pin her as the killer. The episode has a lot of twists and turns, but I enjoyed how the logic of the story unfolded, and how the groundwork was laid for an ending that wasn’t the first thing I predicted.


However, it does come with a particular burden. One of the challenges with this story structure is that you are taking a character who spoke for a few minutes, and about whom we know very little, and very quickly giving their back story and accusing them of murdering someone. Leslie has almost no time to sell us on this part of the character, but Elementary has a habit of not really giving its killers a chance to explain themselves. If you look at Sherlock and Marcus’ scene with Molly, it is primarily two detectives laying out every detail of the case, piece by piece. And while it may be unrealistic for the killer to tell their own story in expositional terms, the balance of scenes like this reinforces their central goal of dumping information, leaving less time for Leslie to articulate why this woman’s frustration with the vigilante disrupting her own quest for justice would escalate to murder. Leslie does well with her one short monologue, but I still didn’t necessarily understand the leaps that would be required to get her into this situation. It’s a lot to ask of a brief interaction and a single monologue, and I wish we’d gotten more from her character in the final scene as opposed to Sherlock and Marcus telling her story for her.

Ultimately, the episode rests on the idea she was searching for justice, and there are two moments where the characters ruminate on this. It first happens as Joan grills Gregson after their encounter with Mr. Utz, whom he has promised secrecy regarding his attempt to have sex with an underage girl—she’s concerned that this criminal will avoid the consequences of his perversion by nature of her fiction, but Gregson assures her that he’ll still be charged with a felony. It returns at the end of the episode as Joan gets home to find Sherlock on his computer, plotting with the Indonesian police to plant drugs on the rapist who fled the country. In both cases, Joan and Sherlock seek to cut off loose ends, concerned that this “case-of-the-week” would inadvertently result in guilty men going free.


But while Joan and Sherlock are given clean resolutions for the various tendrils of this story, the show has never been so definitive with the terms of their partnership. The debrief—so effectively staged on the loveseat in the hallway—we saw in last week’s episode between the two characters is not something that’s going to happen every week, but the lack of resolution means that it inflects each interaction they have thereafter. The impacts are subtle, but I would agree with Genevieve’s assertion last week that there is a magnitude to this particular difference of opinion that runs deeper than the divisions we’ve seen in more recent seasons. While Shinwell provides a clearer narrative engine in terms of escalating the season arc and introducing clearer dramatic stakes, the personal character stakes for Joan and Sherlock are providing a richness to the basic procedural rhythms of the show, and providing a valuable platform for character development at a point where some procedurals might just be settling into a conflict-free partnership for the sake of efficiency.

Stray observations

  • My thanks to Genevieve for letting me return to the old stomping grounds—I fell behind on the show last season (a byproduct of not covering it), but I was glad to see coverage get picked back up this year, as it’s a richer text that deserves the time and energy Genevieve has been devoting to it these past two seasons. She’ll be back to continue next week.
  • That said, I do worry that Genevieve’s (understandable) decision to retire Clyde Watch has led to some complacency, so…
  • Clyde Watch: What the hell, Elementary? The idea that we got through the 100th episode of the show without some kind of acknowledgement of Clyde’s crucial role in this partnership is an insult of the highest order. Heck, the 100th episode would have really been told entirely from Clyde’s perspective, if I’d had my way. I don’t, of course, but I worry that the absence of Clyde Watch has emboldened them to ignore the true star of the show, and so I must express my deep disappointment. (Okay, to be clear, Clyde Watch is a purposeful exaggeration, and even though I’ve been told it may have been the key instigator to Clyde becoming “a thing” on the internet I hold no delusions of grandeur of its importance. That being said, I miss Clyde, and wish he could have worked his way into one of the scenes last week. And this week. And next week. The heart wants what it wants. And it wants Clyde.)
  • Notably, “True Romantix” was actually first referenced back in season two’s “We Are Everyone,” a bit of continuity I appreciate, but also would have never known if it hadn’t been pointed about on Twitter. I appreciate that kind of worldbuilding, but admittedly 100 episodes is a lot to keep track of, even when I wrote about so many of them.
  • I liked Sherlock’s relief when he caught Jack McGill in the lie about having not committed sexual harassment—it’s a nice reminder that he’s always observing people, and that his inner monologue isn’t something we hear, but is constantly turning. Here, he was calculating whether McGill was a brilliant liar or just telling the truth, and got his answer eventually.
  • While sadly most of Wade Applewhite’s interaction was digital, robbing us of another one of Sherlock’s voice aliases, we did get a bit of Wade’s dialect with “The biscuit is in the basket,” which I appreciated.
  • As far as the recombinance of the case-of-the-week, this felt like Dexter meets Catfish, which I hope doesn’t give Showtime any ideas about rebooting Dexter. Resist, Showtime. Resist.