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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elementary: "Solve For X"

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It matters where a scene takes place.

Thus far, Elementary has largely taken place in two permanent locations: Sherlock’s brownstone, and the NYPD precinct. The series has, of course, traveled out into the streets of New York City to various different crime scenes, and just last week traveled to London, but the series has always settled back into these two comfortable settings. The brownstone, in particular, has become the series’ anchor, a space of cohabitation between Joan and Sherlock that has become more “theirs” as their relationship has progressed. It may rarely be where crimes take place or where crimes are solved, but the space spent in the brownstone poring over mathematic equations or confronting conundrums is often purposefully located within the home; not only does it reinforce Sherlock and Joan’s relationship, but it also reminds us that with Sherlock Holmes—and increasingly Joan Watson—there’s no separating where you work and where you live.

And yet the pivotal scene in “Solve For X” doesn’t take place in the brownstone, nor the precinct. When Joan finally reveals to Sherlock the details of what drove her from medicine, she does so in the NYPD’s morgue, a new set built for the show’s second season. The camera actively pulls back from Joan and Sherlock to open the scene, establishing the new space—while the show has on occasion used morgues as a location on specific cases, the choice to build a set indicates it is a space the series intends to use regularly (as the writers’ room Twitter account confirms). The choice to set this sequence there also implies this is a meaningful space, its brick walls and high ceilings at least subtly evoking the brownstone Sherlock and Joan call home.

There is nothing subtle about the choice to set this sequence in the morgue. The morgue as a space has always brought Joan back to her surgical roots, a past the series has always treated with a touch of mystery without necessarily turning into a highly serialized set of questions. We understood that Joan was responsible for someone’s death and subsequently left medicine, but the identity of that individual was not a detail the series ever dwelled on. That being said, however, Sherlock treats everything in his life like a mystery—“One mystery at a time,” he says to Bell when he’s asked where Joan is, acknowledging that her visit to the cemetery has been logged away as a clue to her carnation-scented sleeves. And so when Sherlock confronts Joan about her visit to the cemetery, the morgue setting becomes a sort of visual recall for the life she once led, the man who died on her operating table, and the guilt left behind.

It’s a bit on the nose, truthfully, but it reiterates something Sherlock emphasizes in the episode-closing speech that moves to the Brownstone. There, Sherlock tells Joan that he wants to visit the cemetery with her, and that he wants to share in experiences that have made her who she is. One of the functions of “Step Nine” was to remind us that Sherlock has a past, a past that helped shape him into the person he is even if Joan’s presence in his life has altered his perspective on that past. Mycroft embodies that for Sherlock in a way that Joey (Smash’s Jeremy Jordan) embodies it for Joan; whereas Sherlock is just learning how guilt feels following his experience with Lestrade and his rapprochement with Mycroft, Joan has been living with guilt for being responsible for Joey’s father’s death for years, and it’s an emotion she knows all too well. Placing her back in the morgue is less than subtle, granted, but it calls attention to the fact that much as it’s difficult for detectives to separate where you work and where you live, it’s also difficult for humans in general to separate who you were and whom you’ve become. Joan entering the morgue isn’t as dramatic or evocative as Sherlock returning to London, but her ritual of removing her gloves and lotioning her hands nonetheless brings her back to a life she’s chosen to leave behind.

“Solve For X” effectively brings Joan’s back-story to the forefront, after the opener perhaps understandably sidelined Joan’s own character motivations in favor of focusing on her impact on Sherlock. Jeremy Jordan was given the chance to atone for the sins of Smash, tapping into Jimmy Collins’ selfishness with a greater sense of control and humanity the NBC series never allowed him to explore; Joey isn’t exactly a likeable character, but you’re able to see the teenager who forgave Joan, and a decent kid whose request for money is driven by desperation more than maliciousness. The story also works better for its lack of resolution, Joan’s offer less about reforming Joey and more about Joan coming to terms with her guilt and how she understands their relationship. It offers a clear mirror to Sherlock completing “Step Nine” with Lestrade; while never spoken of in the language of addiction or making amends, Joan is nonetheless grappling with how to come to terms with something she regrets. In the space of the morgue, she faces her past head-on; in the space of the brownstone, Sherlock agrees to help her much as she helped him, if not necessarily stating it in so many words.


The rest of “Solve For X” tells a solid story of math turned to murder, with writer Jeffrey Paul King riffing on a real equation—“P versus NP”—and a real set of potentialities tied to it. Late in the episode, Sherlock tells Joan—while puzzling over the contradictory evidence that simultaneously frames and exonerates Tanya Barrett—that “we’re on a roundabout — we just need to find the proper exit.” It’s a fitting metaphor for the episode’s storytelling, which continually circles back to the same characters and ideas with a new set of eyes. We often think of procedurals as inherently linear, and they are if we think of them in terms of “Murder > Red Herrings > Solution.” However, “Solve For X” really does move in circular patterns (just look at how it cycles back to the mugger, who could have just as easily been forgotten), each time giving either Joan or Sherlock a new angle on the material that reveals a new exit—or, rather, it reveals that an exit they thought was wrong the first time around was in fact the exit they wanted all along. It means that the mystery never had a dramatic breakout moment, but the various circles had enough national security ramifications and clever turns of phrase—a few of those are below in the stray observations—to make the roundabout a solid way to structure an hour.

Unlike the premiere, “Solve For X” mostly shows Elementary back in its normal patterns, returning Gregson and Bell to their roles on the periphery and trading the sights of London for the New York City the show has called home. However, although I would be exaggerating to suggest the introduction of the morgue as a standing set signals a significant shift in the series’ dynamic, it adds one more layer to an episode that successfully reaffirms the series’ commitment to telling Joan’s story as well as Sherlock’s.


Stray observations:

  • A student asked me how to overcome the challenge of intertextuality when it comes to actors appearing in different roles the other day; I think Harry Crane with his shirt off poring over math problems under a blacklight is an interesting test of this. Personally, I still wanted to punch him in the face a little—sorry, Rich Sommer! Nothing personal.
  • “I’m going to take a literal stab in the dark and say…maths”—As much as I appreciate the plural on maths, is it a literal stab in the dark if it’s in the dark but not actually accompanied by a stab of any kind? A fun line, but I have questions.
  • “Watson, conundrum; conundrum, Watson”—Sherlock’s extremely good at introductions.
  • Glenn Fitzgerald marks at least the second Dirty Sexy Money castmember to pop up on Elementary, which reminds me: when are we getting another appearance from Candis Cayne’s Ms. Hudson?
  • I don’t want to get anyone too excited, but the Elementary Staff Twitter account—which has lots of great details about the research behind the episode—is promising a certain recurring castmember will be peeking out of his shell next week.