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

Elementary: “The Adventure Of The Nutmeg Concoction”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “The Adventure Of The Nutmeg Concoction”

“You can’t judge an idea just by the results it provides.”

Elementary—like any serial Holmes—will eventually run into the narrative crossroads we’re seeing now. On the one hand, with two seasons under its belt (one a gorgeous slow-burn character study, one with some growing pains), there’s a pleasant weight in the relationship between Sherlock and Watson that happens. That can be awfully handy: When Sherlock and Joan visit prison in this episode to try and convince a lifer to talk, they play off each other with subdued precision, setting aside their friction in pursuit of a shared goal. The synchronized drop into that condensed body language they share and mimic in one another when they’re after their prey is all the better for having those previous seasons of context. (Joan even gets the line about the value of offering closure to the victim; it’s both something Sherlock wouldn’t have thought about, and a chance for Lucy Liu to deliver some of the beautiful disgust she keeps in reserve for guys like these.)


But Elementary is also constantly having to re-negotiate the scope of its own world. It has its regulars in Gregson and Bell, who get their weekly screen time, and this season has also introduced Kitty (a bold move, even if she has yet to prove herself a necessary third). The rest of the potential recurring characters too often fall prey to the case of the week. Not unexpected for the Irregulars, perhaps, but when it comes to certain characters, this spottiness sometimes kept them from having the impact they could. Gregson’s family life earlier this season, which, as Myles pointed out in “Rip Off,” seemed sudden, and the show has a habit of introducing engaging characters with great potential, and then forgetting they exist for long stretches as they solve this week’s case, week after week, until they become useful again. Even the scope of Sherlock and Joan’s pasts tend to wax and wane with their immediate usefulness. And Sherlock gets more, of course—Sherlock always gets more. (Though this season has already improved on season two; having moved on from Sherlock, Joan’s in a better position to play foil, and her being at odds with him is paying off.)

In “The Adventure Of The Nutmeg Concoction,” the too-brief ensemble player is Ms. Hudson, who appears doing what Sherlock charmingly terms “scut work” on their case and then vanishes entirely. For someone whose first introduction was as a walking encyclopedia with translation skills, she seems oddly underutilized; for someone who’s in the house every Tuesday, she seems oddly absent from the domestic life of the house. And for someone whose romantic life is described as a series of men who get too serious on her when she wants otherwise, it seems more perverse than anything that she should be so detached from Joan in an episode that’s so much about Joan’s romantic life.

In fairness, though, it’s not an episode that’s about Joan’s romantic life because Joan wants it. It’s an episode about Joan’s romantic life because Sherlock will not leave her the hell alone about it. In fact, he can’t leave her the hell alone about anything—he sends Kitty to involve himself in the case without being invited in the first place, and spends his time between flashes of genius horning in on Joan from every side. As an extension of their tension now that Joan is on more even footing with him, this is Sherlock somewhat tipping his hand—something that might not be lost on Joan, except we don’t know, because she never gets to do more than try to deflect his increasingly offensive butting-in. Had she had a moment of real pushback, this might have felt like a subplot that was tackling some of their unfinished business. Instead, it’s unexamined: just some funtime shenanigans from that old Sherlock Holmes. (It happens in the same scene as the epigraph of this recap, in which he downplays being arrested overnight—a mistake he makes tidily offscreen.) Worse is the episode’s denouement, which quietly suggests Sherlock is right…by having Joan silent in the face of his conclusions. And Joan, who moved out on him last year rather than accept an orbital life in the brownstone, and who has faced down a man in prison and dared him to defy her, is somehow robbed of any real anger about the whole situation. “You compared me to a baboon with inflated genitals,” she says without venom, referencing the worst of Sherlock’s comments this week. He assures her he didn’t mean it in a bad way, and she reports to him about her decision like he’s asked for an update on a forensic report, and nothing else is said about it.

In a season that’s been so quietly dedicated to the uncertain footing on which Sherlock finds himself with the new Joan, this feels like a subplot that could have been easily salvaged. Scaling back on a few of the remarks and keeping it as the Sherlock Offers Unwanted Advice Hour could have delivered the point without feeling quite so much like base dismissal; if somehow the episode could only work with Joan being compared to a baboon by a man who claims to respect her, Joan could have at the very least read him the riot act about it. At any point, he could have helped his case by apologizing. Just a few episodes ago, the show engaged with this tendency to overinvolve himself much more honestly through Sherlock and Kitty, who on some level seems to feel she fundamentally owes Sherlock in a way Joan never has, and to whom Sherlock delivered a self-aware apology.

That would, one thinks, make a subplot like this one a remote prospect. But much like her Casebook of Sherlock Holmes—utterly unreferenced in this episode, a mystery in itself—Joan is a book still largely unread, and no randomly returning ex-boyfriend is going to solve that. When she does get breathing room, it’s always great; Lucy Liu has honed the planes of her face into an instrument that occasionally seems to be picking up infrared waves, it’s so focused. But there are so many times when she should push back, and she doesn’t get the voice to. We leave this episode in a world where Joan’s partner can casually compare her to a baboon with inflated genitals, and all he has to do to smooth it over is tell her she’s special. That doesn’t seem like a world Joan Watson would allow.

This episode is—and this is no compliment, not to a show with as much great stuff going for it as Elementary—the closest to pastiche this show has felt in a while. It’s no mistake, I think, that it’s such a “traditionally” named episode. It’s the sort of twisty-turny whodunit you see in the busier Conan Doyle stories: a dose of Victorian pulp, slight characters, and big reveals, with the detective front and center in all his brash glory. Of course, Elementary, at its best, deconstructs precisely those aspects of the show, which means episodes like this can have a tough time. A few weeks ago, the show hit a high point procedurally when “Bella” ended with no final flourish; instead, we got Sherlock alone, contemplating the nature of any number of human weaknesses. The procedural in “Nutmeg” is, at best, forgettable: When the plot hinges on a mural, an attorney keeping incriminating papers handy, and a suspect leaving investigators in his place alone to go call his attorney in the year 2014, you know it’s taking a backseat. (Joan never even gets that moment to tell her client what happened to her sister, and give her the closure she needed so much.) But no one watches this show for the cases; the only real problem is what it’s taking a backseat to.


Still, there’s hope. In particular, I like the musical connection in the final moments between Kitty and Joan, and how neatly it makes parallel the various expectations men have placed on them and later enforced in damaging ways. Kitty and her father’s tension is a clear line. Joan’s tension is more complicated. It isn’t with Andrew, or even with the empty apartment as she stands in front of a domestic tableau contemplating whether this is really what she wants; her tension is with Sherlock. It’s always going to be. That’s the show’s greatest strength, and, in the wrong hands, its biggest minefield.

“It really is quite remarkable to me,” Sherlock says, near the close of this episode. “All this time we spend together, and you remain a far more interesting person than you give yourself credit for.” Maybe once she’s able to get a word in edgewise, we’ll be able to find out why that is.


Stray observations:

  • Thanks very much to Myles for letting me sub in on this week’s episode! I’m sure everyone’s sorry this is the episode that happened on my watch, except maybe Myles, who got to dodge the baboon stuff.
  • An odd self-defense instructor who visited our middle-school class at a girls-only assembly told us never to label our keys because it saved time for any intruders. It stuck with me so much that I thought it was an odd thing for such a precise and otherwise cautious person to do in the case itself. Turns out it was just a harbinger of the many handwavey aspects of this particular case.
  • Show, you do not want to start pointing out how bizarre her tryst with Mycroft was, okay?
  • “I expect nothing, which is why I’m such an exceptional detective.” Why would you even invite Ms. Hudson back, if not to have her exchange the world’s longest-suffering look with Joan immediately after this line?
  • “How do two adults have a relationship where one never calls the other anything but The Nose?” Lucy Liu does a lot of subtle work on this show; she puts so much life into exposition and rhetorical questions that this was one of my favorite line deliveries of the episode.
  • It was charming to see John Horton as The Nose! I hope we see him again. (In another season and a half, when they’re on the trail of the Paprika Strangler.)