Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Elementary: "The Grand Experiment"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Elementary’s first season followed a simple arc with complex origins. The season was efficient in its focus on developing Sherlock and Joan’s relationship, with that relationship fully blossoming when the two characters come together in the finale to confront Sherlock’s past and the return of Moriarty. It’s a symbolic victory as much as a literal one, the characters preparing a new path out of the shadow of Sherlock’s addiction and toward a long-term partnership as they care for the bees on the roof of the Brownstone.


The second season has been, comparatively speaking, an amorphous blob. When the season began with “Step Nine,” I wrote about some of the handicaps the show would likely have to navigate:

The problem Elementary faces in its second season is that Sherlock and Joan’s relationship isn’t really changing anymore. Inevitably, the two characters will continue to negotiate the terms of their friendship as they solve crimes together, but despite being in perpetual motion toward the other the two characters shall never meet. Sherlock will never become as empathetic as Joan, just as Joan will never become as coldly analytical as Sherlock; the first season necessarily evolved the characters such that they could enter a working arrangement, but that natural, serial character development is no longer something Elementary can count on. By building a sustainable dynamic that I’d be happy to watch every week, the series’ writers simultaneously created a problem of developing forward momentum.


I return to this idea because it’s something that “The Grand Experiment” is invested in, and something that the season as a whole has explored in a haphazard and unsatisfying fashion. The title of the episode reminds us that Joan and Sherlock’s partnership has never been wholly stable, and we can certainly view the early morning wakeups and Joan’s lack of a personal life as signs that the experiment wasn’t working out for her the same way it was working out for him. As she observes while they search Azatan Books, Joan isn’t the one who has terms for their relationship: the terms are Sherlock’s, a notable shift from the days when she was his sober companion and she was the one responsible for setting out guidelines. Her decision to move out is her rejection not of their partnership, but rather of her lack of agency within that partnership, something that she was not in a position to negotiate within the framework of the Brownstone.

This idea resonates within “The Grand Experiment.” The episode smartly steers away from Joan’s romantic relationship with Mycroft—more on that in a bit—and gives us plenty of time with Joan and Sherlock solving the case of Sharington’s betrayal of MI6 and Mycroft’s framing. As they meet together in the apartment of a murder victim, Sherlock lays out his belief that what they do together is meaningful, and beautiful in its way, and something that he absolutely does not want to lose. Joan, in kind, speaks of the cosmic pull of Sherlock’s genius, but expresses how she doesn’t always want to be in his orbit. She doesn’t always want to get pulled in to circle around him, and feels that living together will make that the basis of their relationship in ways she isn’t comfortable with.

It’s a great scene, and it echoes a lot of what Genevieve—who was kind enough to cover two episodes for me this season—and I have spoken about this year. It frames the season as a gradual awakening, in which Joan functions pleasantly as a moon to Sherlock’s planet but over time becomes frustrated with the impact it’s having on her own life. Her relationship with Mycroft is the catalyst, in that Sherlock’s refusal to accept her desire to pursue the relationship caused her significant displeasure, and her choice to move out is her way of asserting her independence. This is not intended as a threat to Sherlock, but rather an assertion against the comfortable status quo that developed over the season in ways that failed to acknowledge her status within the relationship. That Sherlock takes it as a threat is a reminder that their partnership is stable up into the point where their incongruities—ameliorated but never eliminated last season—are brought to the surface. The season ends with Sherlock pocketing the heroin he smuggled from the crime scene, but we never see him use it; instead, he goes to MI6 to complete a different kind of self-destructive act, offering to work for MI6 and in the process either terminating or drastically altering his relationship with Joan without letting her in on his decision.

Taken as a companion to the first-season finale, “The Grand Experiment” punctures the afterglow of Moriarty’s capture with the ugly reality of how difficult a partnership like this can be with characters this complicated. The issue is that the ugly reality has been sporadically evident over the course of the season, as the finale lacks the clear unifying influence of Moriarty’s return and capture. The amorphous mess of the season was perhaps meant as a way to show how formless and thus disarming the day-to-day of detective work can be, but there are moments and details—like Bell’s injury and recovery, Sherlock passing his cold cases onto Joan, or Sherlock continuing to correspond with Moriarty—that seem to have been tossed aside or had minimal significance. Although one could easily argue that every episode is on some level about Sherlock and Joan’s relationship, there was no effort made in the finale to frame everything that happened between Mycroft’s first appearances and this one as anything but the aforementioned blob.


Rather, “The Grand Experiment” is unfortunately built around the show’s failed experiment, that being the arc of Mycroft Holmes. To label the experiment a failure is perhaps overly harsh, given that I like Rhys Ifans’ performance, and continue to think that the scenes between Sherlock and Mycroft have a pathos that benefits the show and highlights Jonny Lee Miller’s strong work in the series. However, the romantic relationship between Mycroft and Joan was a non-starter, developed off-screen and entirely unconvincing when it was brought to life following its reveal. Although it works as a way to have Joan’s personal life come into conflict with Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies, there was no chemistry between Liu and Ifans to make us root for Joan to have a personal life, to the point where I found myself what happened to Steve Kazee’s stalker-ish but seemingly well-meaning Internet suitor. As much as I’ve wanted the show to focus more on Joan, and cheered when she stood up for herself, that her relationship with Mycroft stood in as the symbol for her independence is also diminishing of the character, as though a romantic relationship is the only way her independence could be framed or understood.

More broadly, though, there simply wasn’t enough time for the Mycroft arc to weave its way into the themes of the season to make this finale resonate. It’s true that Sherlock’s relationship with Mycroft is meaningful and something that bookended the season, but its absence during the entire rest of the season made it difficult to see this as wrapping up the year as a whole. Although elements of the episode involving Joan and Sherlock worked nicely to call back on cumulative storytelling—including a nice use of Everyone in a key moment to reiterate their presence as a televisual equivalent to the Baker Street Irregulars—everything tied to Sharington as the mole, or Mycroft faking his death with the help of the NSA, felt more perfunctory than revelatory. The show never reconciled Mycroft’s espionage with the nuts and bolts of the season; although I had said for some time that the show needed the boost in momentum that Mycroft’s return would provide, said return needed to deliver something stronger to keep from feeling disconnected from the other goals of this finale.


The ultimate goal of “The Grand Experiment” would be to create chaos and the momentum that comes with it. Mycroft’s arrival did, if nothing else, function as a way to pull Sherlock and Joan apart, and to raise the risk of Sherlock relapsing. Those are meaningful building blocks for the show, and this is the right time to be threatening the stability of their relationship: while the “status quo” of the season felt at times a bit too stable, lacking momentum in ways I anticipated and understood as necessary to the show’s longevity, the characters are strong enough that the show maintains a decent level of quality that only ran out of steam right before the stakes were raised headed into next season. The show never became outright bad, and in this finale the writers showed awareness of how the status quo was wearing on the show’s characters and requiring stronger action—such stronger action was delivered in the finale moments.

However, as Sherlock himself notes in a line pulled straight from the canon, “you cannot make bricks without clay.” He’s speaking about the need for information in MI6’s search for Mycroft, but it also goes to crafting a meaningful television finale like this one. The bricks are solid, but there isn’t quite enough clay in the season or in Mycroft’s storyline to make the bricks entirely solid. Although the show’s structure is stable enough to maintain interest, this is not the emphatic statement of purpose and potential that we left with last season, and it concludes a season that was solid but unspectacular in ways that pale in comparison to the previous one (albeit while facing admittedly higher expectations).


The nature of the season’s conclusions suggests something of a fresh start for the third season: Mycroft, like Moriarty, goes off into a procedural purgatory to be brought out of exile for Sweeps months, leaving Sherlock and Joan to sort out their issues on their own. The biggest problems I had with this finale are the same problems that are resolved by episode’s end, and the things that worked well are those elements that the show seems most interested in exploring. It’s a finale that simultaneously acknowledges and indulges in the mistakes of the season as a whole, offering promise for the future is not quite living up to the promise laid out by the series’ past.

Episode Grade: B+
Season Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • “I’m so lucky that I fell into your orbit”—If there are ’shipper Tumblrs, I imagine that’s going to be all over the ’shipper Tumblrs.
  • I will be interested to see how the show goes about dealing with Bell and Gregson—it was clear by the end of the season that there were no plans to expand the characters dramatically outside of isolated arcs like Bell’s shooting, and it’s unclear if that would really change next year.
  • “Don’t touch any of the first editions. Or Watson.”—I liked the library location, if only for this line.
  • “Are you going to tell me your breakthrough, or are you going to continue to remind me of my own?”—this is a line that both says a lot about Sherlock’s attitude, and which functions as a meta-commentary on how procedural writers—here Rob Doherty and Craig Sweeny—might feel about being forced to repeat information at the behest of the network. Even Sherlock finds it annoying!
  • Help me out, here: When Sherlock talks to Mycroft about his role in Mycroft’s return to MI6, he says “I know you didn’t tell her.” This confused me, given that we clearly saw Mycroft tell her. Is this is a suggestion there is another detail about his involvement with the case that Mycroft omitted? Or just a weird bit of dialogue I’m having trouble parsing?
  • Clyde Watch: Despite the fact that Clyde could have easily been a vessel for one of Sherlock’s post-its involving the phone calls between the Iranian spy and Sharington, he was nowhere to be seen. Sigh. We’ll always have SharkClyde vs. StegoClyde.
  • Thanks to those who’ve continued to make this a lively discussion thread around the series. Although the show may not have continued to ascend beyond the heights of the end of last season, that the dialogue has remained so strong has been a testament to you Brownstoners and our collective connection to these characters and their universe. (I’m trying to make Brownstoners a thing. You should probably ignore it. I admit I’m out on a limb here.)