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

Elementary: “The Woman”/“Heroine”

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Last week, Elementary concluded on a powerful final sequence in which Sherlock Holmes was sent by Moriarty to a mysterious, empty mansion and appeared to discover that his presumed-dead lover Irene Adler was alive. However, it wasn’t exactly the most surprising conclusion to an episode of television, given that Natalie Dormer’s casting had been fairly public earlier this spring and her name had appeared in the opening credits at the beginning of the episode.

Nonetheless, it was a striking sequence both visually and aurally, to the point where I went out on a limb and presented a grand theory that Irene was actually a hallucination. There was some suggestion that the validity of this theory would in some way alter my impression of the episode, that the episode and the sequence would be lessened should my theory—which I was pretty convinced of—prove untrue. This surprised me, as for me the very ability to theorize about what the use of Don Giovanni might represent or to explore the sound design and point-of-view camerawork as it relates to perspective and diegesis is a testament to the strength of the sequence. Criticism doesn’t exist to get something right, but rather to explore the critic’s response to an episode of television and that episode’s meaning; that Elementary, once considered to be a cheap procedural knockoff of the BBC’s Sherlock, has gotten me to the point where I’m engaged in theories is a sign of how fond I’ve grown of the show, and the fact that I was dead wrong—while wounding my pride a touch—does nothing to change my opinion.

Being wrong hurts Sherlock more deeply than it hurts me. In an early flashback in “The Woman,” which along with “Heroine” functions as a two-hour season finale, Sherlock meets with Irene Adler to determine the veracity of a collection of paintings set to be auctioned, and discovers them to be forgeries. You can see Sherlock’s pride being wounded, as in his mind he should have been the one to spot this crucial piece of information and avoid having to refer to an expert like herself (given her experience as a restorer). He immediately begins to note that Irene has stolen many of the originals she had claimed to restore and replaced them with her own forgeries, a sort of reclamation of surety and the beginning of what we learn was a passionate, intimate affair. She was his equal, and he welcomed her into his world—most clearly demonstrated through their trip to his secret Roman prayer tablet tunnel—just as she seemed to want to invite him into her own by showing him the one original piece of art she had ever created; what he found was her blood and a note from Sebastian Moran.

When Irene Adler is alive and well, Sherlock is overcome with emotion but he also has to contend with the fact that he was wrong. In his grief and the subsequent addiction that swallowed his life, he failed to see the clues that would have led him to this deduction earlier, that could have saved her this psychic trauma. For the duration of “The Woman,” Sherlock’s singular focus is not on solving the case of who was responsible for Irene’s abduction but rather of protecting Irene lest anything else happen to her. And yet it is in this grief that Sherlock is once again proven wrong, for it is in this grief that he fails to see the real truth: that Irene Adler was in fact Moriarty herself.

It’s a clever turnaround, albeit one that many in the comments had predicted as a logical possibility (well done, detectives). Indeed, part of what led me to believe Irene to be a hallucination was the idea that her being alive didn’t jive with the dynamics of the series (which don’t really allow for a figure as prominent as Irene to exist within the universe). “The Woman” plays with the possibility of writing her off into some foreign land to be rescued when Moriarty’s name is clear, and then Sherlock jumps only to the conclusion that Irene was potentially working for Moriarty, but he episode smartly ends with certainty: Irene Adler was a persona designed by Moriarty to allow her to observe the man who had been foiling her plans and understand what makes him tick.

It’s a smart reveal for three reasons. The first is that it avoids dragging out the question of Moriarty’s identity for multiple seasons, and peddles in answers rather than mystery. I said a few weeks ago that bait-and-switch Moriarty candidates prove detrimental to the series’ long-term future, and so to see them pull the trigger on Moriarty quickly and effectively was a strong turn of events (and makes that particular concern less valid as we conclude the season).


However, more importantly, the reveal also gives us a considerable amount of time with Moriarty, within two different contexts. By giving us a glimpse of Sherlock and Irene’s time together in London, we are able to get a better sense of what Sherlock felt he lost, and the kind of connection that led him to fall to those deep lows. This by itself makes the reveal of Irene as Moriarty a wonderful head-trip for Sherlock, and raises the stakes in a way that demonstrates the power of a good flashback (albeit one that had a heck of a time pretending New York was London). At the same time, however, “Heroine” also keeps Moriarty around for some great sequences with Sherlock and Joan that allow Natalie Dormer to drop the American accent and give us a window into who this woman is. Fitting given Irene’s profession, she saw Sherlock as a work of art, and she wanted to study him not unlike how the FBI profiler back in “The Deductionist” used her relationship with Sherlock as fodder for a paper; the difference is that Moriarty is a sociopath who saw her time with Sherlock as part of a larger game of assassinate and profit that she fully intends to win.

Thirdly, however, the Moriarty reveal works because it isn’t just about Sherlock. Originally the meaning of Moriarty was caught up in Irene’s death, and obviously this reveal changes that, but it creates a stalemate of sorts: they are each other’s weakness. Sherlock struggles to solve Irene because of his feelings for her, and even after achieving the clarity of her identity he is off his game, on the verge of relapse as he tries to solve a case that has at its core his failure to deduce her true nature. Similarly, Irene is a precision criminal whose grand schemes would be a lot simpler if she were to kill Sherlock as opposed to playing with him, a notion that her associate Issac Proctor takes to heart when he tries to kill Sherlock (who he had been expressly told not to kill, much as Gottlieb was called off once Irene decided to explore Sherlock up close and personal). As “Irene” herself notes after Sherlock has accused her of being in cahoots with Moriarty, these two people would have just as easily been friends had they not instead become enemies, a complicated back story that manifests as a twisted, intriguing dynamic that both Dormer and Jonny Lee Miller do a great job of capturing.


But the final hour is called “Heroine” for a reason, as this is also a story about Joan Watson at the end of the day. In a case where Sherlock is at his weakest, and when he is unable to realize that the path to victory is failure because it means acknowledging that failure is even a possibility, it is Joan who sees more clearly. Joan isn’t afraid of Moriarty, but is rather protective of Sherlock (as both his sober companion and his partner), and the confusion that Moriarty’s emergence creates within Sherlock creates surety for Joan. If Sherlock only sees puzzles and Moriarty only sees games, Watson sees actual people: her interest in Sherlock is human, the kind of relationship that Moriarty can’t even imagine (referring to her as a mascot at one point in their lunch date). While the truth about Moriarty robs Sherlock of the most striking, human connection he believed he had ever made, the resulting investigation reaffirms a more powerful connection in his partnership with Joan, the newly discovered species of Euglassia Watsonia a metaphor for what happens when an extremely rare bee miraculously unexpectedly finds a compatible partner.

It’s a beautiful final image, with Watson and Sherlock sitting together to watch the metaphors of their partnership emerge from the hive on the Brownstone’s roof, although “Heroine” struggled a bit with keeping the pace high. Dormer’s appearances were frequent and effective, but the mystery itself felt a bit cobbled together. Efforts to tie it into the plots of previous episodes weren’t really developed, and Arnold Vosloo’s Narwhal was mainly just a frame through which we could glimpse Sherlock’s struggle. It was effective at these tasks, finding reasons for Sherlock to become aggravated or be tempted by a bottle of Vicodin in a medicine cabinet, but it also created something of an anti-climax: while perhaps a letdown after the Moriarty reveal was inevitable, having the show mostly revert back to its traditional pacing and traditional mystery structure took away some of the climactic feeling of a traditional finale. The emotional climax was right on the money, but there was still an anti-climax in how Irene’s scheme was foiled, and in how her off-screen incarceration became something of an afterthought. While I admire the show for going with a low key final scene, the weight of Sherlock’s fake overdose dissipated pretty quickly once it was clear it was fake, leaving Irene’s final note feeling rather incomplete (which could likely be on purpose given that criminal masterminds aren’t always known for casually accepting their arrests).


Watching a television show is an investment. We invest our time and our energies into watching and talking about Elementary, and in return we have expectations. When the season began, and I agreed to invest a fairly considerable amount of time to covering the show, my expectations were low. As much as I liked the pilot, few procedurals are able to “surprise” in this day and age, to borrow from Moriarty’s fascination with Sherlock. And while parts of the show fell into predictable patterns and any sense of actual surprise regarding the identity of the killer was often spoiled by who they cast in the part, the investment began to accumulate interest in the evolving relationship between Sherlock and Joan, the slow reveal of Sherlock’s back story and Moriarty’s web of influence, and in the general idea of these characters solving crimes for the foreseeable future. Without entirely reinventing the crime procedural, Robert Doherty and his writing staff set out to prove—either as a mission statement or an indirect result of just making a strong freshman season—that it could inspire investment on the same level as other shows with stronger pedigree. And although not every week offered a stunning new development that fundamentally reshaped my impression of the series, I nonetheless found that there was something new—or something old I hadn’t noticed until then—to write about every week. While the flashbacks in “The Woman” told the origin story of Sherlock and Moriarty as nemeses, the entire first season of Elementary—culminating in that final scene in “Heroine”—was the origin story of Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson, and the origin story of a series that I could see myself investing in for the foreseeable future.

Episode Grade: A-

Season Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • While it worked as a two-parter, I would be interested to know if they ever imagined the end of "The Woman" being a cliffhanger in and of itself.
  • They’ve already announced they will start the second season with a location shoot in London, which I’m personally intrigued by as someone who’s doing research on place and space within television production cultures. I also imagine this decision was made easier by how much they struggled with making New York look like London during the flashbacks; they couldn’t even catch a break and get a cloudy day, could they? I did think the tunnels looked nice, to be fair.
  • “Myles Tries To Spot Canon References”: I pegged Stapleton as being from the only Holmes story I’ve actually read—the Hound of the Baskervilles—but my memory is too fuzzy to piece together why that name for Irene’s—fake—captor. And, related to the canon, we can officially say that they’re deviating from both Moriarty and Irene’s canonical stories with this decision.
  • “Let’s say we go stop this bitch” — Lucy Liu doesn’t always get to be an out-and-out badass with Joan, but between this and her steely gaze at lunch with Moriarty this was a badass episode for Joan Watson.
  • Humor was more limited given the stakes involved this week, but I did enjoy Sherlock’s insistence that the Narwhal’s nickname should inspire no shame given their status as the unicorns of the sea.
  • Clyde Watch: I think we can all agree that Clyde would have improved this episode, but it appears there’s a time and a place for Clyde, and tense season finales are not among them. Here’s hoping that Clyde returns once Sherlock and Joan get back from London early next season. Or that the Baker Street Irregulars web series is told entirely from Clyde’s perspective.
  • I admit to remaining a bit confused as to how the Speak Easy and Sutter Risk Management were all part of Moriarty’s plan regarding Macedonia — I think part of the episode’s point was that it was so complicated so as to prove the elaborate nature of her schemes, but between Sherlock’s ravings I wasn’t getting the complete picture on how the various episodes tied together.
  • Wanted to take a quick moment to thank Craig Sweeny, who co-wrote the finale with Doherty, for occasionally checking in to respond to some of our discussion points in the comments. It’s been a great source of insight…
  • …and an acknowledgment of how great the community around this show has been all season. This was never going to be a cult hit in the same way as other shows successful here at the site, but I’ve been really proud to see a consistent and engaged group of commenters return each week to take a procedural serious on its own terms and its own merits. Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of it, and I certainly hope to be back next year.