“Should you care to add the case to your annals, my dear Watson,” said Holmes that evening, “it can only be as an example of that temporary eclipse to which even the best-balanced mind may be exposed.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”
“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” is one of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. At that point, familiarity was breeding contempt, and time was sneaking up on the world’s best consulting detective; Arthur Conan Doyle was foregrounding Watson as Holmes groomed him to carry on a legacy of being mildly smug about solving crimes. It’s one of the more gruesome schemes in the Holmes canon (a young lady doomed to be buried alive in the same coffin as an actual corpse), and one in which Holmes oversteps so greatly that at one point the police have to drag him away. But there had been so many Holmes stories already published by then that both kidnapping and the entrapment of young women by men who meant them ill were well-covered ground; in the end, the only thing that set it apart in Holmes’ mind was how close they came to losing. (And that extra-deep coffin, of course.)
After four and a half seasons, Elementary is in a similar situation. There are only so many stories under the sun, and this is a show with more than twenty episodes a season. Even if just to give us a break from murders, into every season a kidnapping or two will fall. (This isn’t even the first time writer Jason Tracey has tackled the topic; he also wrote “The Illustrious Client.”) This show is capable of adapting aspects of Doyle stories remarkably well, using theme and tenor to tell a story that has its own resonance—including Kitty Winter’s arc. It has a spottier track record with direct adaptation. It doesn’t help that any captivity that implies sexual assault is immediately fraught ground. The goal for a show that wants to demonstrate a conscience is to avoid flattening the narrative (something on TV so regularly as to be numbing) while also avoiding exploitation (which easily skips from numbing to distasteful); to neither dismiss the horror of sexual assault nor use as a titillating taboo
Elementary has tackled this concept before, with varying degrees of success. One of the more surprising images of the first season was Sherlock offering comfort to an abducted woman who the team discovered while investigating something else; one of the more surprising absences of later seasons has been the lack of any significant emotional follow-up to Joan’s extended kidnapping in the second season. But that’s no surprise; setups like this tend to show any cracks in the foundation. “Be My Guest” is no exception.
We see Preeda Boonark only briefly in this episode. She grits her teeth through a hellish imitation of domesticity with her captor, gets locked to her tether, and then vanishes: a victim in a camera video, an absence, a mistake that Sherlock must make good on. His short-tempered near-failure at the top of the episode is carried over directly from the source (Holmes nearly misses the solution in the original), but it also highlights a crossroads for a modern writers’ room. The narrative burden of a sexual assault story is well-known, even if it’s easily dismissed, and deciding to have one carries attendant questions that are tough to answer. Is it better to give more emotional weight/screen time to the captive than to Sherlock, or does that merely make us voyeurs to her misery? How do you indicate the emotional importance of the case to the investigating detectives without accidentally using the victims merely as an angst generator? How much of the machinations of the criminals can you show before you risk Sherlock and Joan looking behind the ball? They’re not easy questions to answer, and it’s no surprise that it’s almost impossible to pull off with any real weight in a one-off episode. (It’s the old SVU versus Criminal Intent debate, with Elementary teetering firmly SVU-wards.)
But some questions seem easier, and “Be My Guest” never quite answers those, either; it’s these that make the episode feel rushed, even flat, on top of the discomfort of the A-plot. Why, aside from the first frantic throes, is there so little sense of urgency to an investigation Sherlock admits has started a ticking clock on Preeda? (Doyle’s Holmes and Watson may have wished to “possess our souls in patience,” but even then there was a sense of momentum that’s missing here.) How much of the episode’s suspense rests on us not suspecting the clearly-guilty ex-wife from the beginning? Shinwell doing a little Baker Street Irregular-ing is a nice touch, but if this episode had so much time to fill that it sent Shinwell to an unrelated meeting, what does that suggest about the decision not to show us Preeda again? Was “What if there’s another captive lady?” meant to be the third-act-twist equivalent of the extra-deep coffin? How is it that Joan, who has actually been kidnapped, had absolutely no reaction to any of this episode’s particulars?
“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” is largely interesting as a case where Sherlock and Watson bungle things so thoroughly that they nearly fail; the extra-deep coffin of procedural derring-do. “Be My Guest” isn’t quite that bad, but it’s an academic exercise at best, and at worst, it makes us wonder how much the show cares about the emotional weight of its cases, because we no longer take that on faith. (Man, this one really is SVU.)
- Even if you hadn’t read the story previously, this one was an easy whodunit for procedural fans; if someone does something distinct in their first interview, they’re involved and so is that nervous tic/thing they set on their desks/location they mentioned. (The instant the bright-yellow creamer came out, you knew the wife was guilty, even if you weren’t sure why—and you were probably sure why, given that it was the most Technicolor packaging this show has given us in a while.)
- It’s interesting to watch Joan as a mentor with Shinwell; we saw her a little with Kitty, but we’ve never seen her start from scratch with someone. She’s a little kinder than Sherlock was, given that it seems nobody’s attacking Shinwell to test his reflexes or waking him up from naps yet, but she’s still easily frustrated. (Her patronizing streak, put into practice this way, might be kinder than Sherlock but isn’t functionally very different from Sherlock’s own sense that he’s the smartest man in the room, which I hope the show will unpack at some point.)
- It’s also interesting that microexpressions are the thing the episode used to keep Shinwell coming back, given that he’s gotten a fairly keen read on everybody he’s come across so far without needing any training.
- I’m not saying they had an Asian cop because they’d introduced two Asian abductees in a single episode and realized those optics, but they definitely did have all three of those people in this episode.
- This episode had many missteps; Wade Williams entering, hellishly perky, mid-samba, to “Quando Quando Quando” was not one of those.
- I don’t want to tell the NYPD Sherlock And Joan Will Handle It Themselves Division how to do their jobs, but if you’re going to sneak around looking for a kidnapper near a beach without alerting them to your presence so they don’t kill their captive, would you really gather half a dozen cop cars with lights on?
- In every accidental SVU episode, somebody’s got to be Fin: “He’s got an ex? That’s nice to hear. It means at least one woman was lucky enough to get away from this guy.” (If it was a crack about ex-wives generally, he’d have been Munch, obviously.)
- Midnight Ranger callback!
- I didn’t expect Holmes and company to use Mannequin as the ultimate damaging example of pop-culture patriarchy, but I guess we have to start somewhere. (And Passengers wasn’t out yet, so.)