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

Elementary: “Under My Skin”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “Under My Skin”

One of the weird realities of procedurals is that major life events never feel as major if they’re unrelated to the case-of-the-week.

Sherlock firing Alfredo as his sponsor so that he can be his friend—and be allowed to judge his decisions—is a pretty significant event in the life of an addict, especially one who had no friends when we met him. There was a similar story toward the start of the season, when shirtless mathematician Harlan mistook Sherlock for his friend and put forth an important question about Sherlock’s “irregulars,” and Elementary’s recurring guest stars: what do these people mean to Sherlock?

Alfredo has always been the most prominent among these recurring figures, primarily because his relationship with Sherlock was not only tied to his utility as an expert in security systems. He is also Sherlock’s sponsor, which the show has occasionally used to ground Sherlock’s week-to-week activity in the context of his addiction. The show has always avoided sensationalizing that element of his character, and the laidback, low-key characterization of Alfredo has been a good part of that. His role has never been preachy or “inspirational,” focusing instead on being solid and available, which serves Sherlock’s needs nicely. And so the idea that the two men would become friends is both a logical extension of their relationship in Alfredo’s few appearances—this is only his sixth—as well as a nice bookend moment for Sherlock’s view on friendship: he does not want any part of it, but he also can’t deny that he feels it, and knows the idea of someone stopping him from offering his opinion regarding his or her actions is unacceptable.

The problem for “Under My Skin” is that this is the episode’s B-story, opening and closing the episode but showing up only intermittently in between. Whereas Sherlock’s story with Harlan was integrated into the episodic plot, here we see Sherlock stepping away from the case-of-the-week on numerous occasions to take part in an entirely different story. The beats of that story were sharp, both in Sherlock’s campaign against the private detective hired to follow Alfredo and eventually in Sherlock’s scheme to mimic Alfredo’s “car borrowing” while giving him an alibi for the crime. But it’s also a small portion of the episode, and ends up being insufficient to keep the rest of the episode from seeming unremarkable.

My issues with this week’s case do not solely revolve around the casting of Fisher Stevens, which made Dr. Martin Ward’s guilt a foregone conclusion the second he appeared onscreen. Yes, this took any of the suspense out of the case, and the second his name appeared in the credits I knew he had to be guilty, but that is ultimately a byproduct of watching a show like this as a critic, and I accept that not all audience members pay attention to guest star credits and have a strong familiarity with the work of Oscar-award winning producer Fisher Stevens.

Rather, my problem with this case is that the strategies used to extend the case over an hour are fundamentally disinteresting to me. While I appreciated a more prominent role for Bell with Sherlock off dealing with Alfredo, the case started with a double-homicide, added a gruesome murder of an unwilling drug mule, created a cartel war between the Serbians and the Chinese that leaves two men dead, and then uncovers two more unwilling drug mules who were murdered. The high body count is in and of itself frustrating given my pleas for the show to move away from murder as a mandatory component of its procedural structure, but when you pile this many bodies together it calls stark attention to the fact that none of these deaths matter in any way. These victims are not meaningfully framed as victims: they are corpses, which can be mined for clues and used to move the story from Point A to Point B.


We get a quick glimpse of Maggie Halpern when we see the ambulance murders unfold, and we get a sob story from her roommate, but what does her death mean? Why is the idea of death something that is intended to extend our engagement with a case, versus an effort to flesh out the nature of the crime in question? And while sometimes the events of the case force Sherlock and Joan to reflect in meaningful ways, this entire case lacked any impact on the detectives working to solve it, despite its almost insane escalation over the course of the hour. The process of solving this case brought nothing out of the show, and the actual events of the case failed to resonate, and Stevens wasn’t given any time to explore an actual character with Hand, as his lawyer ended up doing most of the talking.

“Under My Skin” makes the mistake of believing that a soulful and resonant B-story is capable of making a lifeless and dull A-story mean something, despite having made minimal effort to pull the two together thematically. The episode is competent throughout, but the stark contrast between my engagement with the A-story and the B-story does not work in the show’s favor. We are now three episodes away from the end of the season, but the show appears to be regressing as opposed to moving forward, which is growing more disappointing as the finale gets closer.


Stray observations:

  • I am going to presume that this episode was not named after Avril Lavigne’s sophomore album, but if it was I’d have liked it more.
  • “It’s a newspaper. There’s news in it.”—the possibility of more buddy comedy between Sherlock and Alfredo—who promises he’ll be funny now that he’s Sherlock friend, although the Joan line was kind of rote—is encouraging.
  • I do appreciate how Sherlock’s worldliness allows the show to connect to interesting things just by having him briefly obsess over them, as he does with the Voynich manuscript here.
  • So wait, Alfredo is a car thief who doesn’t own a car? Is that something we knew, or something they had to invent so he had a cleaner alibi via bus cameras?
  • It’s a little unfortunate for Elementary that iZombie—which is doing some much more dynamic work with procedural storytelling right now, if you’re not watching—did a similar “trick a criminal into confessing by planting a fake witness who’s really not a witness” bit recently.
  • Clyde Watch: See, this is the kind of Clyde integration that I like to see: short and simple, yes, but also delightful in its own way. Clyde hangs out, eats some lettuce, and Sherlock responds to Joan’s suggestion that Clyde is helping with a “not really” that indicates he at some point believed Clyde capable of helping. I’m still perplexed why we don’t get this more often, and why we went on such a run of “No Clydes” recently. Maybe his purported bloodlust is causing problems on set?