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

Elementary: “While You Were Sleeping”

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Like most new series, Elementary made a few changes between its pilot and its second episode. For one, the visual signature of the pilot has faded aware here, Michael Cuesta’s direction giving way to a more traditional procedural aesthetic. Additionally, however, Captain Gregson’s lead detective has been replaced, with Jon Michael Hill’s Detective Bell entering as the newest skeptic who doesn’t understand Sherlock’s unorthodox methods.

Whereas the former change ensures that this won’t entirely be able to replicate the solid and entertaining pilot, the latter change offers at least some familiarity. Bell follows leads using traditional police logic: When a neighbor is revealed to have stolen an armoire from a homicide victim’s apartment, Bell presumes that he is the killer, since that’s the first lead you would follow. Sherlock Holmes is not one for following leads, however, or for traditional logic. He’s convinced, based on the smell of women’s deodorant in the victim’s apartment, that the shooter was female and remains at large.

By the end of “While You Were Sleeping,” Bell has come to understand Sherlock’s methods, and to some degree the show has a clearer handle on how it wants to use them as well. What struck me during the episode was how Sherlock solves crimes like viewers watch crime procedurals. Instead of following the procedure of how the police would traditionally solve the case, viewers know that there’s going to be twists and turns, often jumping to conclusions to stay one step ahead of the investigation. Even if we don’t consciously realize it, we play along at home with procedurals, and that’s effectively what Sherlock is doing within Elementary. He follows hunches and makes accusations, seemingly aware—like the audience at home—that the traditional evidentiary logic of crime-solving is insufficient. It’s likely that Bell and Gregson would have reached the same conclusions eventually, but Sherlock’s skills of deduction allow him to get there faster, which is where his “genius” is able to prove so helpful. It’s not that no one else could solve this case: it’s that no one else could solve it this efficiently.

As many have pointed out, this description sounds identical to how Gregory House functioned on House: In order to ensure a medical mystery fit comfortably into 40 minutes, Dr. House made enough rash decisions and suggested enough crackpot theories to ensure the story moved forward at an efficient pace. We see similar cases here, like when Sherlock confronts the in-house investigator about his meth addiction to ensure they gain access to privileged information. Sherlock’s powers of deduction aren’t exclusively being used to solve the case: in some cases his deductions are proven wrong (like when he presumes Rebecca is an identical twin and discovers she is a fraternal twin instead), while in some cases—including the aforementioned meth addiction—his deductions simply enable the case to move more quickly.

The one major difference between these two “detectives” is that we can play along at home with Sherlock a lot easier than we could play along with Geregory House. Unless you happen to be a doctor, the chances of being able to read the symptoms of a particular case on House are probably slim. By comparison, however, it’s easy to play along with Elementary when you’re dealing with a case of two sisters struggling to deal with the revelation of their father’s surprise half-siblings after his death. In fact, I found myself ahead of Sherlock in some instances in the episode: As soon as it was revealed the two victims were related, I remembered the mention of Ellison’s death earlier in the episode and presumed we were dealing with an inheritance struggle. It honestly made me doubt Sherlock’s ability: “Surely a master of deduction like Sherlock should have realized that sooner than he did,” I mentioned to no one in particular after the episode returned from commercial without an immediate revelation. But then I remembered that television detectives are only as smart as the narrative allows them to be: Just as some of Sherlock’s deductions have to be wrong, some of them have to wait a while.

I raise these points because they identify what the show is doing well, which is engaging the viewer in its mystery. By having Sherlock serve as a surrogate for the eagle-eyed audience member, the show encourages us to pick suspects, deduce motives, and become invested in the result of the investigation. At the same time, though, the show knows when to disconnect us from Sherlock’s perspective: The final deduction at the group therapy meeting is never clarified for the audience like the others, leaving us ignorant to his plans to trap the comatose Yvette and her co-conspirator/lover into believing there to be a third heir and catching her in the act of trying to kill said heir. If the viewer remains ignorant (like I did), it’s a twist ending; if the viewer picked up on the connection to the addict’s story about seducing a doctor and pieced it together, it’s a reinforcement of their superior deductive skills, the moment wherein the viewer gets to test their own abilities against Sherlock’s.


Whereas the pilot largely used Lucy Liu’s Watson as the audience surrogate, “While You Were Sleeping” begins to peel back the layers on Sherlock Holmes to enable us to see ourselves in him. We learn that he’s hiding his addiction from Captain Gregson, who simply believes he just arrived from London recently. We also get the scene with the meth addict where he somewhat sarcastically, but also honestly, recommends his rehab facility should the investigator be seeking help and treatment. The introduction of Sherlock’s violin, a staple of the character across its various representations, serves as the symbol of previous life: Does he burn it down and simply pretend he doesn’t feel, or does he pull out his other violin and play? Is his brain truly an attic with a finite amount of space, or is it just that he wants to believe it’s an attic so that he doesn’t have to look in the mirror?

There are a lot of clichés in the sentences I just wrote, and it’s true that Elementary isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel when it comes to its troubled protagonist. However, Jonny Lee Miller is good at making Sherlock insufferably likeable, and his ability to oscillate between sarcasm and honesty make him an ideal central figure for a show of this nature. While House often seemed almost too cavalier, holding other people’s lives in his hands, Miller’s Sherlock seems to only be putting himself in danger. It’s a crisis of identity more than a crisis of life and death, something that allows the humor—like another slap to the face, or his hacking Watson’s email—to coexist with the complicated past more easily.


That coexistence seems to be more clearly situated now that Hill has joined the cast. I appreciated that Bell wasn’t as hostile to Sherlock as the previous detective, clashing more in terms of philosophy than in terms of personality; it allows them to basically acknowledge one another’s skill—the handshake at the end reflecting their good partnership during their little show for Yvette—while still leaving room for professional disagreement in future episodes. Rather than setting up tension, it establishes a dynamic that could create real conflict but could also simply ensure some comic disagreement in future episodes. Meanwhile, while less involved here than in the pilot, Watson is also given a bit more perspective, including an ex-boyfriend who—predictably—still cares about her. The introduction plays more as a comic foil for Sherlock than major character development for Watson, but I liked the idea that they need to learn more about each other; the more the characters feel one another out, the more we as the audience get to learn about them, and the better that dynamic can come together in the future.

“While You Were Sleeping” is definitive proof that Elementary’s aspirations begin and end—at least for now—with the kind of workmanlike procedural structure that CBS is known for. However, it also demonstrates a strong understanding of how that structure works, and how the specific character traits of Sherlock Holmes as a character are best able to operate within it. Although it is technically my job to pay attention to the episode, I didn’t feel like I had to force myself to become invested in the result, a good sign for any procedural and a solid foundation on which characters—and relationships to those characters—can be built in the weeks ahead.


Stray observations:

  • Where do we stand on the opening credits? I appreciate that there even are opening credits, and thought the images did a nice—if rote—job of speaking to Sherlock’s unorthodox methods.
  • I like that Sherlock spends his spare time practicing picking locks. A small detail, but it’s always nice when things characters do during conversations say something on their own.
  • The whole “Attic theory” offers a structure for the episode—when Sherlock makes his final deduction based on the “useless” group therapy testimonies he had wanted to block out earlier—but I also appreciated the small detail where Sherlock admitted this isn’t how the brain works, but rather how his brain works. Something about his acknowledgement of his peculiarity makes the character more understandable to me.
  • Not to keep pointing out small moments I enjoyed, but Sherlock acknowledging Watson’s work finding a photo to corroborate his theory with the armoire was a nice touch: he might not believe in “evidence,” but he can appreciate someone who understands his theory and can help him prove it.
  • Sherlock on the thrills of violin burning: “I felt like Jimi Hendrix for a second!”
  • Given that it’s the second week, I’m particularly curious to hear if you’re more or less likely to stick with the show when it returns in two weeks.