Sometimes, when it’s cold and you’re hungry, all you want is a cup of tea and some buttered toast; nothing exciting, but everything made just the way you like. “The Games Underfoot” isn’t a groundbreaking episode of Elementary; it’s just quietly confident, with a touch of cozy mystery in its machinations. It’s the sort of episode a show gets to have when it’s settling into a groove—which makes it as interesting for its potential as for what it is. But what it is: A comfortable episode of a show that’s been around long enough for us to know what that feels like.
The cases in these episodes often provide parallels to the internal state of our protagonists (usually Sherlock). Sometimes they can be…a stretch. This one was nearly charming in its mundanity. It had a slower cadence of police work; following some leads that don’t pan out until you find one that does. I appreciated that the girlfriend faded past suspicion and didn’t play into the case. I was charmed that the video game dead end was because someone was being a low-level asshole on the internet about some faux-nostalgia game-culture status symbol totally unrelated to the crime. And I was pleased as punch that the polished corporate exec calmly laid out the reasons their company was a soulless responsibility-dodger without that actually factoring into the murder. It’s the kind of case that takes place in a complex New York: awash in gentrification and leisure economies driven by false scarcity, often unfair and with at least one rotten person at its heart, but able to sustain whole d-bag ecosystems without murder getting involved.
Is it the kind of case that requires Sherlock and Joan? Not at all; Joan casually picks up nearly all the detecting slack this week, and the assist from Everyone is a break in the case (well, a case) that might not have come along otherwise, but overall, this is one of those episodes where we’ll just assume that Gregson’s throwing them a bone. Still, as the investigation unfolds, it reflects again and again on Joan and Sherlock in small ways. Professional and personal setbacks that lead to unexpected obsessions; constructing false nostalgia for something that was flawed to begin with (though Sherlock might not appreciate his recovery self-flagellation being compared to Nottingham Knights); doing the right thing despite its difficulty.
It’s an episode full of small amends—almost all of them from Sherlock, whose post-relapse internal landscape reveals a lot to be desired. (By his account, anyway; Alfredo doesn’t judge him, and Joan visibly struggles to stay out of it.) He recovers bikes for two anonymous souls, as an afterthought in the middle of something else. He hands Joan the video game controls…eventually. His self-pity gets cut short by a man whose recovery process has been rockier than Sherlock’s—and he listens. And in “The Games Underfoot”s most satisfying beat, Sherlock finally starts to set things right with Alfredo.
Given how much I talked about the brisk dismissal of last season’s downward spiral at the beginning of this season, I couldn’t be happier that this episode (written by Arika Lisanne Mittman) starts unpacking some of the baggage that the opening episodes sped past in their efforts to reset a procedural status quo. And it’s quietly affecting how different Sherlock is these days when faced with someone whose needs he values but somehow can’t meet. This Sherlock is wiser, and more mature; he does the work necessary to recognize that the only thing standing in front of his friendship with Alfredo is his own guilt, and he doesn’t let that keep him from offering friendship and support to someone he knows needs it. (It’s equally important, I think, that Alfredo is clear that his current hard time isn’t just about the kidnapping—and that he doesn’t say that to soothe Sherlock. Alfredo doesn’t appear very often, but this acknowledgment of an internal life that isn’t caused or directed by Sherlock is a great opportunity to deepen his characterization, should the show choose to accept it.)
Not all the amends are this meaningful: the brownstone bickering is as comfortable with itself as a tea and toast, from Sherlock’s mid-game grumping (“Your help has just resulted in that man’s murder. Again”) to the sly shift of power when Sherlock hands Joan the controls and she reminds him just how well she plays these games. I’ll admit, it’s so notable that Sherlock would forgot her prowess that it seems surprising Joan doesn’t call him to the carpet over it. A sign of his distraction, perhaps; perhaps just a shorthand to get this domestic beat into a busy episode. The explanation that makes the most sense, given how things go: She let him take point just on the off chance he’d flounce when he realized he’d monopolized something to his own detriment. It works like a charm.
Ironically, though Sherlock gets the lion’s share of the screen time, this episode’s dynamics feel carefully considered from Joan’s point of view. His quiet distance from her in the first act goes so pointedly unexplained an un-remarked that for once he seems as closed off to us as he must, sometimes, seem to her. Then again, her deliberately casual “So I guess you two don’t have much in common” plants a contrary seed that Sherlock considers in silence until the episode’s final moments. It isn’t that he’s an enigma; Joan clearly knows to pick her moment to mention Alfredo, and knows to let him tire himself out on Swords Of Saturn before she steps in. But with Joan taking point on the investigation and Sherlock pulling within himself as he sorts out how to be a friend, “The Games Underfoot” achieves a seemingly effortless balance between Sherlock’s understated emotional breakthrough and Joan’s more active role in the procedural partnership. It’s a small pivot in the point of view, but a really interesting one—and one that bodes well for what comes next.
- “But they don’t smell the same.” Jonny Lee Miller did excellent work this week, and the quiet tension behind this line—as he visibly struggles not to accidentally be an asshole while most of his concentration is elsewhere—sets a tone for some beautiful moments from him.
- Line better than it has any right to be of the week – Marcus’ “Look, you’re the only one here who’s been in the hole –” That’s some precision verbal side-eye from Jon Michael Hill.
- Runner-up: “Did I not mention that?”
- Wordless line of the week: Gregson’s reaction to “He was just getting around to letting the buyers know about them.”
- “Sherlock?” “Study.” / Sherlock flopping off to go ice his thumb: This partnership shorthand is firing on all cylinders, and it’s honestly lovely. I almost can’t wait until Sherlock finds out Joan’s been playing her own long game with Holmes Sr.
- The dark-mirror version of that exchange: “Say they did and Eddie found proof and then threatened to go public.” “Someone at that company might have killed him to keep him quiet.”
- Integer Overflow might not be a Hackers reference, but if it is (and God, I hope it is), it’s perfect.
- Joan standing there on the phone, trying to connect to Sherlock while an unidentified man digs into a giant pile of garbage right in front of her, is a .gif just begging to be made.
- Joan’s draped white Dress of Concerned-Friend Righteousness and Police Assistance is kind of amazing. Lucy Liu for the next comic-book superhero.
- Charmed by Swords Of Saturn? Here you go.