Elementary's new season asks Sherlock who he thinks he is

“His labor in these years…must have been great; the pushing and pulling strong and continual. The good plan itself, this comes not of its own accord; it is the fruit of “genius” (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all)…the amount of slow stubborn broad-shouldered strength, in all kinds, expended by the man, strikes us as very great. The amount of patience even, though patience is not reckoned his forte.”

– Thomas Carlyle, History Of Friedrich II Of Prussia, Called Frederick The Great, 1858

“An Infinite Capacity For Taking Pains” is a telling title. It’s a quote close to Sherlock’s heart (episode writer Bob Goodman had Sherlock advise Kitty to “accept that you’ll be taking pains” in the third season). It’s also a paraphrase of this Carlyle quote about Frederick the Great—the saying is more popular than the actual quote but inexact, which perfectly suits an episode where Sherlock has to deal with the idea that soon he might be as fallible as anyone else.

But the context around the quote—while essentially a blurb for the monarch in question—is also relevant here. Elementary has spent five seasons tracking a continual pull on Sherlock. His sobriety isn’t backstory or part of a superhuman skill set; it’s something that demands all the patience he has and more. He’s tempted and tested himself to prove he’s as strong as he thinks, and he has also faltered. Facing down post-concussion syndrome with no sense of when it will get better, if it ever gets better, is going to require all his capacity for taking trouble.

This brings with it the usual Elementary frustrations. (Why start the season with the moment of reconciliation when so much amazing tension was left at the end of last season, and when this episode suggests weeks of strained detente? The first season handled this beautifully; why does this show no longer trust its audience to follow rough patches between its two leads?) But at its best, this episode lets Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu explore the quietly painful implications of what exactly there is to be afraid of.

The ghost of Sherlock’s mother doesn’t reappear, but Sherlock murmuring “I can’t remember why I entered this room” has its own ache. For Sherlock, it’s the fear of a downward slide into the unremarkable—selfish, maybe, but very much in character, and painful for him. For Joan, there’s a flicker of concern beyond just Sherlock’s anxieties and memory lapse; maybe a flashback to her days as his sober companion rather than his partner, worrying that the past is doomed to repeat.

It’s hard to tell, though—in the wake of a diagnosis that will clearly affect both of them, Sherlock gets all the room to unpack. I’d take it on faith that we’ll see more of Joan’s reactions soon, except that I’ve been watching Elementary long enough to know better. The primary thing keeping this show from greatness is that it operates as if it has one and a half protagonists, rather than two.

Joan gets a handful of seconds reacting alone, in the scene where Sherlock goes upstairs to sleep. That doesn’t mean she has nothing to do—she’s an equal in the case of the week, and she sets aside quite a bit of baggage from last season the moment she realizes he’s genuinely ill. And it doesn’t mean Liu isn’t good at layered reactions—she does bang-up work this episode, especially in the moments when Sherlock doesn’t quite know what he’s saying and the full weight of the moment lands on her shoulders. But this episode focuses on Sherlock’s internal life rather than hers, as so much of Elementary has, and the show is going to miss some serious opportunities if that continues for long.

More interestingly, this episode suggests Sherlock’s new challenge will be in direct conversation with the Conan Doyle Holmes. Sherlock, in a meeting, explains how his mind “rebelled at stagnation”—from The Sign of Four. In the book, it’s followed by a consulting-detective thesis statement: “Give me problems, give me work…I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.” There, it was a statement of fact. Miller makes it a cry for help.

Sherlock has been through several gauntlets, but he’s never had to worry his deductive abilities would betray him. That’s been, as he says, his anchor to sobriety—and, unsaid but no less obvious, his anchor to his identity. Without it, who is he? It’s a question the original Holmes never had to answer, but Elementary has always delighted in deconstructing aspects of the original Holmes to find the human vulnerability underneath. This Sherlock doesn’t have the luxury of a cavalier attitude; the prospect of facing sobriety without being able to bury himself in work is terrifying.

And speaking of burying: Michael! On one level, Michael is clearly a serial element to provide Sherlock with angst as he comes to doubt his own judgment and abilities. (That Sherlock reached out to Michael and not Alfredo keeps him in the story, but also suggests how rattled Sherlock already is.) This is tricky, since the other thing that keeps this show from greatness is focusing on the episodic at the expense of the serial. Serial elements done well—Shinwell, Alfredo, Sherlock’s sobriety—elevate the emotional arcs. Those which are either handled poorly or forgotten in the fray—Mycroft, also Alfredo, Fiona, potential recurring villains and/or Joan’s family—waste potential.

It’s hard to tell how the show plans to treat this new hell being visited upon Sherlock; Michael is currently a collection of serial-killer vibes in an oversize shirt, and I was already laughing as he picked up the phone in the woods in the dead of night, well before the confirmation that he was giving Sherlock his ETA between shovels of dirt. I’m not sure how effective this approach will be in the long term. It could be hilariously camp in a way this show has never really handled (despite John Noble’s best efforts). Or, it will give us another criminal operating right under Sherlock’s nose at a time when he’s too distracted to see it, which could be very interesting.

With any luck, it’s the latter; I love a good mid-burial phone call as much as the next person, but I don’t know how well that will work with the heavier, quieter specter of Sherlock coming to terms with his identity as a person if he (however temporarily) can’t have one as a detective. He’s already having to adapt to sudden issues, reading lips after getting a piercing headache at the construction site. And in an episode that uses the downstairs room as a metaphor, he’s the one who mentions it and then forgets; Joan’s the one making plans to put it back together.

In the past, much has been made—at least on Sherlock’s side—about the importance of respecting boundaries. (His, obviously; Joan’s…eh.) Accepting Joan’s help so wholeheartedly suggests how much Sherlock’s injury already weighs on him, and it’s clear this will affect the dynamic between them. Let’s hope the peripherals fall into line around it over the season; this arc will require all the slow stubborn broad-shouldered strength this show has to spare.

Stray observations

  • The case—sex tape, murder, murder, sex tape—plays out almost in the background. That’s just as well; we’d much rather have Sherlock and Joan hashing things out.
  • For the record, it is flat nonsense that Sherlock would consider himself unable to go to Alfredo for sobriety help under such extenuating circumstances as “serious head injury that might end my detective career.” Even if Alfredo didn’t want to get back into sponsorship, didn’t they establish he has friendship to offer?
  • It’s too soon in the season to really get a sense of where things are going, murderwise. So, in the interest of covering bases, maybe Michael’s not a killer who loves telling Sherlock how inspired he was to follow his bliss! Maybe he’s a freelance gravedigger who offers bargain prices on hard work for people who want rustic, artisanal interments.
  • He got overshadowed by Desmond Harrington for obvious reasons, but it was nice of Brett Dalton to drop by as someone who we all knew immediately had happily murdered and would happily murder again.
  • “Respectfully…modesty might be an option you forfeited some time ago.” This is a garbage thing for Sherlock to say, and I am surprised nobody behind the scenes seems to have flagged it. The Sherlock Holmes from the first season, who hated blackmailers above all other criminals and seemed reasonably sex-positive in his interactions with sex workers, would be shocked to hear himself claiming that a woman who has ever publicly displayed a part of her body loses all future claims to consent or privacy.
  • “Might have even solved the case…we’ll never know now, will we.” Start your countdown to Sherlock screwing up a case because of something he forgot.
  • By now, that gray tailored suit is par for the course for Joan. But her sweater vest – buttoned up protectively high, the three slashes of white on a black ground – is put to good use in those opening scenes. It’s softer than a suit, but the neckline suggests wariness, and that intarsia is practically a test pattern for a man concerned about perception. Interesting choice to have her wear that for the rocky bit.
  • Line delivery of the week: “You said you’ve been experiencing hallucinations. Is…that what’s happening right now?” This was so well done (as was the quick bit about the sex tape later in the episode, and their scene in the front room, and the scene in the kitchen…). Even when I’m frustrated with the show’s framing of their dynamic, Liu and Miller are great together.
  • Runner-up: Jon Michael Hill making a meal of a single “Nope” when Sherlock asks if he’s also made a sex tape with Sammy.
  • Re: the hug. They touch so rarely that it always has meaning. That was a nice beat of Joan offering the comfort she wanted, bookended by her taking up the logistics of repairing the downstairs room and assuring him he’s not alone, which is the comfort he actually needs.
  • Aidan Quinn’s skeptical peering has reached truly majestic levels.
  • “She said she hoped they both would die…and they did.” Bethany is Sherlock-proof, and I appreciate that.
  • It stung but was good to see: “In memory of our friend Nelsan Ellis.”
  • Welcome back to a new season of Elementary! There won’t be recaps for every episode this time around; for the moment, keep an eye out for midseason and finale recaps, and if something particularly noteworthy goes down, then at dawn, look to the East. Until then, sit back and enjoy the delicious angst, or the freelance gravedigging.

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