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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Joan and Sherlock are outclassed in “Worth Several Cities”

Illustration for article titled Joan and Sherlock are outclassed in “Worth Several Cities”

“Everything back in its rightful place, all in one piece.”

In the final minutes of the season premiere of Elementary, Joan and Shinwell took tentative steps toward understanding each other, on the verge of a painful but possibly rewarding transformation process. In the premiere’s opening scene, Sherlock snarked at a suspect about to jump to his death, to distract him long enough for Joan to knock him out. It was as timely a reminder as any that Elementary has the potential to be one of the most quietly affecting procedurals on TV, and equal potential to accidentally flatten out the nuances that set it apart. The failure mode for Elementary is becoming a standard CBS procedural.


“Folie à Deux” was a very busy episode to very little effect. “Worth Several Cities” acquits itself better on a plot level, giving us a case that, while not particularly mysterious, puts them amid powerful forces at odds. Wendy showing up to let them know the People’s Republic of China has more reward money to offer than Taiwan, as Sherlock attempts to make contact with the drug lord who’s casually holding them hostage for a good result, is one of those beats that lets Joan and Sherlock glimpse for a moment just how dangerous their work is. It’s often interesting when one of their cases puts them outside the immediate approval of the law. Obviously Sherlock was going to avoid dismemberment and Joan was never going to take the payday, but it’s nice sometimes to see them outclassed. It’s also a nice opportunity to have Sherlock and Joan wrestling with ethical questions; there’s that trademark Sherlock steeliness in “How can you be the legal owner of a stolen, smuggled antiquity?”

Unfortunately, as often happens in Elementary of late, in trying to balance it all, the episode gets caught up in providing sufficient twists—even though, as is this show’s wont, the moment a corporate fracking honcho is introduced it’s clear what the endgame will be. And given the time spent setting up their complex predicament, the denoument is disappointingly clean; Joan and Sherlock never even have to look any of the empty-handed parties in the eye. How hard did Sherlock have to sell the idea that justice had been served? Was Joan worried about the extremely knowledgeable Taiwanese reps who got thwarted? Given Joan and Sherlock’s discussion when they realized they were potentially in a position to start a war, do they have any feelings about the American government’s pre-arranged agreement that decides where the seal belongs? Coming up against the limits of their abilities always does them some good; it only lingers if we feel like there was a little soul-searching involved.

But “Worth Several Cities” is still a reference to something priceless, so there’s got to be something. And by now we know this show places much higher value on empathetic capital than it does on deductive satisfaction. (Even Sherlock opened this season with some of his softest-touch advice in a while: “Trust your instincts, though you can render no reason.”)

And here, we find Joan and Shinwell, still at the strained beginnings. It’s an interesting parallel to Joan’s early days with Sherlock, who was hostile and had no immediate material needs. At this point Joan is more a benefactor than a mentor, and in the hands of Lucy Liu and Nelsan Ellis, we get the sense the show’s aware that one inherent aspect of this is going to be examination of privilege. (At least, I hope the show’s aware; as well-meaning as the show likely intended it, Shinwell’s questions to Joan in the premiere are painfully awkward if they genuinely expect anyone to equate life as an ex-con to switching jobs from surgeon to private detective.) The actors, at least, seem to have it in hand; when Shinwell questions the chain of vouches that got him his apartment, and Joan replies that sometimes it’s just that easy, Ellis’ reaction lands the beat. It’s the pressure of gratitude, and a quiet resignation that Joan’s got blind spots and has some work of her own to do.

This could go a number of ways, some fascinating and some painful. If the show’s merely given Joan someone to hand platitudes to for a while, this will have been a waste of potential. And though I appreciate the scene in which Leila dresses down Joan for assuming reconciliation is a good idea for everyone just because Shinwell thinks it is, if the first serious shades in Joan’s character are somehow that a former sober companion is unaware of these dynamics, that will be kind of terrible. However, if Joan and Shinwell’s relationship actually gives Joan someone with whom to develop a meaningful dynamic, it will be welcome. Nelsan Ellis brings great presence to the character; his stillness and Liu’s are noticeably different—Watson’s is all briskness and repression, and Shinwell’s is hesitation to place his trust in someone who might disappoint him. It brings weight to their scenes, and I look forward to more of them.

I also suspect that this relationship (and the career crisis it might be part of, depending how much stock you put in the season premiere) has the potential to cause some friction between Sherlock and Joan. There’s no other reason to make such a point of hanging a print that embodies the idea of rightful order and wholeness; something, soon, is going to go asunder.


Stray observations

  • I try not to play the Guest Star Game, but I laughed as TV’s Ron Rifkin popped up. At this point, they’re just baiting Myles.
  • On the other hand, this episode features Clyde, so maybe it all comes out in the wash.
  • “All sentiment aside, you might be a happier, healthier person because you didn’t interact with your biological father when you were a child.” Two things here. Firstly, while it’s a great beat that Sherlock is sagely doling out dad advice, after all the nonsense Mr. Holmes gave her last season, Watson absolutely should have had something to say about that. (If this show can use a Vachs reference in season 3 for a company and character two years later, we can keep an entire season of emotional arc in play.) Secondly, let’s remember her stepfather was last seen writing explicit sex scenes featuring her for mass consumption, so honestly, we’re looking at a pretty shitty situation all around for Joan, who should maybe have articulated some thought or feeling about this on her own, rather than the trademark Sherlock Swan-Off.
  • Joan has a Chinese name: Yun Jing Yi. (She seems oddly unconcerned that the Taiwanese reps who came to her door unannounced somehow also knew a name that’s clearly not in public use, but bigger things than this have fallen by the wayside before.)
  • While I recognize this show believes strongly in calling corporate honchos to heel, I’d like to suggest that the woman who had those restraining orders so ready to go she could hand them to the right person should get a raise from somebody.
  • It was very nice to see C. again! And she has this entire deductive business on lock. I’d like to imagine she’s the star of a show elsewhere about art fraud, and this is a crossover from that imaginary show.
  • Speaking of imaginary: Sherlock mentions that the tainted heroin killed people, “including a woman I knew.” We never get her name, but this is an intriguing aside. Will this come up again or is he on solid ground since his relapse at the end of Season 3?
  • With this, Elementary recaps begin for Season 5! It’s a pleasure to be back; thank you all so much for reading.