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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Joan Watson considers becoming Batman

Illustration for article titled Joan Watson considers becoming Batman

“I don’t have enemies. I’m not like you.”

Let’s start this one right from the top: “Down Where The Dead Delight” is taken from the Latin motto long associated with morgues: Hic Locus Est Ubi Mors Gaudet Succurrere Vitae, which loosely translates to “the place where death delights in helping life.” It’s a suitably chewy motto for a layered, sometimes fascinating episode that makes great use of the gray areas Elementary can inhabit so well.


There are three victimized women in this episode: Janet (killed by the father of the young man who was obsessed with her—you know how overprotective dads are), Nicole (killed by the bomb that dad planted in a corpse to cover his tracks), and barely-mentioned Nyoka (beaten into brain damage by gang member Hector). Of course, because an episode title works better if there’s a little irony at stake, their deaths are pointless and solve nothing. All three of them are injured because they’re held responsible for men’s behavior, to different degrees of intent: killed to protect a stalker, collateral damage from the killer trying to hide his identity, beaten after winning a basketball game. There have been plenty of women victims on this show, but rarely have they so neatly lined up—and it’s no coincidence that this time, they line up in front of Joan.

This season opened with Sherlock being called on to solve an emotionally-tangled case handed to him by someone trying to play simultaneously on Sherlock’s guilt and his curiosity. There have been hints since then that Sherlock will have to move past his first instincts on both fronts if he’s going to get past the great hurdles in his life: drugs, his father, and the constant threat of boredom. We’ve even seen him making sweeping proclamations about his morals and methods, like the hero in a Greek tragedy who has never read a Greek tragedy. “Down Where The Dead Delight” (written by Jeffrey Paul King), poses a version of this same question to Joan, with some truly surprising results.

A lot of this is, for Joan, business as usual, except that we begin to feel the claustrophobia of operating within the rules. (Episode director Jerry Levine constantly frames her within the frame: against a line of morgue drawers, in interrogation-room and coffee-shop windows, in the doorways of the brownstone.) Her day begins with Hawes’ grim wishful thinking that whoever blew up the morgue will suffer for it. She brushes up against criminal syndicates twice, and bristles at their ability to protect and obfuscate themselves. She has her usual casual cynicism about stalkers and creeps (a hard line except in the case of stepfathers, I guess). And she brings some nice detection to bear this episode, especially in the deceptively simple favor that turns into Cortes suggesting a little vigilantism isn’t just a good idea—it’s inevitable for anyone as smart as Joan is, who sees what Joan sees about the limits of the justice system to get at the root of some of these problems.

The invitation/accusation lingers for Joan, especially since the A-case is one of those in which none of the men involved are totally innocent. Joan shifts uncomfortably in her chair as Janet’s boyfriend casually describes how physical their fights got—and at the news that Janet forgave him in short order. Toby proclaims that his collection of murder-journals and photos was just helping him “work through” his obsession—which might have seemed more genuine if he hadn’t been watching her on hidden camera. (Honestly, is there any quicker way on TV to discover a hidden stash of creepy stalker photos than to have someone declare that kid is “not some kind of a loner creep, no matter how badly you want to paint him as one”?) Sherlock goes out of his way to note that they invaded his privacy by reading his journal. But there’s no possible excuse for the camera—the episode doesn’t make him defend himself there—and whether or not he planned to do her physical harm, he’d already violated her out of his obsession…and Janet died to pay his debt, a grotesque double-down.

If a case is going to make you want to take justice into your own hands while realizing your own helplessness, it’s this one. And when Joan tells Sherlock, early in the episode, “I don’t have enemies. I’m not like you,” it feels in its own way as grand a statement as Sherlock’s own moral-binary proclamation that every killer belongs in jail. It certainly gets a reaction out of Sherlock, and no wonder—in Lucy Liu’s hands the words aren’t quite an accusation, and Jonny Lee Miller’s response isn’t quite shame, but there are deep flickers of tension in the brief exchange that make me wonder if this won’t be coming up again later in the season in very different circumstances. And while Joan certainly doesn’t seek confrontation the way Sherlock does at his most self-destructive, but Joan speaks as someone who’s yet to realize that it’s not a two-person contract. If someone decides they’re against you, you have an enemy. And wouldn’t you know it: Cortes.

It wouldn’t take a case as loaded with injustices as this one for us to understand Cortes’ instinct to go a little Batman on somebody—especially somebody who would never otherwise be brought to justice. Because while Joan’s moral core is well-established, Cortes is also kind of correct. Terrible crimes go unpunished because the justice system’s reach is flawed, and though her desire for revenge is definitely selfish, that just makes her like half a dozen mostly-justified TV antiheroes doing the same thing. And four years isn’t a particularly long career in law enforcement; though Liu provides as much subtext for Joan’s reactions to injustice as the scripts have allowed, on the page, Joan’s largely treated the cases they’ve seen as academic exercises. (Liu does great work with subsumed defensiveness in these scenes: “Stay the course this time” seems to sting just as much as Cortes might have hoped.)


Joan’s last shot in the episode is her striding away from Cortes in her own Full Batman moment. But her closing words are something more pragmatic, and slightly chilling. “Race you to the bottom” isn’t something you say when you plan to take the high road. And it’s moments like this where you realize how the show weights so much more of its long-term arcs with Sherlock, because as good as this moment is (and it’s so fun), it sounds like someone halfway down a slippery slope, and we have no idea if she is. Is this just Joan starting another game of chicken to draw Cortes out? Very plausible; I’d totally believe she’s willing to pull some gray-area strings to pin Cortes for her extracurricular beatdowns. Is Joan slowly beginning to bristle at the idea of having police keepers? We haven’t seen much of it, but if we reach way back to the start of the season, she’s certainly happy to make use of ill-gotten evidence, so, maybe. Or—to our surprise as much as Cortes’—is Joan throwing down a gauntlet she knows is going to draw her into complications she might not be able to shake?

Honestly, that last one is the longest shot, but it could provide a fascinating reversal if Sherlock’s own journey back to stability suddenly comes face to face with Joan in a moral crisis. He spends most of this episode suspicious of Cortes but visibly trying to stay in his lane: alerting her to Hector’s injuries, expressing his reservations, and otherwise getting out of her way. In fact, the first thing he does when he hears about Hector is to assure Joan she has an alibi, which is a small but crucial remove from telling her he knows she didn’t do it. He clearly knows she’s capable of it, and while we have no textual evidence of significant repressed anger from Joan, he also clearly treats it as a thing that, objectively, she might have pulled off. He lists her timestamps on the footage without declaring it’s obvious she didn’t leave; of course she could have left.


It’s a brief but telling dossier of criminal competence, delivered by a man who very nearly punctured someone with an ice pick once. Should this pan out, and Joan has to face down her first real enemy, she’s more than prepared. She’s a doctor turned detective; that morgue motto combines her past and present—an academic exercise with the potential to turn personal—and if it pans out, her arc for the rest of this season could surprise us. (If death really does delight in helping life, and you can’t help your enemies, what the hell is Joan going to do?)

Stray observations

  • Line delivery that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: Jon Michael Hill nails Bell’s brief eulogy for Nicole. “She was nice” can sound like a tepid fallback endorsement of someone with nothing else going on, but it’s very clear that for Bell, being genuinely nice is a significant marker.
  • A very, very close second: Gregson’s, “It sounds strange,” which has to be heard to be appreciated.
  • Best roller derby name Sherlock comes up with: Joan-Cold Killer.
  • Best accidental band name Sherlock comes up with: A Cruel Trick of Municipal Geography.
  • Miller’s delivery of “super mad” is truly delightful.
  • Joan costume note: Her outfit in the second half of this episode is slightly unusual for her—normally she either opts for pants or shorter skirts than this tea-length number—but something about the sharp lines edging that skirt makes it look ever so slightly like something that goes under armor; is Joan preparing for war?