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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sherlock goes too far in dredging up a “Dead Man’s Tale”

Illustration for article titled Sherlock goes too far in dredging up a “Dead Man’s Tale”

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal In Bohemia”

While tracking down the murderer in “Dead Man’s Tale,” Sherlock notes two suspects had an altercation at the Met and missed the last two acts of Der Freischütz. What a pity; the opera’s about a young man led astray by a scoundrel who offers the Devil’s bullets as the solution to his problems, which would have been an object lesson to potential murderers about how the easiest solution is often too good to be true. It also ends up being a reminder about the danger of taking it for granted that the things you aim will land where you want, so Sherlock might have wanted to see it, too.


“Dead Man’s Tale” is very much about dredging up the past. Emerson Barker’s pirate treasure becomes the locus for activists, salvage crews, Dark Web commerce, disillusioned investors, and one millionaire just in it for kicks—and whether they’re hoping to find the treasure or actively trying not to, they’re all trying to set things right, for various values of “set” and “right.” A murder, a priceless archaeological find, a nice yachting weekend, a college education hang in the balance; it’s a lot riding on something a few miles deep in the ocean.

Which, by now, is where Shinwell’s gun is.

The first time Sherlock and Watson butt heads about Shinwell’s guilt in “Dead Man’s Tale,” Watson’s skeptical that Sherlock would buy the story wholesale. And in the moment, as if hoping to be proven wrong, Sherlock solemnly agrees: “I was looking for confirmation of a theory based on my interpretation of his brother’s case.” For a show that plays as much with the Doyle canon as Elementary, there’s no way such an admission was an accident. Sherlock’s process, as he’s reminded us, hinges on gathering evidence before playing out hunches. Shinwell’s case has only one forensic component, and is otherwise as dependent on personal accounts as a Poirot mystery. Sherlock proceeds because of a hunch, or some assumptions, and it goes about as well as this hat-tip would lead us to expect.

So, set aside the fact that Joan, Shinwell’s erstwhile champion who suffers a debilitating blow to her confidence in him, says nothing about Sherlock meeting with Shinwell (and given how this is going, I guess we will have to just set it aside). Her arguments with Sherlock about Shinwell are fascinating, from Sherlock’s first not-quite-condescending “You disapprove?” to Joan’s spectacularly blunt assessment of Shinwell as a lesser evil who’s “a means to an end.” In fact, Joan’s reactions highlight exactly the friction she’s had this season with Shinwell: on some unconscious level, she assumes he exists to reflect her. He’s been a recipient of her good intentions, her expertise, and now her pragmatism, whether he wants them or not. (When making her case for Shinwell’s usefulness, she begins, “As a physician, you pledge to do no harm, but that’s not always possible.” It’s not entirely clear if she means she’s doing harm by letting Shinwell play this out, or whether she understands Shinwell and is equating them—sometimes you hurt people no matter your intentions—but either way is telling.)

It’s equally telling that Sherlock’s so convinced Shinwell deserves nothing but prison, since in that soft interrogation of Shinwell at his apartment, he’s doing more projecting than an opera singer. “You’re not the man you were, that could not be more plain, but the truth must out” is a textbook encapsulation of Sherlock’s own demons, and a call he’s often ignored. It’s clear even in the moment that Shinwell isn’t buying. (Nelsan Ellis delivers some great moments of silent calculation in the face of Sherlock’s too-careful empathy.) Sherlock only ends up exposing himself, and it backfires.

It’s a little surprising to see just how sharply it backfires; I’m assuming there’s more to this attack than meets the eye. (Now it’s my turn to twist things to fit a theory!) I’m hoping there is, not least because this is generally a show that lets people do the hard work of redemption. Shinwell was lied to; he shot his best friend for being a traitor, and found out too late that it had been for no better reason than the higher-ups needed his body as a term of peace talks. His crusade now against SPK is deeper than he’s told anyone: it’s revenge, or penance, and Sherlock is endangering that.

But even if this is his attempt to push Sherlock (and Joan?) definitively out of the picture, there’s something morbidly satisfying in it. Sherlock’s been treading on Shinwell in ways most people in Sherlock’s life tend to accept by now. (“You know I don’t like it when you do this.” “Nobody does.”) But secretly trying to coax a confession out of your erstwhile protege is a loaded move. And though I get the sense this attack is partially a setup for something else, for now it just reads like Shinwell hit a point of no return. He’s pinned between the feds and SPK under increasing pressure, and Joan and Sherlock offer help but have also been dismissive and invasive by turns. Under their guidance, he’s already made compromises that rankle; they’ve repeatedly ignored his insistence that they let him handle his own affairs. And ulterior motives or not, he’s rightfully furious that Sherlock’s tried to use his own techniques on Shinwell like Shinwell wouldn’t notice. (“Isolate, surprise, build a rapport,” he snaps between blows, a better student than either of them expected.) The beating is surprising; the anger behind it, we understand.


It’s as big a cliffhanger as the show has had recently. We don’t know how much Joan heard beyond the initial moments of the assault, we don’t know what Shinwell’s hiding, and we genuinely don’t know how Sherlock is going to respond. When he dredged up the past, he underestimated a man with something to lose. He took aim; no telling where it will land.

Stray observations

  • I’m also going to go ahead and count “As a physician” as an X-Files reference.
  • I like the small Midnight Ranger callbacks we keep getting; this show’s been working to build a nice internal universe.
  • There were so many contenders for this episode’s best line delivery; a chance to snark around about pirates does wonders. The Raiders Of the Lost Ark exchange was pretty great: “That’s in a warehouse in Yemen.” “I was joking.” “…So was I.”
  • But I think we all knew it was going to go to Dad-Joke Gregson Strikes Again: “So what, we put out our finest message for a giant X on a sidewalk fifty paces from the old oak tree?”
  • A more serious runner-up: I’m not entirely sold on Damon’s story (I suspect we’re not meant to be), but Julian Elijah Martinez has to harden Joan’s heart against Shinwell in a single monologue, and the way Damon seems barely able to process Shinwell’s reaction (“not running, walking”) does the job.
  • I appreciate the occasional suspect who’s having way too much fun to actually be guilty. “You know Black Peter? He’s one of my favorite pirates.”
  • Usually Marcus is a fairly even-keeled cop, but he spends this entire episode making a series of increasingly disappointed faces. All his Indiana Jones dreams, vanished in a puff of smoke because some guy was pulling a basement-level scam and couldn’t afford to get caught.
  • The urge to support small business is a good one, but if you’re going to fly a banner while you vandalize equipment in order to prevent destructive capitalist ventures, either buy a flag so popular no one can trace it or make your own. That’s 101 stuff.
  • More police interrogations should start with Gene Wilder retrospectives.
  • Costume note: On top of a shirt and sweater combination that reads as stark and unassailable, during the second faceoff with Sherlock about Shinwell, Watson’s wearing a bee pin. He named a bee after her once, when their partnership was firmly established; is there a reason she’s wearing it during an argument now?