One of the most challenging tasks for the creator of a long-running series is how to transition from one season to another. Robert Doherty, the creator of Elementary, has the advantage of having the entire Sherlock Holmes canon at his fingertips from which he can pluck inspiration. Given that his modern-day take on the Holmes legend skews pretty far toward the realm of CBS procedural – albeit a quite good one – and tends to incorporate the classic tales and characters rather loosely, it’s anybody’s guess how things will fare for our modern-day recovered addict Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and his very womanly former do tor-turned-sober companion-turned[-apprentice detective-turned-full partner, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).
While Season Two explored this ever-changing central relationship, by the end all was not well for the famous pair. Smarting from Holmes’ interference into her budding relationship with uis brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) – a relationship that did not end well – Watson was on the verge of moving out of the brownstone they had shared for over a year. As a result, Sherlock decided to take up the offer made by MI6 and move back to London. Oh, and there was that small matter of the packet of heroin he had stolen from an earlier crime scene.
Eight months later (better known as the summer hiatus) . . .
Joan has a beautiful apartment, custody of Clyde the turtle, and a really cute boyfriend (seriously, he is cute, and they meet cute). She has also opened her own consulting detective business and has, for once, a totally positive working relationship with Inspector Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).
And then Holmes returns, dismissed from MI6 for “a difference of opinion,” and he wants his old job back. Gregson tells him that he can come back if Joan Watson says its okay. Holmes presents his case to his former partner, and he makes it clear that he is not asking for everything to return to the way it was. He claims to have made peace with Watson’s newfound independence; in fact, he has brought with him a brand new apprentice all the way from London.
And that’s how Kitty Winter enters the picture. Those of you very familiar with the original canon may remember the name from “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”: in that tale, Holmes tries to save the happiness and the virtue of a military man’s beloved daughter from the clutches of a sadistic Austrian baron. To do so, he enlists the aid of a former mistress of the Baron, Miss Kitty Winter, whose actions turn her into one of the more memorable female characters to come out of Doyle’s stories.
Rather than end this new season with a multi-episode arc, as he did in Seasons One and Two, creator Doherty turns the first half of this whole season into The Saga of Kitty Winter. There’s nothing wrong with Ophelia Lovibond’s performance as Kitty or with the slow reveal of her past that leads to a fate bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Kitty of Doyle’s tale. One even admires how the series deals with a powerful topic in a different way. It’s just that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are a pair, like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and while separating them is the fodder of good TV conflict, it just feels wrong for them to be chatting over Facetime each night while he works with this gloomy young woman (who, believe me, has every reason to harbor feelings of anger and depression.)
Anyway, onto the cases themselves.
Episode 1, “Enough Nemesis to Go Around,” is jampacked with all the information I just gave you, plus it offers an impossible crime worthy of a Golden Age writer, in that it’s equal parts clever and ridiculous. In her capacity as private investigator, Joan has managed to unmask the person who took over for a deceased drug kingpin: his wife, Elana Marsh (Gina Gershon). The police bring her down when one of the many housewives she has recruited for her operation offers to testify against her. On the day of the trial, however, the heavily protected witness is gunned down in her hotel elevator, along with the cop protecting her. Nobody else was in the elevator, and it made no stops. Personally, I prefer the method used in the Ellery Queen series, but this one . . . well, it probably works if you care to go to all the trouble and give it a try! Meanwhile, Watson future boyfriend Andrew, future rival/co-worker Kitty Winter, and has an awkward reunion with Holmes.
Kitty seethes with jealousy in the next episode as Holmes and Watson are thrown together on a new case. “The Five Orange Pipz” is a clever take on the classic Doyle tale. Here, an Indian manufacturer’s toy beads have caused the poisoning deaths of children due to a cost-cutting process that resulted in the beads being coated with . . . GHB (the roofie drug)!! The case takes some clever turns, and while Kitty’s presence amounts to little more than a distraction, the nature of the drug and Joan’s alarm over Kitty’s unprofessionalism, prompts Holmes to reveal Kitty’s secret past to Watson.
“Just a Regular Irregular” marks the happy return of Rich Sommer as Harlan Emple, a mathematician who likes to do his work without a shirt (“brings me closer to the numbers”) and is one of Holmes’ Irregulars. While playing a treasure hunt for math geeks, Harlan stumbles upon a dead body. Frankly, if we had had just this case and the side plot that explores Harlan’s feelings for Holmes, it would have been enough. However, we also get some warm and fuzzies between Joan and Kitty as Watson’s inner counselor comes to the fore and she tries to get Kitty to go into group therapy for her past trauma.
Episode 4, “Bella,” is a relatively light-hearted take on the beloved science fiction trope about computers gaining intelligence and wanting to kill us all. The problem here is that there’s never any real sense that Bella, who speaks through a Twilight Zone-like doll possesses the intelligence that her creators insist she has developed. One of these scientists is murdered, and again there is no real atmosphere around his death to suggest that the doll dunnit! When Holmes does discover the truth, it leads to an open-ended conclusion that suggests further exploration of this criminal may be ahead.
Also in this episode, Holmes “bonds” with computer expert Andrew (Joan’s boyfriend), and then Andrew is offered a job that will cause him to spend much time in Copenhagen. Suspicious that Holmes created this opportunity to drive them apart, Joan takes some time off and accompanies Andrew to Denmark.
This leaves Kitty free to work alone with Holmes on Episode 5’s case, “Rip Off.” Personally, this episode offended me on several counts. It opens effectively, in a prologue reminiscent of Law and Order: a woman is walking down the street while talking business on her phone. She steps in a huge puddle on a curb and causes a dismembered hand to appear. Holmes deduces where the body can be found and then determines that the hand was ripped off (get it?) from the body. The victim is identified as an Orthodox Jewish man, the brother of a local rabbi and the owner of a Postal Unlimited store, beloved of his friends and neighbors and open to hiring an Arab graduate student as his employee.
Except the kindly Jewish man is actually a jewel smuggler, and his grateful Arab employee is a vicious killer. Meanwhile, we are handed maybe the most awkwardly plotted side story in the series so far. Somewhere between episodes, Inspector Gregson got himself a daughter who is also a cop who happens to have been sexually abused– twice! – by her partner, and somehow Gregson found out this information, went up to the partner and, in front of a lot of other cops, slugged him. I wasn’t sure if I had missed an episode somewhere because all we get are the ramifications of this seemingly important event: Gregson is in trouble with his superiors for punching another cop, and he’s in the doghouse with his daughter who demands he apologize to her partner in front of his squad and that he stop treating her like a child.
In the end, all the Gregson nonsense has been manufactured to build on the Kitty Winter story, as Kitty manages to save the day on all fronts. I know I seem to have a bias against Kitty – and, believe me, it does not extend to a bias against kitties –
-but this all seems like standard fare TV drama to me. Plus, with Watson off-screen for the entire episode (hey! I’m not saying Lucy Liu doesn’t deserve an occasional week off!), this underscores my point that any adaptation of Holmes and Watson should be about Holmes and Watson. I know – I’m being petty. Moving on . . .
Well . . . maybe not. Looking at the next five episodes of Elementary provides a microcosm of the good and not so – about series television. Look, I’ve never sat in the writers’ room of any series, but I do know that when the Big Networks sit down, they have to plot out an overarching idea for a season’s worth of episodes (24 here) and then fill them. By contrast, the average British series seems to comprise somewhere between 6 – 10 episodes per season, while modern streaming services can hold the number at 8 – 15.
Clearly, Robert Doherty and his writing staff were looking at issues which could stimulate and confound their regular cast. Having blown their wad (rather pitifully) on Moriarty in Season 1 and doing a much better job with Mycroft Holmes in Season 2, what was the next logical step? Answer: there was none. Moriarty could have been a multi-season long haul arc, but ultimately the main story is the development of Holmes and Watson. And since the original Holmes and Watson were developed, established and stamped for approval by the end of Chapter Two of A Study in Scarlet – and since TV does not like its top-billed pair to simply rest on their emotional laurels and just solve cases (remember, Ellery Queenlasted only a season) – Doherty and his team felt they had free rein to do whatever they wanted with, and to, their Holmes and Watson.
Let’s look at Episodes 6 – 10 in terms of three elements: 1) the cases themselves; 2) the saga of Kitty Winter; 3) the Holmes/Watson dynamic.
Episode 6, “Terra Pericolosa,” suffers from, among other things, my admiration for Mamie Gummer (one of Meryl Streep’s talented daughters) for her work as devious attorney Nancy Crozier on The Good Wife and its sequel, The Good Fight (two of the best network TV series ever made). She is so wasted in the early scenes of this episode that you know the plot is going to eventually make its way back to her. Yup!
“The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction” works as an homage to the original Holmes because of its quirky hook: why do all these seemingly disparate murders have the scent of nutmeg wafting through the crime scene? An ambitious FBI agent calls it proof of the work of a serial killer. Holmes proves him wrong (basically because he doesn’t like the guy) in a case that twists around and in on itself as the best episodes do. This one also features a new member of the “Irregulars,” a well-dressed gentleman with amazing olfactory powers, known only as “The Nose.”
“End of Watch” is another great case because, this time, it’s personal. A member of the police force is gunned down, and his weapon is found to have been replaced with a toy Glock. Holmes manages to discover the hidden motive behind the man’s death (and the subsequent killing of a second police officer); at the same time, he learns that the statements he makes in the confidentiality of his NA meetings are being taken down and distributed on a website. I’m not a huge fan of the frequent forays into Holmes’ struggles with drugs, but Jonny Lee Miller is great here as he finds and confronts the person who, out of the “best” motives, has betrayed a fellow addict.
Episodes 9 and 10 deal with science, but while “The Eternity Injection,” despite a novel idea that skirts the realm of science fiction, ends with a whimper (another zillionaire wanting to cheat death – yawn!), “Seed Money” does more of what the series does best by taking an initial puzzle – what caused the elderly couple to die in bed together? – and leads us in zig zag fashion from one direction to another, all of it having to do with biochemisty. Maybe this time the killer is a little more obvious, but in stories like this one, it’s not really about whodunnit but why.
“Seed Money” ends with a cliffhanger: a body is discovered, and Holmes is sent for by himself because Gregson does not want Kitty to see that the corpse has the same torture marks on her back as Kitty. The attacker’s presence in New York signals the coming two-part finale of The Saga of Kitty Winter. We could have senses this coming, since over the past five episodes, Kitty has been on a fast track, moving from sullen apprentice, miffed by Sherlock’s attention to Watson, to sharp assistant who even gets a case or two of her own. That the cases she gets always seem to have something to do with women under attack suggests that Kitty’s presence has always been more of a thematic one. On that level, it makes sense that Doherty reached into the canon and pulled out “The Adventure of The Illustrious Client” for the season’s major arc. But Kitty’s story works best when it’s all about Kitty.
She’s also there to bring Holmes and Watson back together, and on that score the storyline is fairly meager. Watson is concerned over Holmes’ wavering commitment to working on his sobriety (he questions the tedium both of the meetings and of living sober – clearly, he needs to go to more meetings). She has offered to give up the solo life that spurred much of the Season Two storylines and move back in, while Holmes is ready to offer Kitty a partnership, a step that is happening so quickly you can smell a big plot reversal in the air.
This brings us to the two-part finale of the first half of Season 3, a play on the Doyle short story for which Episode 11 is named (“The Illustrious Client”) and a farewell to Kitty Winter. I didn’t remember the story, but that didn’t stop me from recognizing Watson’s charming new boss, Del Gruner, as Kitty’s “surprise” rapist. (The villain in Doyle’s story is Baron Adelbert Gruner.) Other names from the original tale are used as well but not in any way to provide a strong parallel between the past and present versions. Suffice it to say that Holmes and the police spend most of the episode trailing the wrong man basically so Kitty can have her climactic moment (hearing Watson talk to her boss on the phone) to identify her past assailant.
The follow-up, “The One That Got Away,” offers a truncated revenge scenario where Gruner seems beyond reach – and Kitty reaches him anyway. Gruner’s fate approximates the Baron’s in the short story, and it necessitates Kitty leaving the scene forever. In order to provide filler for half of the 43 minutes, the writers choose this final Kitty-centered episode to provide flashbacks as to how Holmes and Kitty met and started training together. At least, we finally get to learn what became of that elusive packet of heroin that Holmes secreted at the end of Season Two. It’s sweet, and a little trite. I know I’ve been hard on Kitty Winter.
I think Ophelia Lovibond did a good job creating the character. But, as much as I love cats –
-once Kitty slinks off, the show can concentrate on what it does best: creating wonderfully quirky cases and feeding us dollops of Holmes/Watson relationship drama. Episode 13 deals with the case of a worried wife who hires Holmes to find her attorney husband. His fate makes for a reasonably interesting case, but for once the personal subplot of this episode – which is entitled “Hemlock” for good reason – overshadows the investigation. Joan is trying to deal with her ambivalent feelings for Andrew, which reach a head when they have dinner with his father. The final moments remind me of one of the better endings of a Seinfeld episode and provide a perfect segue into . . .
Episode 14, “The Female of the Species.” I love when the episode titles are multi-faceted. This one covers the main case, the apparent kidnapping of a pair of zebras from a local zoo. Since Joan is dealing with the repercussions of the last episode, Holmes enlists the help of Marcus Bell, who is on his day off. The case twists and turns in delightful ways; equally nice is the deepening (and, let’s face it, healing) around the relationship between the two detectives. Meanwhile, Joan’s perilous situation is resolved in deus ex machina form from an unexpected quarter, meaning a certain tiresome super-villain will no doubt return. At least, Watson moves back in with Holmes, even if they both realize she did it for the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, in episode 15, “When Your Number’s Up,” Holmes reveals a surprising depth of understanding, resulting in he and Watson opening up to each other and creating a healthier live/work space for them both. It’s standard subplot fare, but that’s okay, because the main case is wonderful. Much credit for this goes to Alicia Witt, an actress who played my favorite character in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Here she is Dana Powell, a serial killer with a plan. That she is clearly disturbed and yet has a viable motive for everything she does sets her apart from the nihilistic yahoos who populate Criminal Minds. I enjoyed this episode thoroughly.
The same goes for “For All You Know,” which takes us back to a pre-recovery Holmes when the body is found of a woman who disappeared three years earlier, and a note from Sherlock is discovered in her purse. Holmes is clearly shaken by this case: although he has a sure, dark knowledge of the kind of person he was as an addict, he recalls little of what actually happened to him during that period. While the police investigating Maria Gutierrez’ murder set their sights on him, Holmes and Watson investigate her ties to a church soup kitchen and to her former job cleaning the offices of a smarmy city councilman who has close ties to many civic organizations and businesses, including the police department.
The solution is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but the journey is well-played, particularly in scenes where Sherlock questions an old shoot-up buddy, Oscar Rankin, a relationship that is left open-ended. (In short, Oscar shall return.)
Episode 17, “T-Bone and the Iceman,” again accomplishes what Elementary does best: gives us a striking opening which leads us down a quirky path that twists and turns in on itself. A college student learns the hard way that you shouldn’t text while driving when her car hits a van. She stumbles out into the deserted street to see if the other party is hurt and manages to see something horrific inside the van just before she is struck from behind and killed. Holmes is disgruntled to be called out to so petty a crime until he discovers that the corpse has been frozen to the point of mummification.
The rest of “T-Bone” is pure fun. Not so much the next episode, “The View from Olympus,” which follows a similar pattern but sort of fizzles out with it. Another crime involving cars starts this one off, as a driver for the ridesharing company Zooss (sounds like the god. Get it?) is rammed and run over by a taxi driver. Again, we have a few surprises until the whole thing leads back to Zooss and a plot that deals with customer privacy but was hazy on the details and had a boring culprit to boot.
One of the charming aspects of this series is the occasional appearance of this or that character who serves as one of Holmes’ Irregulars, sort of consultants to the consultant. Aside from that wonderful character, The Nose, most of these help Sherlock with computer-related matters, like Harlan Emple (Rich Sommer) or a nerdy teen named Mason, but the most intriguing is the anonymous collective of hackers known as Everyone. They have a dynamic relationship with Holmes, often requiring him to humiliate himself online as payment for information received (my favorite was when Holmes had to write and read aloud a treatise proving that Bella from the Twilight books should have married Jacob the werewolf instead of Edward the vampire).
In Episode 19, “One Watson, One Holmes,” the collective loses some of its anonymity as one of its members who calls himself “Sucking Chest Wound” personally arrives on Sherlock’s doorstep hoping to hire him. It seems a civil war has erupted between those members of the collective who enjoy the anarchy and fun of their mission and those who want to ramp up the political nature of their activism. This leads to a highly entertaining murder case when one leader is killed (with a samurai sword) and “Chest Wound” is framed for his murder. In the course of this case, Holmes and Watson tussle with each other and with the FBI: the first results in a deepening of the detectives’ understanding for each other, while the second ends in a win for Holmes, although the information he uses is nothing but a last-minute plot convenience.
Episode 20, “A Stitch in Time,” is also loaded with professional and personal twists. The case of a man found dead in his car with the tip of a garden gnome’s hat embedded in his face is interesting until the very, very end, when it suffers from MSGSS (Mystery Series Guest-Star Syndrome): you know, when someone appears in a show who so clearly is the culprit, and yet they have one seemingly benign scene at the beginning. This happens a lot on Elementary – we saw it earlier this season with Mamie Gummer – and the presence of Eric Bogosian is no different. But this show is by no means the originator or sole proprietor of this flaw. For that we must blame Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Joan is asked by Gregson’s daughter Hannah, the police officer we met earlier, for help identifying some crooks that are preying on the citizens in her precinct. Hannah’s motives for doing this lead to some tough realizations for her father and Watson over her abilities.
One of my favorite characters is Alfredo Llamosa (Ato Essandoh), a former car thief and addict who has been Holmes’ recovery sponsor throughout the series. He is the focus of the personal plot in Episode 21, “Under My Skin,” which begins cleverly when, during a meeting where Alfredo receives his five-year chip, Sherlock unmasks a man who is there under false pretenses. What follows leads to a permanent and welcome alteration in Holmes’ relationship with Alfredo. Drugs figure in the main case as well: an ambulance containing a sick woman is stopped, the EMTs are killed, and the woman is kidnapped. It is one of the best storylines about the drug mule trade that I have watched.
“The Best Way Out Is Always Through” is a fair episode that begins with a judge getting stabbed with a screwdriver and discovered in a subway station and ends with a long-range plan to affect the governor’s race. The side plot involving Bell’s nascent love life is fun, even if it ends with an odd stuck-in-its-time moment between Marcus and Sherlock.
The penultimate episode, “Absconded,” is the last true crime investigation of the season, and the fun of it is that it involves . . . bees! Holmes arrives at a honey farm to investigate the murder by cyanide of a USDA inspector and the farm owner’s entire hive, and what’s wonderful is that Holmes ends up seeking justice for the bees. As much as I enjoy how each case in Elementary twists and turns, however, this one just doesn’t, er, buzz for me. The culprits’ plan is way too over the top, even for me. Meanwhile, Inspector Gregson is offered a big promotion, and his decision provides the first hint of future troubles in store.
The big guns come out in Episode 24, “Controlled Descent,” with a case that gets very personal for Sherlock Holmes and a final line by Watson that provides a kicker of a cliffhanger. A couple of episodes before, Holmes ended his professional relationship with his sponsor Alfredo in order to shift to one of friendship. That friendship is threatened when Alfredo is abducted, and Holmes’ search leads him down a very dark hole.
It looks like a huge arc is planned for the top of Season Four. But that’s a tale for another day . . .