DADDY ISSUES: Elementary Season 4

Last time, I credited Robert Doherty, creator of the CBS TV series Elementary, for excellent transitions between seasons, and the entry into Season Four is no exception. In fact, it may just be the best yet. 

Since the start of the series, the name “Morland Holmes” has been injected into our consciousness. It was Morland who hired Joan Watson to serve as a sober companion to his heroin-addicted son, Sherlock, an odd move since ever since that moment we have borne witness to how deeply estranged father and son seem to be. Morland threatened/promised to make an appearance towards the end of the first season, but all we got was Roger Rees helping Sherlock pull a prank on Watson. 

Well, the wait is over! Not only is Morland’s entry into the series on the horizon, but he seems to have earned the status of series regular, in the person of actor John Noble. On Hulu, where I am watching the show, the Episode 1 descriptor goes like this:

When Holmes faces criminal charges in the aftermath of his recent violent behavior and relapse, his powerful father arrives in New York to fix his estranged son’s legal difficulties by any means necessary.”

In truth, Morland’s actual arrival does not occur until the 43rd minute of a 43-minute-long episode, but we get a lot of running build-up to that awkward father-son reunion. Clearly, Morland Holmes is destined to be an important character in the life of Sherlock Holmes and the series. 

First of all, “The Past Is Parent” provides us with both the fallout from Sherlock’s heroin relapse at the end of Season 3 and a strong case. A regretful Inspector Gregson informs our hero that his brutal beating of tormentor Oscar Rankin added to his drug-taking has given the Police Commissioner the chance he’s been looking for to toss Holmes and Watson out of their positions as consultants to the force. Sherlock believes he can make do with research into past crimes and daily attendance at NA meetings, but he feels deep regret over the effect his actions have had on Joan. 

Fortunately, a case presents itself in a startling and effective early scene. On his way to a meeting, Holmes is accosted by Jonathan Bloom, a wealthy predator who figured heavily in the final Season 3 case. Bloom has long been suspected of killing his wife and another woman. He tells Holmes he did murder two women, provides their burial site, and then asks the detective to prove that he did not kill his wife Alicia. And then, in front of Holmes, Bloom shoots himself in the head. 

Holmes’ plan is to team with Watson to solve the case and then give his partner full credit; this, he believes, will prompt the police department to hire back Watson as a consultant. Joan does a great job finding the solution, although if she watched Elementary she might agree with me that the killer here was pretty darn obvious. What’s most important is that she rejects Holmes’ plan and reaffirms her commitment to their partnership. It’s possible that, for a time at least, Holmes and Watson will be the private consulting detectives that Doyle intended them to be. And yet, that meeting between Holmes pére et fils on the rooftop of Sherlock’s apartment promises that the future will be anything but smooth.

John Noble is a wonderful choice to play Morland Holmes. Besides a passing resemblance between the two actors, Noble creates a real ambiguity around the character. Is he as ruthless in his familial dealings as he is in business? Sherlock seems to think so, and in Episode 2, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” he warns Watson to think twice about her initial good impression of his father. Meanwhile, with the team still suspended from the force and Holmes unwilling to have his father use his influence to have them reinstated, they accept an offer to assist an FBI agent in a weird triple homicide that took place in a research facility that was testing forms of brainwashing on college volunteers. Two scientists and a student have mysteriously been killed together, but it is the death of the lab’s pet rat that leads Holmes to the killer and the method. 

The Holmes boys, pere et fils (Jonny Lee Miller and John Noble)

I tend to find the straight whodunnits on Elementary less satisfying than the more complex what-the-heck-is-going-on-its. As often happens with the former, the killer is all too easy to spot. Fortunately, the family intrigue between the Holmeses and Watson makes up for the slight weaknesses in the main case. And things improve mightily in “Tag, You’re Me,” where another multiple murder – this time of men who are identical doubles but not familial twins – takes Sherlock and Joan on another wild ride that inspires paranoia about facial recognition systems in a much better way than last season’s episode about ridesharing managed to do. 

Meanwhile, Holmes promises to help his father with a problem involving a client in exchange for Morland promising to leave New York once the problem is resolved. Suffice it to say, not every promise here is kept. And I must say . . . already I’m liking Season 4 more than its predecessor!

If the killer in Episode 4, “All My Exes Live in Essex,” also seems pretty obvious, at least to me, it’s still another interesting chain of circumstances that begin with the disappearance of a fertility technician from the hospital where Joan used to work. We also continue this recent run of including the personal side plot be as compelling as the main story: several of Watson’s friends have been approached by a Coney Island police detective asking disturbing questions about her. Joan uncovers a situation directly linked to a favor she did for Gregson and also finds a satisfying solution to her problem. 

Morland takes the next episode off and, despite the cute pun of the title, “The Games Underfoot,” this case could use a little bit of John Noble’s intensity. A down-on-his-luck archaeologist seems to have come across an exciting find in a local landfill, and whatever his search was about seems to have gotten him killed. Yes, things hop and switch about as they usually do, but the whole case feels a bit by-the-numbers. At least Alfredo has returned to the series, and he approaches Joan out of concern at not having seen Holmes at any recent meetings. The revelations regarding this situation are more interesting than those in the case and lead to a shift in Sherlock and Alfredo’s friendship.

A sniper rains fire on a busy street in downtown New York in episode 6, “The Cost of Doing Business, which proves to be an exciting and pivotal hour. The sniper is identified by Morland Holmes, of all people, and he asks his son if he can help out in the matter of finding out who hired the killer. There are some pretty good twists as the team must first identify the intended victim and then find the culprit and motive, but the most surprising aspect of the episode is watching the fairly rapid evolution of Sherlock’s feelings about his dad from total mistrust to possible détente. The ending furthers the season’s long game as we realize – did you ever doubt it? – that Morland has something far more nefarious up his sleeve than reconciling with his estranged son. 

The next pair of cases may not include Morland, but they are still fine episodes. “Miss Taken” begins with the gruesome killing of a retired FBI agent who, out of restlessness, had begun to look into some past unclosed cases. This leads Holmes and Watson to an old kidnapping where the morals of each character come into genuine doubt before a satisfying ending. Is the girl who has come back to her family’s arms after many years really their kidnapped child. Actor Ally Ioannides imbues Mina with so many layers that you find your opinion of her changing at each commercial break. The episode’s title takes on a nice double meaning in the side story when Joan comes down hard on her stepfather for writing a novel that is a thinly disguised, and highly inaccurate, depiction of her partnership with Sherlock. 

Ally Ionnides as Mina in Episode 7, “Miss Taken”

“A Burden of Blood” has an equally harrowing beginning: a woman is found dead in her car with a bag tied over her head, and her phone carries a recording of her final moments alive. Each scene seems to bring out a new revelation that changes things around, and the final moments are a sad coda to the tragic history that enveloped most of the characters. It’s a tribute to the case that the subplot about Bell taking the sergeant’s exam is completely unnecessary. 

As you may have figured out, I’m enjoying this season, both for its standalone cases and for the long game that revolves around Morland Holmes. Featuring him in the subplots of the next two episodes is a great idea, allowing the writers to develop a complex, separate case while still providing clues as to the elder Holmes’ motivations. We learn that Morland was shot and that, for a time, he suspected Sherlock himself of the crime – at least that’s what he tells his son, who decides to unmask the would-be assassin.

As for the cases . . . “Murder Ex Machina” and “Alma Matters” both premiered in January 2016, and it’s telling that the first ends up dealing directly with the conflict between the Ukraine and Russia, while the second revolves around a for-profit university, something with which the newly inaugurated president had been involved. “Ex Machina” involves the murder of a Russian oligarch outside a strip club, and it’s a so-so episode. The idea that a Russian billionaire was eager to broker a peace deal with Ukraine seems, in hindsight, even more unbelievable than watching Holmes get a lap dance from a stripper who turns out to be a spy. “Alma Matters” starts out better, thanks to the presence of the wonderful Tamara Tunie as the manager of a halfway house who fears that her clients have been bilked by the aforementioned university and that all this is connected to a recent murder. After Tunie’s character is murdered, however, the path to an obvious culprit seems clear. 

Episode 11, “Down Where the Dead Delight,” has a particularly strong beginning: the body of a homeless man who was found in the park is delivered to the police morgue, where it promptly explodes, killing the tech who brought in the body. Holmes connects the homeless man’s death to a nearby crime scene and figures out who was responsible. Again, we have a killer who is obvious from the moment he opens the door and says hello; this time, however, his killing spree seems so overdone that even the killer has trouble explaining it. Of more interest is the return of Joan’s nemesis Detective Cortez from Coney Island. After sneering at the idea of using consultants, Cortez actually wants Watson’s help in locating a criminal. Sherlock warns Joan that Cortez is probably trying to set her up. It turns out that this is not Cortez’ plan, but what she is doing is just as bad. 

This new path down the Watson/Cortez relationship feels like a retread of what occurred between Holmes and his old drug companion Oscar Rankin at the end of Season 3, and it comes out of nowhere. Cortez is not a good cop: she uses vigilante tactics when they suit her in order to find “justice,” and she seems determined to prove to Joan that they are more alike than Joan would care to admit. Cortez uses Holmes’ recent violence against Oscar as proof, but this was a completely different situation. Yes, working around criminals will probably change you, but Holmes was an addict pushed beyond the brink by another addict. Joan is different, and if this is the start of her entering a moral quagmire, I have to say it feels forced. 

We hit the halfway point with “A View with a Room” (a title that is strangely spoilerish), with Sherlock getting recruited by the head of Narcotics, a friend of Gregson’s, to find a way to break into a drug gang’s headquarters to fetch a computer containing valuable records. Before Holmes can do this, the undercover cop who resented Holmes’ involvement is killed apparently trying to steal the computer himself. It’s more complicated than that, with a variation on Queen’s “Lamp of God” trick, but it’s not particularly interesting. And the return of Fiona Helbron, the computer savant from Episode 9, as a possible love interest for Holmes seems a little forced. (Does anyone else think it odd that Fiona’s online nickname is “Mittens?” Shades of Kitty Winter! Do all or the young women in Sherlock’s life require a feline moniker?)

Another cat lady for Holmes? Betty Gilpin as Fiona “Mittens” Helbron

Episode 13, “A Study in Charlotte,” is much better. Obviously, the title is a play on the novel that marked Sherlock Holmes’ debut, and writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe works in a number of elements from the original story, like an interesting use of the word “RACHE” and even a mention of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The murder of a college professor who specialized in the study of psychedelic drugs along with some of his students who dosed on a special batch of psylocibin laced with death caps (!) leads to another, yuckier, murder of a former student with a very complicated history, both romantic and professional. Again, the character who is eventually unmasked as the killer made his first entrance, and I pointed at the screen and said, “Hello, killer.” But the case is still a fun ride, and extra points for casting Richard Kind as Holmes and Watson’s unhappy next door neighbor. I sometimes get critical here about those personal subplots, but this one had a real “awwwwww” factor that made me feel good.  

“Who Is That Masked Man?” is a cute title for a complicated but curiously uninvolving case involving a terminally ill mortician (!) who creates masks of three people connected to a Chinese criminal triad (!!) in order to pose as these people and steal money from the dishonest head of an assisted living facility (!!!) in order to provide for his family when he’s gone. The episode is also jam-packed with information about that attempt on Morland Holmes’ life . . . including stuff that Sherlock never knew about his mother (she, too, was an addict!!!!). I’ll admit it was a bit late when I watched this, but I had to rewind a LOT!!

Sometimes these blurbs describing an episode that Hulu writes are misleading. Take the one for Episode 15, “Up to Heaven and Down to Hell,” which reads: “When Watson runs into Captain Gregson and his secret girlfriend (Virginia Madsen), a former NYPD officer, she inadvertently sets the couple’s breakup in motion.” Watson has nothing to do with the break-up, and this whole plotline accounts for a small portion of the episode. (Madsen is great here, but one gets the sense that someone is working a little too hard to drum up a storyline for Aidan Quinn.) The main case involves the death of a man when an elderly woman drops off her penthouse balcony and falls on him. It leads to a story involving real estate and another all too easy-to-spot killer. 

Episode 16 brings us two thirds of the way through a season that I was raving about at the start but which is starting to fold in on itself a bit. It’s perfect time to adapt one of the existing Holmes stories, something that Elementary has often done well or, at least, cleverly. Enter The Hound of the Baskervilles, certainly one of the better known tales and probably my favorite of the novels – none of which I particularly like. 

“Hounded” shows much promise at its beginning: a man is being hounded, er, chased through the woods by something that is fast, low to the ground, and growling. (We only get the creature’s point of view.) The man runs down a slope to escape and ends up getting struck and killed by a passing truck. His wallet spills out of his coat, and we see his ID: Charles Baskerville. 

It turns out the Baskerville family are associates of Morland Holmes, so Sherlock and Watson step in at the request of Charles’ brother, Henry, who thinks his brother’s death was not an accident but a murder. Rather quickly, they come up with a witness – an inebriated homeless man, who says he saw Baskerville being chased by something resembling a small bear or a large wolf. Oh, and it glowed in the dark. 

This whole premise shows promise – until the second attack and the exposure of the “hound.” From there, the episode devolves into a search for which heir killed Charles. It’s not a very complex search, and, in fact, by the halfway point, the script seems to be cutting corners and rushing things along to get it all wrapped up by the forty-two minute mark. After the joys of the adaptations of “The Five Orange Pips” and “A Study in Scarlet,” this one was disappointing. At least, there’s a touching wrap-up to the personal story of Sherlock’s friend, the morgue attendant who witnessed his friend get blown up by a bomb a few episodes ago. 

Confronting an unsatisfying monster in “Hounded”

Why can’t all the episodes be like #17, “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got You?” This one is a delight from the start – where a local baker trying to rouse the homeless who sleep near his oven vents at night finds the corpse of a man dressed as a superhero – to the final sting of Joan’s investigation into whether a mole in Morland Holmes’ office is slipping secrets to his competitors – this story is full of twists, warmth, humor, and just enough long-arc story to not drag things down. There’s a wonderful where Holmes is questioning a suspect who’s wearing a mask and a cape and insists that nobody must learn his secret identity. Sherlock then does what Sherlock does best by rattling off a list of facts he has deduced from the man’s appearance. The shocked superhero asks, “How did you do that?” to which Holmes replies, “I was bitten by a radioactive detective.” 

Things move down to simmer for Episodes 18 and 19, providing strong evidence again that American TV series seasons are simply too long. It’s not that either case is bad; there’s just nothing really special about them. “Ready or Not” concerns the death of a doctor who was also a survivalist. At first, his murder is thought to be connected to illegal drugs, but then it switches to a scam luxury shelter. The solution brings both elements nicely together. Then there’s “All In,” about a secret high stakes poker game that turns violent. Lin Wen, the woman running the game, comes to Holmes and Watson when she gets shot at home. She tells them that she knew – and slept with – Mycroft, but her connection to Joan runs much deeper than that . . . and is an absolutely unnecessary complication to an already family-rich season that is starting to resemble a kitchen sink!

While Episode 20, “Art Imitates Art,” drags out the Joan/Lin story, the main case is really good. A woman gets gunned down waiting for her Zoooss ride, and each suspect interview further unfolds a complex situation with many folds! Things get more and more uncomfortable as the solution leads the police much too close to home. As often happens, I raised my finger and pointed to a certain character and said, “You’re it.” Turns out the solution was a little bit more complicated, but still . . . don’t you think the culprits on Elementary all have a certain look???

Episode 21, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” features a pretty interesting case about what looks like an attempted carjacking that resulted in the deaths of both the driver and the carjacker. Turns out the “crime” was nothing like what it seems, and the theory of what really happened changes again and again and again. 

But it’s the side story that is most significant, heralding a four-part season finale that resolves just what sort of person Morland Holmes is. Joan has been blackmailing the mole she secretly uncovered in Morland’s office in order to investigate exactly what the elder Holmes is up to. The mole suspects that his cover has been blown, and in the final scene, where Marcus investigates a masked assailant who shot up a diner, it appears the mole was correct!

“Turn It Upside Down” starts with a moment of reckoning for Joan as she stares into the cold, dead eyes of the mole and feels responsible for his death. She finally confesses to Sherlock all that has been going on, including a surprise visit made to their flat the previous evening by his father. Morland functions as the chief suspect through most of the hour, but with two more episodes to go, you know it can’t be that easy. The massacre in the diner unveils an earlier murder and a bizarre quiz designed to weed out psychopaths. In the final moments, Sherlock pieces enough information together to pull Joan aside and tell them that the mastermind behind all these murders is not his father but another criminal mastermind well known to both of them. You’ll never guess who has ordered all these murders, but it rhymes with “gory party!”

The final two episodes, “The Invisible Hand” and “A Difference in Kind,” manage to tie up a ton of loose ends from more than just this season. For instance, Holmes quickly realizes that Moriarty is not behind all the threats against Morland; another person, an economics professor named Joshua Vikner, has taken over her criminal domain. Holmes and Watson confront Vikner and learn several key things, including the fact that Vikner is the father of Moriarty’s daughter, and that Moriarty had decreed that Sherlock and Joan were untouchable and must never be harmed. 

Morland’s offices are bombed by the Russian hitman who is the second of six psychopaths identified by the DANTE survey (Ep. 22). He is captured but assassinated in Gregson’s precinct by a rookie cop who turns out to be the third psychopath. (Three more to go . . . this is starting to look like The Mentalist!) Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson find a similar bomb in their flat, which Holmes disarms. Realizing that Vikner would not go against Moriarty’s will and have them killed, the pair team up with Morland and track down the person responsible: an Iranian diplomat who is also a major force in Moriarty/Vikner’s enterprise, which she reveals to our heroes to have influence all over the world. She also tells them that Vikner has been the one targeting Morland for the simple reason that the others in the organization wished to replace Vikner with Morland as their leader. 

In every conversation between father and son in these final episodes, Sherlock brings up his father’s weaknesses and tells him that he would never succeed as a criminal mastermind. Of course, the fact had been leaked to me that Morland would take over from Moriarty as leader of the “gang.” What I was not prepared for was the reason why. In that regard, my sentimental nature was more than satisfied by the turn the story took, and by John Noble’s complex portrayal (at least, more complex than one often finds in series TV.)

All in all, Season Four had the strongest start of all, sputtered a bit in the middle, and then had a reasonably strong finish. In the final half, the standalone cases have a formulaic quality; only episodes 13 and 17 really shine. As for the big story arc, it became a little hard for me to follow, but every time John Noble shared the screen with someone, it was riveting His struggle to make Sherlock more amenable to a relationship and his careful parrying with the distrustful Joan were always a delight. Aidan Quinn had his best scene of the season with Noble, expressing his concern for his friends (“If anything happens to them, the next time you see me, I won’t be a policeman.”) The season ends with Morland heading back to London. I hope he returns.

Meanwhile, let’s see what Season Five brings . . . 

5 thoughts on “DADDY ISSUES: Elementary Season 4

  1. I know what you mean about the HOUND adaptation – Mark Gatiss couldn’t quite manage it in SHERLOCK either. This is why I prefer SIGN OF FOUR 😆 But as you say, lots of great things here and Doherty and co are proving themselves to be a very smart bunch. And I just love how they tweak the Sherlick and Joan dynamic just a little bit nearly every episode to get a real sense of development.

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    • These posts are necessarily long, but you have no idea how much I cut out!!! In the final episode, there’s this wonderful scene between Holmes and Morland where dad tells son that he’s becoming the new Moriarty to protect Sherlock and Joan. He reminds Sherlock that they BOTH seem to have the problem where everyone they love either dies or goes away (Sabine for Morland, mom, Mycroft and Kitty for Sherlock). He alludes to Sherlock’s close tie – dare we say it, love? – for Watson, after which Sherlock tries to get Watson to move into Morland’s stunning penthouse. (I would LOVE to have that place, with it’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as my New York pied a Terre) Joan pooh-poohs the idea. I love that they are close as friends and can eschew the “will they or won’t they? dynamic of so many TV detective teams. In that sense, so far, they have been faithful to the Holmes-Watson relationship.

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      • Yes – and I love that there is no cliffhanger ending this season. Doherty laughingly describes the show as a “bromance” and I think that’s fair. As you so rightly say, in the end it’s a show that is about how much they care about each other – how great is that?

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    • I can’t speak with too much authority having not seen the Elementary episode, but I personally thought that the Gatiss episode is a pretty decent adaptation overall. It certainly benefits from the inherent atmosphere of the Dartmoor location, and there’s something interesting in what Gatiss says about government conspiracies supplanting ghost stories as a collective fear. HOUN just seems like a difficult tale to update in that way, rooted as it is in Gothic tradition. Even the Rathbone/Bruce films – at first so eager to update Holmes and Watson to the modern day – reverted to a quasi-Victorian milieu for The Scarlet Claw, probably the best of the Universal run, and in its own way a kind of cloaked Hound adaptation.

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      • I think you are right about the reasons for its appeal. Of the novels it’s one that most people know and like and easily the most oft-adapted. But the dog is always, always a disappointment and Holmes being away for so long inevitably weakens it. The Gatiss is a very decent update. But SIGN OF FOUR is the one I wish they’d have a crack at more often. The Brett version is superb though.

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