THE SAD SAGA OF SHINWELL JOHNSON: Elementary Season 5

Throughout our journey so far through Elementary, CBS’ modern rendering of detective Sherlock Holmes, creator Robert Doherty has found various ways of turning to the original canon of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle for inspiration. We have seen standalone episodes that have either delighted or disappointed us. More significantly, Doherty has used characters – both major and minor – to create arcs that span all or part of a season. The strategy is most successful when the character affects both the individual cases and the central relationship between Holmes and Watson. Mycroft assisted the team and then managed to tear them apart. It worked even better last season with Morland Holmes, Sherlock’s complex father – but he is not canon. 

It admittedly also worked in Season Three with Kitty Winter (Olivia Lovibond), a minor character snatched from the story, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” whom Holmes snatched from London to replace Watson as his new protegee. Kitty lasted half of season three, met her rapist, burned his face off, and escaped. Frankly, I thought it was a good send-off, and I was perfectly fine seeing her go. 

Well, Kitty’s back! Since she is not the center of the Season Five arc, we’ll get to her in a bit. What Doherty has done here is to pluck an even more obscure character out of “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” and make him the centerpiece of the entire season. His name is Shinwell Johnson, and in both his past and present incarnations, he is a former criminal turned informant. In Elementary, he comes into Joan Watson’s life just as she’s feeling a bit “blah” about the detective business. She misses the days of being a surgeon or a sober counselor and helping the less fortunate. With Shinwell, she’s about to have her hands full. 

The good news is that Shinwell is played by Nelsan Ellis, a remarkable actor perhaps best known for playing Lafayette Reynolds on True Blood. He died tragically young at age 39 soon after Season 5 of Elementary has aired. (The show dedicated the first episode of Season 6 to Ellis’ memory.) His sensitive portrayal may tend toward the maudlin at first, but the writers are playing a long game, combining social tragedy with a cautionary tale aimed at Joan. 

Nelsan Ellis as Shinwell Johnson

I’ll be honest: the Shinwell Johnson arc has aged poorly in these modern times. He is only the third major black character to appear on the series and the second whose story centers around a history of poverty, drugs and crime. (The third character, Detective Marcus Bell, is a cop and a hero, but he does have a brother who is an ex-con.) Portraying black characters in all their diversity and not as low-life villains or poor unfortunates who find some dignity – and then die – is a problem television continues to grapple with. 

My other problem is that, for much of the season, Shinwell mostly exists somewhere to the side of Holmes and Watson. They care about him, they visit him, he visits them . . . but mostly he does his thing and mostly it is Joan who has coffee with him and tells him whether his actions are good or bad. There’s an air of doom that pervades the screen when Shinwell appears, but it’s not an especially new or different depiction of a black ex-con trying to make good. It is Ellis who elevates the character to someone worth watching and rooting for. 

Let’s get to the cases, which start off with a literal bang. In Episode 1, “Folie a Deux,” an expectant father on his way home through a busy park has the misfortune to pick up a stray soccer ball – and blow himself to bits! This has all the earmarks of the work of the Bensonhurst Bomber, who was responsible for a string of explosions and then disappeared five years earlier. Holmes spots a suspicious character watching the police at work, and from there the case twists and turns, as well as bringing Shinwell Johnson, a former inmate at the same jail as a suspect, into the fold. 

Sherlock is kidnapped at the beginning of Episode 2, “Worth Several Cities.” The leader of a Dominican drug cartel wants him to find out who executed the gang’s favorite smuggler. Before too long, this case starts to have a distinct Maltese Falcon vibe, as mobsters, businessmen and warring factions in the governments of mainland China and Taiwan try and influence/bribe/threaten Holmes to deliver a priceless and legendary object. It’s an okay episode, not too heavy on the violence; the side story where Shinwell asks Joan to locate his teenage daughter is much too heavy on the violins. 

“Render and Then Seize Her” has a nifty opening: a man is found murdered at a clothing optional resort, and while it looks at first that here is one nudist with questionable values about privacy, it turns out he had spotted a kidnapped woman in an “empty” cabin and been shot for his troubles. The clear question for this viewer: is her husband actually involved in the kidnapping, or did the wife fake the whole thing for ulterior motives? I won’t tell you which, but it’s a good question. Meanwhile, Virginia Madsen returns as Gregson’s girlfriend for a side story that suggests to me the writers are running dry on side stories . . . 

Based on the opening, “Henny Penny, the Sky Is Falling” should be a great episode: a couple returning to the home they rent out as an AirBnB find it trashed. There’s even a spiky object sticking through their wall; unfortunately, the other end of that object has run through their next-door neighbor. But then it all gets waaaaayy too complicated with a payoff that isn’t deserving of the complications. The murderer is still too easy to spot, and their motive is lost in the haze of twists. Also, the side plot where Gregson wants Holmes and Watson included in some police award, gets is far less dramatically appealing than it wants to be. 

But Episode 5, “To Catch a Predator Predator,” is an excellent case, despite the fact that Shinwell mopes about the fringes of the hour. A highly dramatic murder in a motel leads to the world of online dating, with all of its pitfalls, and showcases one neat reversal after another. Nobody can be taken for granted here, and I’m happy to say that the character I picked as “murderer of the week” turned out to be a red herring. The actual solution is a poignant twist that calls into question everything the murder victim was trying to do. 

The next two episodes epitomize the ups and downs of the formula Elementary hews to this late in the game. A typical episode unveils a bizarre killing, lets Joan and Sherlock loose on a few people who lead to a few more people (and a lot of plot twisting and turning) before the killer is revealed to be someone we met early on. In a standard denouement, Holmes and his team confront the killer, who scoffs at each mounting piece of evidence until the coup de grace is delivered, whereupon the killer is rendered speechless and we switch to the final scene between Holmes and Watson that ties up whatever personal side story was brewing.

This description fits “Ill Tidings” to a “T”! A famous chef is killed in his restaurant kitchen when he tastes his signature foie gras appetizer. The murder method is ingenious: the plate has been dosed with snake venom, while the foam has had micro-bits of glass inserted so that the victim will get little abrasions on his tongue that allow the venom to enter the bloodstream. The reason for his death is complicated indeed, leading to members of a group that defends the internet from hackers, the New York Stock Exchange, and the world of fine art. The killer is the guy I pointed to in the first five minutes. (Maybe I just have a knack.) His final confrontation follows the template I described above, but at least Holmes varies it a bit by revealing a clever hiding place for the missing art. 

Episode 7, “Bang Bang Shoot Chute,” (very clever title) sticks to this formula as well but varies it enough to make for a really good episode. Another bizarre murder starts us off: two friends who are base jumpers leap off a Manhattan skyscraper as an homage to their late partner, who died in a jumping accident. One of these men is shot by a sniper on the way down, but when Holmes examines the body, he finds the chute has been sabotaged. Who is responsible for what Marcus Bell describes as “literal overkill?” 

Once again, the plot twists and turns into wholly different territory. Once again, there was a character I pointed to who did bear some culpability in the end. But the territory is interesting, and the whole answer far more satisfying than in the last episode. Meanwhile, Shinwell Johnson makes a brief appearance to dismiss Joan from his life so that he can carry on whatever dark mission the writers have intended for him. 

Episode 8, “How the Sausage Is Made,” is imaginative, kind of gross, and quite funny. A man dies when he ingests sausages made of human meat!!! This leads to the world of lab-grown meat products and takes a detour through the kosher and halal communities; even though the killer is again obvious, the path to finding him is a lot of fun. 

And now the Shinwell Johnson story kicks into high gear with Episodes 9 and 10. In “It Serves You Right to Suffer,” a gang member’s death on enemy territory leads Sherlock right to Shinwell’s door. Holmes is now made a central player in the Saga of Shinwell, as he performs an act at episode’s end that indebts Mr. Johnson to him. The killer isn’t particularly hard to spot, given the series’ tendency to distrust governmental agencies and economic leaders, but the plot is good and provides not only clarity as to Shinwell’s intentions, it also sets up the central conflict between Sherlock and Joan over those intentions – a conflict one imagines will end very badly.

In “Pick Your Poison,” our detective duo and Shinwell deal with the ramifications of the previous episode and come to – temporary – terms over it. Meanwhile, Joan has to deal with a personal threat to her reputation when an addict’s body shows up at the morgue with a prescription for opioids apparently given to the dead man by Joan herself. There might have been a time when this plot packed a big punch; unfortunately, I have watched enough TV to know that (ROT-13) jura n jbzna’f puvyq rkuvovgf flzcgbzf gung eraqre gurz na vainyvq jvgubhg nal pyrne qvntabfvf, vg nyjnlf gheaf bhg gung gur zbz vf fhssrevat sebz Zhapunhfraf-ol-Cebkl naq vf cbvfbavat ure bja xvq gb tneare nggragvba naq flzcngul sbe urefrys. Frr GUR FVKGU FRAFR, juvpu ernyyl tbg guvf fgbelyvar ba n ebyr . . .

Episodes 11, “Be My Guest,” and 12, “Crowned Clown, Downtown Brown” (it took me a while to figure out this title, and now I crown it the grossest title of the entire series!), are highly entertaining episodes that manage to switch the formula up a bit to pack more oomph into the solutions. In “Be My Guest,” the wrap-up for a theft of auction items brings Sherlock face to face with Ryan Decker, a sociopath whom Holmes quickly realizes has been keeping a woman hostage in his home. Unfortunately, Decker quickly realizes he’s been made, and he instructs his accomplice to “take care of” his hostage. A guilt-stricken Holmes must achieve two ends: find the girl before she dies, and figure out who the accomplice is. The first task is exciting from start to finish, full of twists. As for the second . . . if anyone isn’t immediately sure who the accomplice is, I don’t know what to say. But the nature of that relationship takes an interesting turn at the end. The included side story, featuring Shinwell torn between training with Watson and going it alone to take down his old gang, honestly feels tacked on and ends up furthering the arc not a jot. 

“Crowned Clown . . . “, which takes us to the season’s halfway point, is an even better episode, and although I did pick the culprit (yes, I’m that good), there was a fake-out toward the end that nearly got me. It doesn’t matter: the story of a chase through the woods in Mt. Pleasant of a rogue scary clown that leads to a monumentally complex story involving the water that feeds New York City is twisty, fun, and even scary. (I owe a personal debt to this episode, as I recently was pressured to buy an expensive water filtration system for my home.) The side story is also a complicated one and centers around Marcus Bell, who has begun to seriously date an assistant district attorney. For once, we are treated to a side plot that is every bit as compelling as the main story. It’s a great episode all around.

Episode 13, “Over a Barrel,” is a highpoint of both the season and the series as a whole. Yes, we’ve seen this sort of situation many times before, in movies and on TV, but in the hands of this cast, and especially of guest star Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., it is beautifully acted, and writer Jeffrey Paul King takes special care to skirt around the cliches. Whitlock plays Jack Brunelle, whose security guard son was assaulted years before. The attack made Conner Brunelle vulnerable to painkiller addiction, to which he succumbed. 

The opening segment offers a montage of attempts by Jack to get Holmes and Watson to investigate Connor’s death, only to be brushed off again and again. Finally, on the eve when the statute of limitations against Connor’s attacker will run out, Jack takes twenty people hostage in a diner and demands Holmes solve the case before midnight or else he will start killing the customers. 

The case is fine, taking the usual twists and turns, but the highlight of the episodes are the scenes where Jack and Joan, now his hostage, simply talk. I think most of us are suckers for stories about Everymen trying to buck or change the oppressive system. This is a heartfelt example. 

“Rekt in Real Life” was . . . well, it was boring. I had to watch it twice. It involves the murder of an eSports commentator that takes us to the battle between Inuit seal-hunters and PETA-type activists, then veers to land rights and shipping lanes and lots of greed. There’s also a side plot involving Shinwell and his daughter that again felt like a preview for another series. Honestly, this time around all the twists and turns just made me tired. 

Episodes 15 and 16 constitute the two-part return of Kitty Winter. Robert Doherty, who co-wrote both episodes with Jason Tracey, seems to have felt he wrote himself into a hole with Kitty’s exit as a violent (but sympathetic) fugitive, so he basically drops all that. Kitty evidently went to hide out in . . . London? where she worked as a private eye and helped women out of sex trafficking nightmares. Now she’s back (and the police are fine with it, despite her being wanted for burning a man’s face off) to warn Sherlock that four men associated with a past hit and run case have been murdered and she and/or Holmes could be next. Oh, and she has a baby. His name is Archie. Do ALL British women these days name their kid Archie???

She’s baaaaaack! Olivia Lovibond as Kitty Winter

The problem here is that Episode 15, “Wrong Side of the Road,” is wonderful – it even has the promise of an impossible crime in it – while its follow-up, “Fidelity,” suffers from the same over-complicated set-ups that “Rekt in Real Life” did. The master criminal here has big plans, of the “world war” variety, but the whole thing becomes so weighted down by its twists that it turns preposterous. However, there is a nice moment at the end where Sherlock and Joan become Archie’s godparents and Kitty hopefully will be on her way outta there.

The next two episodes constitute a !!!CANON ALERT!!! Both have powerful openings and the requisite twists and turns of an Elementary case, and they heighten the pleasure with some clever parallels to the original Doyle stories. In addition, we find the saga of Shinwell moving in an even darker direction. 

At the start of “The Ballad of Lady Frances,” a drywaller is attacked by his truck by two men demanding that he reveal the location of “Lady Frances.” Despite his protestations, the men torture him by shooting him in the joints. What they don’t know is that their crime is being recorded on a device that is part of a pilot surveillance program designed to try and stop criminals in the act. The program is a controversial one and has been a focal point of the upcoming mayor’s election. 

Crime stats? NYC mayor’s election?? Ahhhh, so prescient!

I think most everyone will go into this tale believing that Lady Frances is not a kidnapped woman – and they would be correct. She happens to be a magnificent Carfax electric guitar (totally fictional brand) that was once owned by Eric Clapton. From there, the story weaves between the world of music and that of politics, with a fun appearance by the legendary Meat Loaf as a vile record producer. If this episode is canon in name only, it’s a very good one. 

Episode 18, “Dead Man’s Tale,” hews even more cleverly to the original Holmes story, “The Adventure of Black Peter.” This time we begin in a storage unit, whose contents are being auctioned off due to non-payment by the unit’s owner. The lucky winner turns out to be not so lucky when he discovers the owner’s body in a locker. I don’t want to belabor this by offering a long comparison between the story and the episode, but there are loads of clever parallels. The fact that the case leads Holmes into the world of modern-day treasure hunters and legendary pirates lends an even lovelier atmosphere to the plot. The best thing of all, however, is that writer Tamara Jaron is inspired as much by director Mel Brooks as by Doyle, and the ending is quite lovely.

Meanwhile, Shinwell has been shot at (an event curiously left offscreen), and the bullets match those that killed his fellow gang member and best friend Jameel long before Shinwell entered prison. Holmes confronts Jameel’s baby brother Damon, who admits he shot at Shinwell. Hiding in his room during the murder when he was ten, Damon had lied about what he knew, which is that Jameel was killed by Shinwell. Holmes then turns to Shinwell, who refuses to confess at first but then explains that he was forced to do this by the gang he is trying to bring down. Oh, and this explanation is accompanied by Shinwell savagely beating Holmes on the sidewalk. 

Six episodes to go, and I think we can safely say that there’s no chance Shinwell Johnson’s saga is going to end happily. The bigger question – as it should be – is how Shinwell’s fate will affect the Holmes/Watson dynamic. 

A new look for Holmes. I wonder why . . .

Unfortunately, the next four episodes see the series veering in a downward direction. The cream of this crop of cases is the side story featuring Marcus Bell, whose problems with Ray Booker, the ex-husband of his D.A. girlfriend Chantal come to a head. Over the course of several episodes, Booker tries to frame Marcus for bad behavior, Chantal is severely beaten, Booker is murdered, and the whole thing ends rather anti-climactically. 

The cases themselves are over-complicated and mostly easily forgotten. “High Heat” begins with an inept private eye and his assistant being burned alive in a crematorium. This one involves a past case (a horrendous courthouse shooting), a confusing array of paternity questions, and a hereditary disease; the whole is less than the sum of its parts. “The Art of Sleights and Deceptions” is the best of this lot, involving a magician’s trick called the Bullet Catch going wrong and leading to a killer related to a Nazi war criminal, but there are far too many twists for the case’s own good.

“Flying Into a Rage, Make a Bad Landing” (a bad title!) deals with the culmination of the Ray Booker story and the solving of his murder. “Moving Targets” has an interesting opening premise: a reality show where contestants wander around New York shooting each other with paint guns goes awry when one favorite is killed with a shotgun. But then it devolves into a whole business conspiracy where the killer’s connection to the victim is a howler of a coincidence. 

Throughout these episodes, the Saga of Shinwell makes a feeble progression toward his murder at the end of Episode 22. The “Last time on Elementary” blurb for 18 is all about Shinwell, but he doesn’t appear in that episode or the next one. I’m assuming Nelsan Ellis may not have been up for much camera time. Most of what we get is found in scenes where Holmes is examining evidence of the case du jour, Watson comes in, Holmes asks about Shinwell, Watson passes on some information or an opinion, and then they focus on the case. In the end, Shinwell wants to do the right thing: bring down SBK, his old gang, and then pay his dues for murdering his old friend. Unfortunately, Joan finds him shot to death in his apartment at the end of 22. 

The season is wrapped up in a two-parter, “Scrambled” and “Hurt Me, Hurt You.” It’s not that the episodes aren’t entertaining; it’s that Shinwell’s whole existence on the series is essentially rendered moot – except for one key fact. It’s a toss-up whether we find out who killed Shinwell: was it truly Tall Boy, who the leader of Shinwell’s gang gives up to the police? Or was this done merely to end the investigation? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. What we get here has little to do with Shinwell and a lot to do with the history of his gang, the nature of its leadership, and the threat of a war with Mara Tres, the gang we met in Episode 2 this season. 

We also get a whole new plotline involving Holmes and a mysterious woman who seems to do awful things to him out of obsessive love. The twist here leads to Shinwell Johnson’s only real legacy: the severe beating he doled out to Sherlock has left serious damage. The series ends with Holmes sliding into a machine for an MRI. It’s a nice cliffhanger, but it ends a season that, for once, offered up a long arc that started with a literal bang (remember?) but ended in a piecemeal fashion. At least, there were many fine cases to be savored, so if you’re put off by series mythology, I would recommend episodes 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 17 and 18. 

Two more seasons to go! We’ll return anon to Elementary

4 thoughts on “THE SAD SAGA OF SHINWELL JOHNSON: Elementary Season 5

  1. I am not quite as up to date as you, but I agree that Nelsan Ellis is completely superb. I was shocked and saddened to look up his other work and find that he’d died so young.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He is wonderful in True Blood if you ever find a chance to watch that. Lafayette is as different from Shinwell as a character could be, but there’s the same vulnerability lurking underneath!

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  2. I liked Kitty much more than you so was happy to have Lovibond back, though I agree part 1 is the better of the two. I liked how varied and complicated the Shinwell story became – as you sat, a long game. (This got a bit tougher for Doherty after thus fir reasons out of his vontrol). But can’t deny the broader issue of representation (though in this show the 4 core characters at least are certainly varied in a satisfying and positive way).

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