Five seasons and 120 episodes into Elementary, we are in a good place, following a solid foursome of series regulars through quirky cases, some of them inspired by Doyle’s canon, and a variety of longer arcs, the success of which depend upon your own taste in plotlines, a particular season’s guest star, and how the whole thing affects and inspires Holmes and Watson (and, to a lesser extent, Inspector Gregson and Detective Bell). After the glory that was Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) and Morland Holmes (John Noble), and the havoc wreaked by Kitty Winter and Shinwell Johnson, the question arises: where do we go from here?
This time out, an existential threat threatens Holmes’ very career! After years of heroin use, fighting off bad guys, and a severe beating by Shinwell toward the end of last season, our hero receives a diagnosis of PCS (Post Concussion Syndrome). He forgets things. He sleeps a lot. He has weird hallucinations. His sleuthing abilities have been compromised . . . and Sherlock is freaking out! If he can’t focus, he can’t work. And if he can’t work, the shadow of his addiction weighs heavily upon him. Holmes begins to attend meetings more frequently. This is where he meets this season’s guest star, and the stage is set for a most exciting battle.
Episode 1, “An Infinite Capacity for Taking Pains,” the immediate results of his diagnosis give us Holmes at his most vulnerable, and when he finally tells Watson, who spent the end of Season 5 livid at her partner for his bizarre behavior, she immediately becomes the surgeon/sober companion/best friend that Holmes needs. He refuses to tell Gregson for fear of being suspended, even though his doctor has warned him that the only cure for PCS is total rest. Instead, Holmes will try all sorts of self-medication (the Victorian floating chamber is a treat!), and he also seeks additional support at daily NA meetings.
There, Sherlock meets fellow addict Michael Rowan (Desmond Harrington). Michael is sensitive enough to hear the self-doubt and fear in Holmes’ group share, and he reaches out to tell him how much Sherlock’s presence has guided Michael’s own recovery: “You taught me to focus on the work,” he tells Sherlock after a meeting, and then he offers to be a good listener whenever Holmes needs one. By episode’s end, we learn that Holmes does need another friendly ear besides Joan’s, and we see him reach out to Michael. That’s when we see Michael hard at work . . . as a serial killer. All of this is good stuff. I wish I could say the same about the case of the week, which is a lot of folderol about a famous sex tape and a missing guy and a culprit who might as well be wearing a t-shirt that reads “this week’s hidden killer.”
Episode 2, “Once You’ve Ruled Out God,” finds us on firmer ground. A man is struck dead on the city streets, and the initial prognosis is that he was struck by lightning. Holmes quickly reminds everyone of skyscrapers’ capacity for acting as lightning rods, and the man’s death is quickly ascribed to murder by some unknown weapon. From there, Elementarydoes its thing, as each new lead causes the case to flip into a whole other thing, and while there’s no way to predict where this goes, we end with a nice twist as to motive and an even better one as to culprit. The side story about the death of Joan’s schizophrenic father provides sentimental counterpoint.
With one unfortunate exception, the next episode, “Pushing Buttons,” is even better. A man who owns a string of gyms and spends his personal time participating in Revolutionary War battle reenactments surprises his fellow “soldiers” when he actually dies from real gun wounds on the “battlefield.” Soon after that, his house is mysteriously burned down. Was his estranged daughter after her inheritance? Did a rival collector of memorabilia have his eye on one of the victim’s prized possessions? Or is something else going on?
Writer Jeffrey Paul King manages to make American history truly integral to the plot. Plus, as the twists pile up, so do the charming and eccentric characters. I want to point out one of them, both because the scene he’s in is quite funny and because I actually know the guy! James Monroe Iglehart, who started in theatre in my community and went on to win a Tony award for playing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway, plays a police detective with a personal grudge against Holmes. In only a few minutes, a whole history between the two men springs up, and one can only imagine the sort of series where James played Watson to Jonny Lee Miller.
The problem with the episode is one that plagues the series for me: the killer is so easily spotted, not for anything involving the plot, but simply due to casting and placement. That’s what comes of my watching so much TV in my lifetime. What is X doing in such a dismal little role? Why, they’re biding their time for the final big reveal. Still, the case is lots of fun, and the personal story of Holmes dealing with his worsening condition manages to strike notes of humor and poignancy. Plus, there’s Michael, played to eerie perfection by Harrington, who provides a willing ear and just the right notes of a fellow addict, neither judging nor positing himself as a fount of wisdom.
Poor Watson! First, she loses her father, and now, in “Our Time Is Up,” her former therapist is savagely murdered. This is a thoroughly delightful episode: the three suspects are all given equal time and, for once, share the suspicion enough to evade my radar. Meanwhile, Joan deals with the repercussions of Holmes stealing the late doctor’s records – including her own. There’s a darkly funny scene where they argue about this during a lull in an interview, while the suspect they’ve been grilling can be seen in the background – attempting suicide! Reading Dr. Reed’s notes about her sends Watson on a new path – one that doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, given her current lifestyle: she wants to have a baby!
Episode Five, “Bits and Pieces” is another excellent hour that finds a slightly different path in its storytelling and provides another leap forward in a season arc that is taking its time (in the best way) to reach fruition. We begin the “case of the week” in medias res: Detective Bell and Watson stand backstage at a Broadway musical questioning the producer about the murder of a hated theatre critic. Joan comes home to find Holmes in a PCS-induced fuddle, in possession of a severed, embalmed head and with no memory of how he came into possession of it.
I love it when the main case and the personal story merge in a good way: Holmes’ dilemma sidelines him and allows Watson and Bell to showcase their own sleuthing skills; together, they all solve the case, while situation also triggers changes in two of Sherlock’s most significant relationships: he must face the fact that he has once again endangered his friendship with Captain Gregson by keeping silent about his PCS, and he is ignorant of the fact that Michael’s growing concern is triggering his own darker impulses.
The case-of-the-week in Episode 6, “Give Me the Finger,” is just okay, something to do with a murdered ex-Yakuza member whose prosthetic finger houses a hidden thumb drive that could contain information relating to the upgrading of our nation’s nuclear weapons system . . . but of course has to do with something different altogether. We do get to see some very large sumo wrestlers here, but this case is standard fare. What makes this episode sing is the ramping up (as he promised last time) of Michael’s plan to make Sherlock, er, all better. That this involves Michael including Gregson’s policewoman daughter Hannah in his plans means that a lot of secrets are about to be exploded.
The episode gives the underused Aidan Quinn some great stuff to play. He learns that, for a long time, Hannah has been an alcoholic, and it shatters him. When Hannah’s roommate is brutally murdered at the end of “Give Me the Finger,” and we realize that Michael is the killer, the stage is set for a huge turn in the season arc, which we find in the next episode, “Sober Companions.” Despite Holmes’ worsening PCS, he is determined to solve the murder and restore Gregson’s faith in him. His examination of the victim’s clothing makes it clear that a serial killer is involved. Holmes now sees Michael with new eyes, and all the Mysteries of the Arc are exposed. Michael promises Sherlock that he won’t kill any more women if Holmes gets the rest he needs, the killer heads off on a bus into the unknown, and the detective heads off to a retreat in Vermont. And we have half a season left to go.
What the hell?
I’ll tell you what the hell . . . it’s all the fault of CBS. The series’ ratings had dipped during Season Five (as had the ratings for CBS in general), and with the expensive contracts for Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (Holmes and Watson) up for renewal, the network had decided to cancel the show after Season Six; what’s more, it had ordered only thirteen episodes. Doherty planned accordingly. And then I guess someone watched the show (or, more likely, the improved ratings), and decided to expand the episode order to twenty-one.
That is unfortunately what a lot of media entertainment is like: the producers examine the dollar values and pay no attention to the creatures in the writing room trying to map out a season that makes sense. According to my pal Sergio Angelini, former blogger and rabid Elementary fan, who filled me in on these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, CBS’ indecisiveness accounts for some of the glitchiness one might feel watching Season Six.
I can only imagine what went on in that writing room! Whatever vision Doherty had for Michael’s story arc is trashed because there are eight additional episodes to fill. Plus, as far as they know at the time, this will be the final season, and every Dr. Frankenstein wants to provide his creation with a fitting send-off.
The writers at Elementary must have gone through the whole series’ bible and decided to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Let’s finally resolve the estrangement between Mycroft and Sherlock. Rhys Ifans isn’t available? Then let’s bring back ex-sponsor Alfredo as the conduit for this wrap-up. Daddy Morland is still trying to run Moriarty’s criminal empire to the ground? Bring John Noble back for a couple of episodes and throw in a mention of Moriarty. Maybe Joan will have a baby! Maybe Bell will join the U.S. Marshalls!! Maybe Gregson will retire!!!
Meanwhile, we’ve also got cases to solve, and frankly the cases that follow Holmes’ return from Vermont are . . . forgettable. “Sand Trap” involves someone who is actually stealing sand (picked that killer at first sight!); “Nobody Lives Forever” embodies the propensity in these episodes to include gross-out victims (this one is a professor eaten by his lab rats), but the rest of the case is lost in the reappearance of Alfredo.
The partially mummified victim in “The Adventure of the Ersatz Sobekneferu” is also gross, but her murder leads to some interesting surprises (the least of which is the identity of the killer). “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” involves smuggled cigarettes (that’s really a thing?), crooked ATF agents (Elementary thrives on men in power going bad), and lots and lots of hidden offshore accounts.
Episode 12, “Meet Your Maker,” has yet another poorly hidden culprit, but setting the case in the world of a financial dominatrix (I guess that really is a thing, too) allows for some nice set pieces (there’s a cosplay gathering where two people are dressed as Victorian Holmes and Watson!). The main mystery in Episode 13, “Breathe,” is the best of this mid-season lot: a relocation expert is found poisoned, and a search of his files reveal dark secrets about his real line of work. The twists here are actually good, especially the unveiling of the truth surrounding the victim’s death.
Clearly, the balance has shifted to where the cases are formulaic while the focus is on giving our four regulars the series ending they deserve. That, and we’re stalling until it’s time to bring Michael back. Thus, it’s a relief to have a palette cleanser like “Through the Fog” take us out of the typical case-of-the-week and focus on a threat to the series regulars. This takes the form of a biological weapon that is unleashed in the precinct. Although this leaves Sherlock and Joan available to run down leads, it also means that the episode can highlight Bell’s courage and Gregson’s own detective skills (he really figures the whole thing out!) And the side plot, where Watson must face her mother over her worsening Alzheimer’s, is the most moving of the season (and sets up an important element for the finale.)
Five more cases of varying quality follow: “How to Get a Head” begins with two headless corpses, one human, the other of the chicken variety. When a brilliant stage actor appears in a brief role at the beginning, wearing a godawful toupee, you know you’ve spotted your murderer. (At least there is a reason for the toupee!) Next comes “Uncanny Valley of the Dolls,” which is at least quite funny in parts. The victim is a robotics engineer who is found dead in his home, the only witness a gorgeous A.I. sex doll. There are vague allusions to the original canon story, “The Adventure of the Three Students,” but it doesn’t amount to much.
In Episode 17, “The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out,” another scientist’s body is eaten by – you guessed it – and it’s twice as gross as the rats were. But the mystery that follows is disappointingly humdrum. At least the side plot points to a final reckoning: Holmes’ medical records have been stolen, and his investigation leads to a culprit who was hired by Michael. Do I smell a two-part finale coming??
Well, yes, but first we have two more stand-alone cases. Fortunately, the first of these, “The Visions of Norman P. Horowitz,” is a pleasure. Was the late Norman, a paranoid schizophrenic, truly able to predict the deaths of random people, including Holmes himself. That’s what Norman’s brother insists, and it’s what Sherlock’s old acquaintance Henry Baskerville comes to believe. The theory that our lives are all part of a computer program – the foundation of The Matrix films – plays a big part in a mystery where even though you can spot the culprit right off the bat, the journey to this denouement is great fun.
The title of Episode 19, “The Geek Interpreter,” is the best part of an otherwise by-the-numbers case, but it’s good to see Rich Sommers back as math professor Harlan Emple, and his presence inspires Watson to talk to Holmes about her fears that he is lonely. The episode ends with Sherlock turning one of his sex dates into an actual date. Is there hope for our strange detective?
The finale arrives at last, and it is a bumpy ride indeed! There’s a skimpiness about it that makes me wonder if Desmond Harrington was only contracted for a certain number of episodes; it sure feels like we needed more development of his plan, as well as certain characters, like Michael’s killer or the gay ex-addict who was protecting Michael (and didn’t know he had killed the man’s partner.) It’s also apparent that Doherty has decided to blow up the Happy Foursome as the series winds down, and he accomplishes this by implicating one of them quite seriously in Michael’s murder. And yet . . . given the relationship that has been built up over six years, the confrontation between Holmes and this party makes very little sense. Oh, it’s dramatic, and the actors act the hell out of it, but it feels like too little, too late.
In the end, Doherty tries to let us have it both ways by giving Holmes and Watson a deeply emotional parting and then a happy ending. I liked this, but again I feel that more of the latter half of the season should have been devoted to the battle with Michael Rowan, including the development of the gay friend and the killer’s characters. Sure, the final moments are quite fun and place Holmes and exactly where Holmes and Watson should be, but there are far too many loose ends left untied.
But then it turns out CBS wasn’t finished with Elementary: a final 13-episode season was ordered, and it was up to Robert Doherty to simultaneously start over, tie up those pesky loose ends, and come up with an even more satisfying ending for our team. Could he do it?
We shall see . . .