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Elementary: “A Controlled Descent”

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Every time we start or end a season of Elementary, my mind tends to turn to the same idea: what is this show about, exactly?


In season one, Elementary was a show about Joan Watson and Sherlock Holmes’ partnership, and the way their relationship helped each battle their respective demons. But with that relationship largely settled, the second and third seasons have struggled to find a dynamic resting rate for the series. There are serialized arcs that operate over top of the basic procedural dynamic, which are hit (Kitty) and miss (Mycroft), but that resting rate has been a problem as the third season came to a close. Although these are still fun characters to watch solve crimes, and there remains something inherently pleasurable about seeing a case start and end in the span of an hour, the show reached a point by the end of season three where the writers had run out of ways to draw conflict out of the show’s basic premise.

And so Sherlock relapses.

“A Controlled Descent” lives up to its title, I suppose: the show has had the relapse card in its pocket since the show began—as the “Previously On” sequence going back to the pilot reminds us—but has resisted playing it, at least until the writers found themselves needing a new element to mix things up. This season in particular, we saw the flashback to Sherlock’s moment in London where Kitty saved him from using, and the storyline with Oscar (Michael Weston) earlier in the season brought Sherlock’s past back to the surface. Although I would argue playing this card is a sign of desperation in a sense, the development was threaded throughout the season and the series, and developed in ways that felt both starkly honest to the reality of living in recovery and frustratingly contrary to the character we’ve thought we’ve known. It’s an easy card to play, but it’s played well.


In a rare—and yes, if you’ve been following these reviews, most welcome—development, this finale goes without a murder. While we do eventually find a dead body, the episode centers on two missing persons cases. The first is fairly typical, as Bell, Joan, and Gregson search for the missing Alfredo, who was abducted by Oscar as collateral. Although the circumstances may be dire, and Joan and the audience may be familiar with the missing person in question, the case is a typical investigation—clues are found, deductions are made, and eventually Alfredo is found. The story strikes a frustrating note for all characters involved, in a way, since it robs them of anything approaching a season arc. Joan has been through a lot this year—the move out, the dead boyfriend, the move in, the new business, etc.—that goes unremarked upon here, while both Bell and Gregson’s character development in this last batch of episodes is left hanging as well. They’re relegated to keeping the procedural engine running, a decision that keeps the finale from connecting all of the threads the season left dangling.


Instead, “A Controlled Descent” becomes a character study for Sherlock, a situation forced by Oscar’s desire to bring Sherlock back down to his level. While Sherlock’s search for Oscar’s sister—who went missing, and who Oscar blackmails Sherlock to help find by kidnapping Alfredo—follows a similar procedural rhythm to the other story, there’s an edge to the proceedings. Oscar is constantly taunting Sherlock, taking him to drug dens and poking holes in his recovery at every possible moment. Rather than relapsing, though, Sherlock simply gets angry, failing to toe the line of civility with potential suspect Jonathan Bloom and threatening to break his arm instead of simply verbally accosting him. If the show typically depicts Sherlock as a loose cannon kept in check by the angels on his shoulders (Joan, Bell, Gregson), then here we see him with the proverbial devil by his side, with no one to check his impulses.

It’s a good example of the way procedure can be as telling as more traditional character development: Oscar forces Sherlock go through the motions of the investigation without his support structure, and with the uncertainty of Alfredo’s fate hanging over him. When it’s revealed that there was no crime at all, and Oscar’s sister’s overdose had been seized as an opportunity to get revenge on Sherlock for being judgmental, it doesn’t really take anything away from what the episode managed to that point. Oscar’s ultimate goal was to get Sherlock to see the devil inside of himself, and is successful: even when Alfredo is rescued, and even after Sherlock punches Oscar out once he receives the word, he still throws away the cell phone and picks up the tin of heroin instead.


We don’t want Sherlock to do this—whatever struggles the show might have had finding its footing after resolving the Kitty Winter arc midseason, it has not changed the fact that we root for this character, and in particular for his recovery. And so there’s tragedy in the fact that he didn’t lose his sobriety at this lowest point, or in the wake of a deeper tragedy as in the case of Irene’s “death.” Instead, Sherlock lost his sobriety because he lost faith in himself as a sober person, and because he no longer viewed himself as worthy of recovery. He started to see himself as the person Oscar remembers, despite everything he’s done to convince himself he isn’t that person, and despite everyone else in his life—his sponsor, his partner, his colleagues—doing the same. It’s a deeply unsettling notion, as it contradicts who we’ve come to know this character to be, and places a gap between our sense of Sherlock’s worth and Sherlock’s self-worth. That gap is productive, and begins a new act for Sherlock’s character arc for next season to draw on considerably.

My hope is that this is not swept under the rug any time soon. The show struggled to keep Sherlock and Joan apart at the start of the season, despite their separation being a large part of the narrative—the fact was the show centers on their dynamic, and so the show contrived reasons for them to work the same cases, and resisted splitting the storytelling to reflect the new dynamic. This successfully brought out some of the tension created by their separation, but it didn’t explore how that could reshape the way the show tells stories, something that I’m hopeful we see play out in more detail next season. This is a life-changing event on par with where the series began, and I would hate to see the show slip back into old habits so quickly that it lacks the proper resonance.


My other hope, however, is that next season does not rest solely on Sherlock when it comes to character arcs among series regulars. There are two explicit setups for next season in “A Controlled Descent,” and each centers on Sherlock—his relapse, the first of those setups, triggers the second, as Joan informs Sherlock that the mysterious Holmes patriarch is making his way to New York. I was surprised to see the show using two of its trump cards in one fell swoop, although the connection is logical given that Sherlock’s relationship with Joan stems to his father’s involvement in his life. It also adds an extra layer to fan anticipation, framing casting the elder Holmes as hiatus fuel alongside seeing Sherlock get back onto the road of recovery. But why couldn’t there be something for Joan, Bell, and Gregson amidst this setup? That may have been asking a lot of a finale that very consciously isolated Sherlock for the purposes of major character development, but the show has struggled with Joan ever since the Andrew arc concluded, and Bell and Gregson’s brief characterization seems like the best we’re going to get.


On the one hand, the show playing its trump card heading into its fourth season makes sense. This is when shows start wearing out their initial premises, and when the show is looking to revitalize in order to keep audiences engaged and push into more seasons. Elementary is in a strong place in terms of the business end, owned by CBS and with existing syndication and streaming deals that make having more episodes of the show valuable to the network. But although the show has not completely collapsed, the end of this season reinforced how delicate the balance of a procedural can be, and how quickly the show can start to seem less than the sum of its parts when the stories aren’t clicking. And so next season is a major test for Elementary, one that they’re facing with a new recurring character, a new recovery arc, and an eye toward building a sustainable future.

It’s a future that I’ll be keeping a close eye on, but not one I’ll personally be writing about here at The A.V. Club. This is not because I have grown tired of Elementary, or that I no longer have things to say about it—procedurals fascinate me, and I could write about the show’s balance of episodic and cumulative storytelling until the cows come home. The fact is real life is just taking over, and I can’t commit an evening a week to writing about the show.


I expect coverage will continue without me, but as I come to the end of my tenure writing about the show I’m happy the show is coming full circle. Although I don’t think the show can ever recapture the relationship-building season one, I am hopeful that Sherlock’s relapse returns the series to the goal of building something with the characters they have. As much as I enjoyed the Kitty Winter arc, and as much as its themes recur here to bring the season to a fitting close, the show was at its best when its cumulative storyline lived primarily in the lives of the characters at the heart of the show. And while those elements are present in premieres and finales in ways that continue to remind us how great Elementary can be, the real test is when it’s four or five episodes into its season, and reconciling a changed dynamic with the expectation of returning to the old one.


It has been a pleasure exploring those tensions on a week-to-week basis, because that’s how procedurals live: week-to-week, murder-to-murder, and always looking for ways to make the episodic expectation work as cumulative characterization. “A Controlled Descent” isolates its characters and delivers a tragic launching pad for next season—the real test will be how Sherlock and his show recover.

Stray observations:

  • While I understand the production logics that dictate the rooftop set only being used in premieres and finales, it’s such a striking space that I feel it could be used a few more times each season without losing its specialness. I loved starting on it with Alfredo and Sherlock and then ending it on Joan and Sherlock, which is not so coincidentally where the first season ended as well.
  • Although Joan may not have had much of a storyline here, I did appreciate that the show allowed her to run lead on the other investigation, and gave Alfredo the damsel in distress role. A lesser show would have just had Oscar kidnap Joan for maximum effect, but Alfredo was the better choice on all accounts.
  • We get mention of Irene as Oscar reflects on Sherlock’s dark early days in New York, but outside of the murder-from-afar and the voiceover earlier in the season we get no glimpse of Adler as the season comes to a close. I’m not sure Natalie Dormer’s schedule will ever be clear enough for them to do a meaningful arc with the character, but the door remains open given the continued reference to and brief “appearance” of the character this season.
  • Although any relapse is tragic in its own right, note the distinction: whereas Sherlock’s near-relapse in London was when he was alone, here he still has a support structure in place—curious how that support structure plays out within the procedural structure next season.
  • Casting hopes for Sherlock’s father? The show has done a fairly good job with casting thus far (my Mycroft problems have little to do with Ifans’ performance), and the New York shooting location gives them good access to the theater community. I’m curious to see what they come up with.
  • Clyde Watch: Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this—it’s upsetting that Clyde doesn’t have a role to play in this finale. I’m aware that there really wasn’t a place for him given how much time Sherlock spends away from the Brownstone. I’m also aware that the logistics of working with a turtle are probably pretty difficult. But at final count, the “No Clyde” tag wins out 17 to 7 over the “Clyde” tag this season, which means that Clyde didn’t even appear in a third of the episodes. I’m hopeful that making this quantifiable will open some eyes in the production, but more than anything else I hope it documents my slow descent into madness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • As this marks my final regular review of Elementary, I want to thank all of you who have been commenting for the past three seasons. There have been some skeptics when it comes to the praise this show has received on the site, questioning whether or not a “procedural” could truly become great television, but the community that has grown around these reviews has proved that skepticism wrong, and that has as much to do with all of you as it does with me. I’ll still be watching the show, and I could always drop back in on occasion should reviews continue, but I’ll always be around and willing to talk about the show.

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