One of the central tensions of any procedural is the way each episode must balance two different speeds of storytelling. At the same time as an episode like “All In the Family” seeks to tell one small part of the larger story of Sherlock Holmes, Joan Watson, and their collaborators at the NYPD, it must also tap into a much longer history for a character like Deputy Commissioner Frank Da Silva, played by Peter Gerety. It’s the balance between creating history for the series as a whole and translating history to generate episodic content, each necessary in crafting a compelling case of the week.
I refer to this as a tension because it’s never easy to do both. In the case of “All In The Family,” the history of Peter Gerety is central to the episode, and yet told almost exclusively through exposition. In a file collected by Detective Bell off-screen, we find evidence that Da Silva was a beat cop installed by the mafia, who rose through the ranks and eventually drifted away from his mafia bosses once their power waned and they went into retirement. However, as their retirement is threatened by an upcoming union election, they once again turn to Da Silva for assistance, requiring him to make a choice: risk threatening his career as a cop by helping them, or use his high-ranking status at the NYPD to reach out to the NSA, discover the location of a reclusive mobster, and leak his location to a rival crime family to ignite a war, hopefully killing those who know of his involvement so he can retire peacefully.
It’s a long and complicated history, which is why it’s too bad we get to experience so little of it. We learn the majority of this information in a scene of Sherlock, Watson, and Bell sitting around the brownstone reading the file, and we never get to see Sherlock or Bell square off with Da Silva about his choice to do the latter. The history is an interesting story, one that gives the show an excuse to trot out Paul Sorvino for some mafia intertextuality, but that’s all it is: a story. The episode ends with what we’re told is a dramatic showdown between a mafia boss (Sorvino) and the police rat decades in the making, but neither Sorvino nor Gerety gets anything to sink their teeth into, their history something to be communicated rather than experienced. As opposed to translating this history through characterization, it’s translated exclusively through plot, mostly wasting a two-episode arc from Gerety and what could have been a more engaging episodic through-line.
This is not to say that “All In The Family” falls apart as a result, however. Da Silva’s story suffers because the Demographics unit is more useful to the show as a component in Sherlock and Bell’s relationship, one that is at least somewhat mended here as the characters butt heads when their units collide during the investigation. I had speculated previously that the Demographics unit could persist as a presence on the series, adding dynamism to the show’s cases, and there’s a brief moment where Sherlock’s offer to split his time between the units and my speculation looked to be on the mark. I found myself imagining a scenario where every few episodes Sherlock would take a case with Bell, or the two groups would once again be working the same case to bring the entire cast together. Da Silva turning out to be crooked took this option off the table, and by the end of the episode Bell has returned to the precinct ready to resume his duties. However, the show deserves credit for developing a credible scenario where this may not have happened, making Bell’s ultimately inevitable return take on greater meaning that it could have under different circumstances.
It also helps that although Bell returns to the precinct and seems once again willing to work with Sherlock, the episode does not wholly resolve the issues and tensions between them to do so. The characters spend much of the episode stepping on landmines as they each stubbornly try to prove their point without truly speaking to one another, at least until their confrontation in the lobby of the brownstone after Sherlock’s allegations against Da Silva. It’s a conversation that reframes their relationship as a history, something that the show has never done relative to Sherlock’s relationship with Gregson, which has an actual history attached to it based on their time together in London. We know Sherlock’s side of the history, as he has come to respect Bell as a fine detective and has said so on many occasions this season, and so it’s no surprise when he expresses his confidence in Bell’s abilities as a detective. However, we haven’t heard Bell’s side of the story, in which he reveals a sense of inferiority to Sherlock, arguing “it doesn’t come that easy to the rest of us.” While Gregson has the challenge of supervising Sherlock’s work and Joan has the unique relationship of being his partner and student, Bell is simply asked to work alongside him, a diminishing task that has often—thinking metatextually—led to the character being marginalized in the series’ storytelling. By acknowledging this, the character and the show contextualize his stubbornness well, and Jon Michael Hill does some good work nuancing Bell’s frustrations.
It hasn’t been that easy for Sherlock, though, a fact that we know as an audience and that Bell is to this point unaware of. By revealing his history as a drug addict, Sherlock fully inducts Bell into his inner circle, sharing the secret that only his closest friends and confidantes have access to. It’s a trump card the show could play more often than it does, but the rarity with which Sherlock speaks openly about his addiction makes scenes like this one more effective. Jonny Lee Miller is great at capturing Sherlock’s indignant response to Bell’s choice to go to Demographics, and finds righteous anger in Bell doubting his instincts as a detective, but his finest work is always when Sherlock is at his most vulnerable, as he is here.
“All In The Family” suffers in being unable to transfer that vulnerability to its episodic storytelling, creating a memorable story in Bell and Sherlock’s relationship while failing to tie it to anything happening around it. Even with ostensibly a two-episode arc for Da Silva and the Demographics unit, the mafia storyline relies too heavily on telling rather than showing. It would be unfair to castigate the series for prioritizing long-form characterization over short-form characterization, but there is a higher level of storytelling available when the two work in better harmony than on evidence here. As much as the show is better for having evolved Bell and Sherlock’s friendship and bringing the former back into the precinct, there was a more effective way to handle the storytelling tensions evident in this hour.
- Conversations about Joan’s wardrobe most often originate in the comments, but we need to talk about that glorious chapeau Joan donned twice in the episode. I just love the idea that she knew she was going to pick through a mobster’s trash and wore that hat—that’s a story I want to hear.
- I wonder if the Elementary casting department was being purposefully intertextual when they cast Tim Guinee to play an NSA operative, given his recurring role on the other CBS procedural with an ongoing NSA surveillance storyline.
- Between her medical knowledge identifying the victim and her interest in the mafia giving her the greater background knowledge, Joan played a central role in the deductions this week, with Sherlock mainly focused on fun side projects like practice decapitations and controlled explosions. I liked that balance.
- Clyde Watch: Let’s all hope and pray Clyde doesn’t like to hang out in empty freezers.