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Elementary: "Ancient History"

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“Ancient History” begins with the search for a case to solve. Holmes, not finding any of the NYPD’s open cases particularly stimulating, sifts through old cold cases and eventually the morgue in search of a case that speaks to him. He eventually finds it in a former Polish assassin who died in a motorcycle crash but appears to have killed someone else before his death, sending Sherlock and Joan on a scavenger hunt for a corpse.

Sherlock might find his case, but “Ancient History” never finds its groove. The story of Leo Banin’s life and death may prove compelling enough for Sherlock, but it proves a rather dull case for Elementary, never resonating beyond the charm of Sherlock’s fruitless search for a body toward the beginning of the episode. Once the two actually find the body they were looking for, the narrative shifts toward predictable conclusions—of course it’s the wife, given we spent a suspiciously long time with her earlier in the episode—and in the end added up to little. Not only was the episode fairly dull in its own right, but it also offered only minimal character development for Sherlock and/or Joan, who mostly went through the motions of crime solving this week.


There is one exception to this, of course. Sherlock, speaking with Leo’s wife Lara, uses his relationship with Moriarty as a negotiating tactic, compelling Lara to give up information regarding her husband so that she could come to terms with his previous life as an assassin for the Russian mafia. Whereas Elementary has so far this season done a nice job of emphasizing cumulative character development and giving Sherlock resonant connections back to Moriarty, this felt more like a typical procedural character moment: a brief, largely unexplored reference to remind us of a particular part of a character’s past with minimal impact on the story at hand. As much as the show will never be entirely focused on its serial arcs, there are better ways to have episodes contribute to these arcs than the potential on offer here.

It doesn’t help that the one attempt to tell a character-driven story ends up falling so completely flat. Although I’m glad that Sherlock has once again been acknowledged as a character with a libido, the attempt to retroactively complicate Joan and Sherlock’s partnership by revealing Sherlock was stalking Joan, tried to press one of her friends for information, and ended up having a one-night-stand with her was… well, it was just kind of there. The two characters have a confrontation that suggests their relationship is damaged by the newly revealed breach of trust, but the episode moves quickly past that when the A-story takes over. The episode ends with news that Sherlock once again bedded Joan’s friend Jennifer while admitting to her that he was the one-night-stand she was searching for, but it’s played as a punchline to a storyline that didn’t have enough development to earn one. It didn’t strengthen their relationship, or deepen our sense of the series’ world, or result in a particularly satisfying or interesting conclusion. It felt more like a way to spend time, harmless but also empty.

Episodes of Elementary have rarely been empty, and to be fair there were still some fun lines and enjoyable details in “Ancient History.” The introduction of a medical examiner that lets his competitive side indulge Sherlock’s penchant for civilian autopsy is a nice touch, building out the characterization of the new morgue location. Similarly, the idea of Sherlock sitting in his living room solving cold cases involving stolen penny-farthing bicycles and decades-old non-fatal arson cases is a fun one, and Jonny Lee Miller’s little nod of pride when Joan mentions his success with the bicycle case was particularly enjoyable. There was even a fun joke about how metaphorical wild goose chases are far less satisfying than literal ones, given you at least get to eat a nice goose at the end of those. These characters are enjoyable enough that watching them solve crimes isn’t the worst way to spend an hour, something that can sustain my basic interest should there be nothing in the episodic storyline to hold my attention.

There was nothing else to hold my attention in “Ancient History.” Generally speaking, Elementary has been doing enough with character or form or its episodic storylines to make writing weekly criticism about a procedural both sustainable and—at least for me—more interesting than I had imagined. However, “Ancient History” is fine evidence for the fact that there is always the chance it will turn in an episode that has nothing to say, and which there is little to say about.


Stray observations:

  • I did like some of the lighter, more colorful characters who populated the early search for the body, with both Mike Starr—whom I remember best from his time on NBC’s Ed, who pops up here as a loan shark operating out of his sister’s nail salon—and Wass Stevens—who played Russo’s childhood friend on House of Cards—doing some nice work in quick appearances.
  • “Travis, you’re alive—that’s unfortunate.” As I say, it was really the search for the body where the show had any kind of life to it this week.
  • “For future reference, a morgue is not a diamond mine.” Duly noted, Joan.
  • Clyde Watch: Personally, I would take any fully standalone, structurally typical episode of Elementary and spice it up with Clyde to win cynics over, but that’s just me. I’m not going to say he’s worth a half-letter grade, but I’m not not going to say it.

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