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“Art In The Blood” opens as one expects it would, as Mycroft sits down with Sherlock and tells him the truth about his relationship with British intelligence (revealed at the end of last week’s episode). It turns out Mycroft was a down-on-his-luck restauranteur who was propositioned by criminals before being subsequently turned into an asset by MI6. He has since proved himself a valuable agent, a strategist of sorts whose knowledge of various criminal organizations makes him a key source on how the dominoes are likely to fall following major MI6 missions or other world events.

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Such a reveal is complicated, though. On the one hand, it’s expected in the sense that it lines up with my personal interpretation of the events of last week’s episode, which were paying off suspicions around Mycroft from earlier in the season (like the idea that MI6 wanted Sherlock out of New York to keep from compromising Mycroft’s mission). However, it’s also a case where the show is steering directly into the canon, as well as the version of Mycroft that appears on that other Sherlock Holmes series. Although there was always the chance that the writers were going in an entirely different direction with Mycroft, in the end he fit comfortably into the canon.

Or he did at the beginning of the episode, at least. “Art In The Blood” is every bit as non-linear as the episode preceding it was linear: Whereas it was inevitable that Joan would not be murdered by her kidnappers, and the reveal of Mycroft’s ulterior motives was pretty clearly choreographed, this is a twisty hour that starts by plainly stating facts and then spends an hour mucking about with them. It centers around a case—a bi-polar MI6 operative murdered and then dismembered in the morgue for the data tattooed on his arms—but it never resolves that case, which instead becomes a mole hunt; by the end of the episode, Sherlock is breaking into Mycroft’s apartment, interrupting his post-coital time with Joan to inform him that said mole hunt has led back to him.

I will admit I remain highly ambivalent toward Joan and Mycroft’s romantic attachment, a development that happened offscreen at the beginning of the season and has never felt entirely real to me, as though it were some elaborate prank they were pulling on Sherlock. Despite these concerns, though, it worked here as a way to emphasize that Mycroft’s lies don’t simply resonate with Sherlock. As complicated as the sibling relationship is, Joan has her own history with Mycroft now, one that is allowed to be hers (and is perhaps more meaningful for the fact it took place “offscreen” and thus away from her dynamic with Sherlock, which tends to be our primary frame of reference as an audience). It is something she has of her own, and although she compares the two brothers, it is her personal sense of uncertainty regarding his work that drives her away from Mycroft following his revelation.

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It also drives her back to Mycroft when she discovers that his initial explanation of his MI6 experience left out some important details. Mycroft chose to portray himself as the man who simply got involved for the money and never stopped, but in truth, he got involved after initially stepping away because he was protecting an addiction-addled Sherlock who had unwittingly aided and abetted an attempted act of terrorism. There are some logical leaps in the story, albeit leaps that make sense once the show dabbles into the world of spydom: As Sherlock says to Joan, “strangeness abounds” when dealing with such matters, and for Mycroft, that meant giving up his freedom in the interest of helping Sherlock avoid an even greater fall.

The show, like any procedural, is in the business of developing character through a combination of backstory and present day events. Sherlock and Mycroft’s relationship primarily functions through backstory, slowly unraveling throughout the episode as the true details of Mycroft’s affiliation emerge. It’s rewriting their story, first as Mycroft deceiving his brother for the good of his country and then Mycroft serving his country for the good of his brother. Although there are obviously reverberations of these events in the present, they are stuck largely dealing with how these changing perceptions of the past alter their relationship, with even the immediacy of last week’s kidnapping of Joan reframed as the result of his relationship with MI6 and thus the result of Sherlock getting in trouble to begin with.

By comparison, the present is where Joan’s character resides. Although backstory was useful to the show last season, and has popped up on an episodic basis in certain season two episodes, we are seeing the origins of Joan’s relationship with Sherlock, with Mycroft, and with being a detective. As Sherlock offers Joan support following her ordeal, he tells her that he has his own experience with being betrayed by a lover, offering to discuss his relationship with Moriarty to help her confront her feelings regarding Mycroft. Although she and Mycroft reconcile, it remains something that she will carry with her, a relationship equally fraught with complication that will linger on even once Mycroft returns to London (presuming, of course, the show isn’t adding Rhys Ifans as a regular for season three, which I suppose is possible).

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Whereas Sherlock came prepackaged with emotional baggage, Joan has had to develop some of her own, and I was pleased to see an episode where she was allowed to do so. I will likely speak more to this next week, but this was clearly the season of Joan staking claim to her own identity, albeit largely through slowly—and mostly implicitly—coming to terms with the fact that the current arrangement couldn’t go on forever. When she tells Sherlock she’s getting her own apartment, he reads it as a betrayal, and as a simple reaction to the situation at hand. She rightfully puts him in his place, offering a sarcastic thank you for “reducing my feelings down to a psychological cliché.” She also very plainly states that she is not Sherlock: He may live for his work, but she doesn’t, and she wants the time and space to have a real life of her own.

These ideas are all floating through “Art In The Blood,” but they’re all thrown for a loop when Sherlock discovers the gun that killed the MI6 informant has Mycroft’s fingerprints on it. Suddenly, Joan’s reconciliation with Mycroft risks becoming her very own Moriarty situation, in bed with a criminal who has betrayed MI6 and placed all their lives in danger. The episode holds the audience in a rather gloriously uncertain position where you go from thinking Mycroft a buffoon to Mycroft once again being seen as an evil genius, and you’re in that space just long enough for Sherlock to burst into the room and throw the whole thing for another loop entirely. Sherlock doesn’t believe Mycroft killed the informant; he believes Mycroft is being framed, most likely by one of the two MI6 operatives we had a chance to meet over the course of the episode.

The reveal makes for another “to be continued,” the third in a row, but it’s the first to create anything approaching actual uncertainty. It’s still possible that Sherlock is wrong about Mycroft (although it seems unlikely), but there are enough variables in play that even Mycroft’s innocence would create a complex set of character dynamics. It was all interesting enough that it wasn’t until Mycroft’s speech about why he chose to hide the truth from Sherlock—concern over what he might do—that I remembered the heroin on the bookshelf, the ticking time bomb introduced in the first episode in the sequence and then all but forgotten since. The show took its time to ramp up the tension, but there are now a considerable number of balls in the air on both a plot and character level that have made a Moriarty-less finale a nonetheless anticipated affair.

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Stray observations:

  • Until the mole twist pretty much suggested we’d be losing MI6 fairly quickly, I thought this was an effort to add some variety to the show’s cases by having Sherlock take on some espionage consulting on the side. I suppose that’s still possible, but it seems like my “premise refresh” alarm went off prematurely on this one.
  • “We saved your brother’s life, too.” “I’ll let that slide.” Sherlock is a character that does righteous anger particularly well, given how enjoyable him being kind of a dick is on a regular basis.
  • I may not always be onto canon references, but even I noticed that Mycroft’s New York apartment is 12B.
  • I enjoyed Emily Bergl—who played the informant’s ex-wife—on Shameless (where she’ll be a regular in season five), and was glad to see her role here never devolved into either victim or perpetrator. She was just part of the story’s twists and turns.
  • Per our debate a few weeks ago, I think we can all agree that based on his impassioned defense of their work in the space, Sherlock would definitely capitalize The Brownstone.
  • Clyde Watch: We’re presuming that Sherlock has sole custody of Clyde in the wake of Joan’s departure, right? I hope Joan at least gets some sort of visitation.

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