“I don’t understand the question. Can I have more information?”
Elementary has had a murder problem since it began. There is nothing inherent to the character of Sherlock Holmes that should require someone to die in each and every episode, and yet Elementary—either based on producer choice or network demand, or some combination of the two—insists on killing someone each week. Perhaps the logic is that the NYPD would have no reason to be involved if no one dies in the course of the crime in question, or perhaps the logic is that audiences connect to stories where the stakes are at their highest. Regardless, my comments regarding Elementary’s murder spree date back to the first season’s tenth episode, “The Leviathan,” one of the first episodes to nearly avoid a murder before eventually giving in.
“Bella” reminded me a lot of that episode. As with “The Leviathan,” it begins with a mystery that has nothing to do with a murder, and allows Sherlock to go into obsessive puzzle-solving mode. The idea of real, legitimate artificial intelligence is ludicrous to Sherlock, which is exactly why he must devote his every waking moment to proving it impossible. He’s not trying to puzzle over a murder, nor is he focused on the burglary of the program that has the original programmers hiring him in the first place (which he pawns off to Watson to focus on cracking Bella’s programming). He is tackling a much bigger mystery, one that’s ripped from the science journals instead of being ripped from the headlines.
Sherlock Holmes is a character that deals with ideas well. While a particularly meaningful crime catches his attention effectively—he gains more interest in the case when a notorious cat burglar is singled out as the likely culprit of the break-in, for example—he spends his free time experimenting with intellectual curiosity more broadly. “Bella” opens with this curiosity being tested by the eponymous artificial intelligence program, and Sherlock goes to his panel of experts to figure out how he can beat it. While heavy on exposition on the research writer Craig Sweeny and the writers’ room would have completed on the subject at hand, the early scenes in the episode crackle as Sherlock sets to work with programming assistant—and Terminator fan—Mason to solve the case of the supposedly intelligent machine.
And then its creator gets murdered.
It’s a frustrating development, alleviated only by the fact that I had my outburst of anger about it when I saw a commercial for the episode that featured a dead body despite the episode description giving me hope that the mystery wouldn’t result in someone’s death. (Seriously, though, I was in my living room and I yelled “WHY” out loud like an insane person.) The death of Edwin Borstein places “Bella” comfortably back in the show’s wheelhouse: Bell shows up, Gregson gets to do some interrogating, and the show delves back into the grind of suspects, motives, and the “whodunit” of its genre. Those elements remain compellingly rendered by the series, efficiently working us to to a computer virus hidden in death metal music uploaded to the computer in order to frame Bella for the crime and discredit the program, but it’s hard not to feel like the retreat to familiar territory pulls the show away from exploring something new, and something that the show has always done well in smaller doses.
Let’s put it in the terms of the episode. Central to “Bella” is the notion of the tenuous relationship we share with those around us, which includes other human beings or even the artificial intelligence we develop and create. During the brief moment where the episode entertains the possibility that it was Bella who murdered Edwin in order to get closer to accessing the Internet, it is suggested that what was once a productive relationship devolves into an adversarial one: Edwin was in the way, so Bella killed him. The same happens with Joan and Sherlock when the former presumes that the latter is behind Andrew’s new business venture in Copenhagen. Her argument is built on the logic that when Sherlock felt his renewed connection to Joan was threatened by Andrew’s presence, he hatched an elaborate plan to connect Andrew with his friend Magnus who has big plans for an automated factory in Scandinavia, thus removing the drain on Joan’s time and resources. Despite the fact that Sherlock and Joan are undoubtedly close, it is that very closeness that would make other relationships or other goals threatening, which leads Sherlock—if Joan is correct—to take action against Andrew.
As the episode progressed following the murder, I started to see the tension between the series’ ideas and its procedural engine in a similar light: the writers’ interest in the nature of artificial intelligence was forced to exist in a relationship with the structural demands of the series (regardless of who has created them), and eventually the structure swoops in to take over and bring the episode to its conclusion. The inevitability was not surprising—given it was inevitable and all—but it felt more disappointing than usual in light of how much the show was invested in those ideas early on.
Ultimately, Sherlock convinces Joan—who he identifies to Bella as one of only three people he’s ever loved, although he distinguishes it from the romantic and familial love he felt for Irene and his mother, respectively—that he has no ill-will toward Andrew, and we’re given no reason to believe he’s lying. Joan believed the worst because she’s been given reason to believe the worst in the past: Sherlock has had some convoluted schemes, and has the intellect and connections necessary to bring Andrew and Magnus together. In the end, though, his conviction regarding their partnership is more powerful than his most petty instincts, leading Watson to nearly risk her life with a hug instead of ending their tentative—if occasional—reconciliation.
Thankfully, “Bella” proves me wrong in the same way Sherlock does Joan. I believed the worst of “Bella,” which threatened to leave behind its ideas the moment the “intelligent computer killed Edwin” solution is replaced by a professor and his teaching assistant with a disappearing computer virus. I believed that as a procedural—which, not unlike a computer program, deals with solving problems—it would shift toward resolution, and away from the uncertain questions raised before there was a legible problem in the form of a dead body. I believed that Mason—who I really liked, by the way—and his theories about the coming robot apocalypse were a fleeting moment of “ideas” in a show that must ultimately boil down to “solutions.”
I was wrong. The murder in “Bella” ends up being one motivated by ideas, and by a professor who believes that artificial intelligence will result in the apocalypse. It’s something of an absurd premise, but it allows the crime to reinforce—rather than replace—the ideas dealt with earlier. Sherlock then engages in one of his nontraditional gambits, using the professor’s drug addict brother as blackmail to convince him to turn himself in so he will be held accountable alongside his assistant (who confessed to the crime). Instead of solving the case, though, it only perplexes Sherlock further: Isaac Pike (Michael Christofer) has done his own research, and doesn’t believe that Sherlock is so amoral as to turn in a fellow addict. Specifically, Pike does not believe that Sherlock is capable of the kind of remorseless, empty killing that he, Mason, and others believe artificial intelligence is capable of. In short, he believes Sherlock Holmes is human, and that his specific humanity makes him incapable of following through on this threat.
Pike’s speech is a bit on the nose with the parallel between Sherlock and the computer, certainly, but it’s a brilliant moment because it “solves” the murder without solving the questions at hand. It connects the unresolved ideas regarding artificial intelligence—we never learn whether or not Bella really was intelligent or not, for example—with the lack of resolution in regards to Sherlock’s addiction, and Sherlock’s capacity to love, and Sherlock’s very identity more broadly. It ends with Sherlock—who has yet to follow through on his threat—asking Bella what he should do, and getting the same answer he got with most of his earlier questions: “I don’t understand the question. Can I have more information?”
Elementary works best when it’s asking questions about its characters, and it will stop working when it decides those questions are solved. “Bella” is an excellent example of an episode that uses its procedural case not simply to create a problem to be solved, but also to pose questions that resonate with the characters and with the audience. The series may not yet be willing to embrace an episode that eschews with murder entirely, but here it at least delivered an episode that resisted the urge to reduce itself to solving one. There is no expectation we will ever return to Bella or Isaac Pike because the uncertainty surrounding their fate is far more productive for Elementary than a resolution could ever be, which helps renew my faith in the series’ storytelling balance moving forward.
- Some nice balancing of Kitty and Joan here, I thought: both are involved, but they swap in and out often. I particularly enjoyed Kitty calling Joan for advice as Sherlock gets more and more furious with Bella, at which point Joan just suggests she let it run out and get the fire extinguisher if things get messy, at which point she leaves.
- The info dumps early in the episode suggests a huge bulk of research for the episode—it’s obvious there’s a bit of science fiction in the specific terms of Bella’s intelligence, but I would imagine based on the series’ precedent that there’s a significant amount of real theory that’s underlying the artificial intelligence angle in the episode.
- Michael Cristofer dropping by creates two distinct thoughts. First, remember how awesome the name “Truxton Spangler” was? And second, it would have been illogical, but it’s unfortunate he couldn’t share a scene with Raza Jaffrey or have a drink thrown in his face.
- While we’re on the subject of intertextuality, Michael Chernus (who played Edwin) was part of a strong ensemble on WGN America’s Manhattan, which would make a nice holiday binge watch for those who didn’t get a chance to watch during the year.
- “He’s quoting the Terminator now!” “So, that was a prescient movie in a lot of ways!”—as noted, I hope Mason returns. (Spoiler Alert: IMDB suggests he’ll be back).
- Someone is going to have to help me out with what exactly Sherlock was showing when he suggests that the cleaning company had no website. It appeared to be a 404 error on a search page on a mobile browser, which is not a real thing.
- Clyde Watch: Look, let’s be honest: opening on Clyde is almost unfair in terms of skewing me toward the rest of the episode in a positive light. The fact that the scene went on to clarify the custody arrangement—Watson has weekdays, Sherlock has the weekends—was just icing on the cake. I’m worried about how Kitty’s seeming disinterest in Clyde will color my future opinion of the character, but for now I’ll focus on being able to balance the ledger on the “Clyde”/”No Clyde” tag situation. I would also like to thank CBS Publicity for making this image available.