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Elementary: “Child Predator”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “Child Predator”
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There’s a lot of talk about Sherlock’s process in “Child Predator.” Of course, there was also a lot of talk about his process in the first two episodes, so this isn’t precisely a new theme for Elementary, or for any number of Sherlock Holmes projects. One of the BBC series’—yes, I’m bringing it up voluntarily, Sherlock devotees—most distinctive qualities is how it visualizes Sherlock’s process through on-screen graphics, offering viewers further insight into his brain as he works a crime scene. Accordingly, Elementary is working out how it wants to make that process visible while smartly avoiding replicating Sherlock’s strategy.

In some instances, Elementary doesn’t make it visible at all. When Sherlock stays awake all night sorting through the files related to The Balloon Man, a serial killer who abducts children and leaves balloons in their place, we learn about his findings the next morning when he wakes up Watson to explain it to her. In an episode where Sherlock spends a fair deal of time philosophizing about Watson’s role in his process, here we see her most efficient role: While explaining details to Watson might help Sherlock with his process, it also helps the viewer gather important information about the case. Although this is certainly a trope for procedurals, which almost always involve two or more “detectives” when solving any particular case, it’s also a trope of the genre more broadly. Although it would be unfair to reduce the character to such a role, Watson’s basic purpose in Conan Doyle’s novels is to provide someone for Sherlock to interact with so that his quirks can be observed rather than suffocated in.

As noted, Watson is more than an excuse to provide some distance from Sherlock: Although Sherlock insists here that his communication with Watson is a “one-way street,” the fact is that their relationship is more complicated than he currently believes it to be. However, it is still early in their dynamic at this point in the story, and “Child Protector” sees some subtle shifts toward a more back-and-forth rapport. There’s still that element of convenience, with Watson’s questions or arguments quickly reminding Sherlock of important details—such as his realization about Samuel’s back injury—that help the case move along smoothly, but there’s also a sense of the two characters feeling out their respective roles in this partnership. Elementary will need to find a way to justify Watson remaining with Sherlock once her six-week contract is up; while the recurring threat of a relapse could be used in that instance, it could also be that Watson is more fulfilled in this work than in any other, or that Sherlock realizes how much he needs an animate partner (and not simply for white noise or one-way communication).

Even with this discussion of Watson’s role in the investigative process, when compared to the first two episodes this one spends a bit less time luxuriating in Sherlock’s method in the field. Whereas “While You Were Sleeping” mostly focused on Sherlock investigating crime scenes and picking up clues, “Child Predator” is more interested in Sherlock interacting with suspects, in this case Adam Kemper (played by Johnny Simmons, whom I sadly did not immediately recognize as Scott Pilgrim’s Young Neil). This isn’t to say that Sherlock doesn’t investigate crime scenes, but rather that the episode is more interested in what he does with that information. When he investigates Samuel Atwell’s home and pieces together that he wasn’t the one sleeping in the well-furnished bedroom, what follows is a rather generic scene of detective work (checking the broken window, inspecting the hair on the pillow, looking focused, etc.). The real value is in the scene that follows, as Sherlock confronts Adam in his bedroom and confirms that it was indeed Adam who was The Balloon Man, having turned his original kidnapper into a victim and carried on the abductions for his own sadistic pleasure (which he would have gotten away with due to the immunity deal, were it not for the catch regarding the back injury that Sherlock catches to wrap up the story by episode’s end).

After two episodes where the killers were defined by their methods as opposed to their personalities—especially in the second episode, where the killer was comatose during most of her screen time—Adam Kemper introduces the role of the enigmatic psychopath for Elementary, along with a red herring introduction to the damaged victim. Simmons is adept at playing both roles, convincing as the shattered boy whose childhood was torn away from him, and suitably unhinged when the veil is pulled back and we come to understand him as the true killer. However, more importantly, his scenes with Jonny Lee Miller are a statement for the show's ability to tell stories like these in the future. While the range from Miller may be less apparent given the lack of transformation, there’s a big difference between selling an accusatory monologue and the sentimental—and perhaps false—story about his boarding-school days. Although this kind of showdown between the detective and the killer has become an expected function of any procedural, it’s only valuable if it tells us something about the detective as well as the killer. Because we’re still in the early stages of the series, I thought Sherlock and Adam’s scenes together provided some interesting questions about the former, in addition to episodic momentum for the latter’s story.

This combination is something that procedurals often have some trouble with, but Elementary is handling it well in its still nascent state. Whereas some procedurals—thinking specifically of the USA stable, particularly Burn Notice and White Collar—have a tendency to use the beginning and ending of each episode to offer a check-in with the ongoing story threads, here it’s more clearly scattered throughout the episode. Yes, it helps that Elementary’s serial elements are more small character details than tenuous circumstances designed to manufacture false stakes—I’m looking at you, Suits—but it’s still a balancing act. Sherlock’s relationship with his father is clearly remarked upon—“I’d trade my Dad for a Tic Tac, but that’s my Dad. Not yours.”—during his conversation with Adam, but the episode doesn’t linger on it, in the same way that Sherlock’s sobriety is a note of concern related to his refusal to properly take care of himself, as an ongoing crisis. These kinds of reminders are not always particularly natural, but I thought they were well used in “Child Predator,” reminders that not only refreshed my memory but also added value to the scenes in why they took place. A procedural is not just about the balance between procedural and serial elements but also their interaction with one another; that interaction was good here, and showed some good potential for when—or if, I suppose—the show chooses to invest more time on serial elements.


At the same time, though, “Child Predator” is also just a well-told story by a show that, at least so far, has a good sense of its narrative rhythms. There’s a bit of misdirection early in the episode, where a scene that plays like exposition turns out to be something more. If you are only listening to the scene, you hear Watson describing details about the case, lest we have forgotten any of them from before the first commercial break. However, as we learn in the scene that follows when Sherlock confronts the girl’s father regarding his affair, Sherlock has spent the previous scene gathering the information necessary to move the case forward. The best thing I can say about Elementary at this point is that there is rarely a scene that only feels like it is serving a single solitary purpose. While this may seem like a fairly low bar, it’s better than other shows balancing procedural storytelling with serial aspirations this season—hey there, Vegas—and has suggested a fair deal of upside regarding its future prospects.

Stray Observations

  • While I noted Watson’s status as a buffer between Sherlock and the audience/reader above, something that the pilot largely replicated, this was the first episode of Elementary to focus so heavily on Sherlock himself, with the detectives playing a limited role and Watson lacking the b-story she had with her ex-boyfriend last week. I liked the streamlined approach, but I do think the ensemble is something the show will need to address as it seeks to diversify.
  • We need to wait until next week to see if it’s a pattern, but both of the first two episode titles have been retroactively turned into spoilers (here by making the child the predator). Not sure if that pun is something the show intends to move forward with, but I love a good episode title gimmick (emphasis on “good”).
  • It’s a pretty common trick, but the idea of whether or not Sherlock’s stories about boarding school are true at all remains the be seen. Rote or not, though, ambiguity is a television show’s best friend at this point, and I liked how this instance was handled.
  • Something I thought was never clarified: How exactly did Adam and Samuel’s dynamic work when they were caring for an abducted victim? I ask because you would think that, traumatized or not, Mariana’s experience could have shed some light on the real dynamic. Perhaps Sherlock just solved it too fast for it to come up, but she just kind of disappeared from the story at some point.