Myles is off mingling with the critical elite at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, so your regular Elementary coverage will be falling to other members of The A.V. Club staff for the next few weeks. I’ll be first up with the midseason premiere, and I must confess at the start that I’m at something of a disadvantage. Elementary is one of many network dramas this year where I watched the pilot episode and enjoyed what I saw, though with a large number of prior commitments it fell into the bin of shows I promised to catch up on at a later date—a date that unfortunately hasn’t come yet. I’ve caught bits and pieces of episodes since, mostly to watch Jonny Lee Miller’s performance at the start or end of a case, but haven’t had the chance to work through a full episode in a while.
As such, I’ll have to review “Dirty Laundry” less as part of the full Elementary canon, and more as an indicator of whether or not the show is worth catching up on. And from that perspective, it does the job, both as an effective procedural installment and an episode that made me appreciate the growth of the dynamic between Miller’s Sherlock and Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson. It was an episode that made me appreciate how the writers have taken the Arthur Conan Doyle context and used it to add a new flavor to the police procedural, managing to do so despite some leaps I found glaringly illogical at times.
But we’ll get to those in a bit, as the episode starts out with a murder mystery standard enough that it could open any number of Law & Order episodes, as a popular hotel manager named Teri Purcell is found dead in a washing machine. The investigation goes to all of the usual suspects, first to the husband Oliver (played by Mark Moses, better known as Duck Phillips from Mad Men) and then an associate who may or may not have had an affair with the victim. When neither of these leads pan out, Sherlock digs into the background of the hotel, only to find that it catered to call girls as much as it did businessmen, opening up a whole new avenue of investigation.
Any Sherlock Holmes adaptation for me boils down to who’s playing the title role, and as I alluded to earlier, Miller’s performance is worth the price of admission. I thought he was solid in the pilot, and ten episodes later he’s mastered all the right aspects of the character: Rapid-fire delivery of the details he observes, the offhand cruelty with which he treats those who don’t, and moments of absolute focus such as when riveted to a series of television monitors looking for a clue. The way he selects his words is a delight—his enunciation of the term “whore-fishing” alone makes me want to bring that phrase into common parlance—and it’s apparent Miller’s gone a long way to making this incarnation of Holmes his own. (Sherlock’s infuriation at the standstill of the investigation is a favorite moment: “I’m angry because we ran out of suspects! For the time being at least. I really liked that one too! Oily.”)
Where the episode starts to falter is when Sherlock starts to dig deeper into Teri’s past, and the evidence has to support larger and larger leaps of logic. First it looks like Teri was killed by the pimps of the call girls she threw out of the hotel, and then it turns out she was supporting them secretly. Then it turns out she wasn’t charging for their services (“a volunteer madam” as Watson puts it) and was videotaping the rooms. Only it turns out that it wasn’t for blackmail reasons, but simply to observe what was being said. And then the reveal: Teri and Oliver are in fact Russian spies, so deeply embedded that they had their daughter Carly for the sake of their cover identity. I don’t know how convoluted other episodes have been so this could be entirely in line with Elementary’s usual process, but the writers seem determined to introduce five or six twists before finally reaching a conclusion that’s almost beyond the pale. If alarm bells don’t go off when Sherlock mentions the idea of compressed photos and starting a tangent on steganography, they certainly do when he rattles off all the details that led him to specifically Russian agents like shaking hands underneath the doorway and the coins out on the dresser. (At a certain point, I found myself channeling John Malkovich in Burn After Reading and asking “The Russians?”)
However, once the shock/annoyance of the reveal wears off, “Dirty Laundry” manages to pull out of a spiral by finding the emotional connections buried beneath its premise. The espionage framework is used less as a storytelling device than it is an explanation for the pressure cooker this family has been under for a long time. When he’s brought into the interrogation room, Moses delivers a terrific performance as he gives Oliver a sense of conviction talking about his daughter’s life, his career second to her well-being. And the reveal that Carly triggered the circumstances of Teri’s death is handled well, particularly in how the former tearfully recounts the chain of events. Yes, the inciting event remains tied to the spy backstory and talk of “second-generation agents,” but the core is a much more relatable conflict of a mother trying to steer her daughter into the future she saw as ideal.
And of course, it helps that while parts of the story have the ring of implausibility, the mystery is still well-constructed. Sherlock makes all the right connections in the aforementioned chain of events from adultery to blackmail to espionage, and also (as expected) picks up on little details such as exactly why the security cameras in the hotel were deactivated. Even at the end, once you get over the final clue being a pen with invisible ink—an detail even Sherlock acknowledges is ridiculous—it makes for an effective resolution to the mystery by calling back to that initial clue and Sherlock’s apparently throwaway line about not seeing any ink.
Playing alongside the mystery is the question of where Sherlock and Watson’s professional relationship is going, with “nine days, 12 hours and 46 minutes” left until the end of the companionship agreement. In his review of “The Leviathan” Myles discussed how the show has gradually worked towards the conclusion that Watson would stay with Sherlock because she finds the work rewarding rather than a professional obligation, and there’s plenty of evidence this episode that she’s picking up a lot of habits the longer her contract lasts. She’s still the more empathetic member of the partnership by far, able to get information from the daughter that his brusque matter never would, but her observation that the neighbor trimming her plants out of season is an obvious gossip is lifted right from Sherlock’s playbook. Sherlock clearly notices this talent, and he offers her an “apprenticeship” as a result, a chance to learn more directly from his methods (and still getting paid by making some excuses to his father).
Yet despite her success in the field—and Sherlock’s acknowledgement “I give you as much credit for solving this case as I do myself”—Watson still refuses the offer. This is an instance where more context in the show would be helpful, as the events of this episode don’t provide enough evidence for her to turn it down outright, opting to focus on her relationship with Carly instead of Sherlock. More notable in this decision is the excellently vague expression on Sherlock’s face as he masks his emotions. Is he legitimately upset that she’s not choosing to stay with him because he enjoys her company, disappointed that she’s abandoning a clear talent for investigative work, or mad at himself for incorrectly predicting she’d stay with him? Given what we’ve seen of the character, it could be all or neither.
So “Dirty Laundry” passes the test of reawakening my interest in Elementary. It’s still not a show that I’m guaranteed to watch regularly, but it has moved to the top of my list of shows to clear off the DVR once I have a free weekend. Logical leaps aside, it appears to have found a groove as a procedural with solid performances and well-constructed mystery elements, and has grown past its initial premise of being a modern-day Arthur Conan Doyle story to deliver its own distinct narrative. I’ll leave it to you in comments to tell me how well it works as part of the full season, but speaking as someone who hasn’t seen the full season, it’s an effort that’s engaging despite its sillier moments.
- While its independence from the source material is a net positive for the show, as a devotee of the original Sherlock Holmes canon I appreciate the little details brought over in adaptations, and this episode made good use of his notorious messiness. Holmes was, according to “The Musgrave Ritual,” “in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow lodger to distraction,” and I like the extrapolation that he considers that chaos conducive to his thought process. (Also, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I too have been so far behind on dishes that I wound up appropriating coffee cups for spaghetti.)
- Interesting detail: when Sherlock first made the offer to Watson, he described their new working relationship as an “apprenticeship,” and he amended it to her being his “associate” when they talked in the final scene. She’s likely to take the job before too long given the show won’t want to abandon this partnership, and I predict he’s going to have to further upgrade the description to “partner” to get the answer he wants.
- As an aside, I love the opening titles. The Rube Goldberg-style device is both visually interesting and an effective illustration of Sherlock’s investigative process.
- Miller’s delivery gets most of my attention, but Liu has some wonderfully deadpan moments as well, particularly when Teri’s footage proves less than scandalous: “Wow. Yeah, I don’t know how I’m ever going to unsee any of that.”
- The world according to Sherlock: “The only promise a puzzle makes is an answer. Liking the answer doesn’t factor in.”
- Thanks again to Myles for letting me take over coverage for this week. Caroline Framke and Zack Handlen will be stepping in for the next two weeks respectively, after which Myles will be back at the reins. (If he returns, that is—there’s always the chance the TCA’s background check will uncover he too is a Russian spy.)