The final moments of “Ears To You” could have at least been somewhat ambiguous.
Although ostensibly the story of a woman who ran away from her husband and blackmailed him four years later with two ears her plastic surgeon husband implanted in her back, “Ears To You” is primarily focused on the short term domestic arrangement of Gareth Lestrade bunking out in the brownstone (Bunkin’ In The Brownstone, coming to CBS in Fall 2014). As Genevieve was so kind to investigate last week, the series has returned to Lestrade’s complicated relationship with Sherlock, and this week transitions to his existential struggle of being famous for doing something he does not feel confident he can actually do. His notoriety has created multiple job offers, but he’s struggling to take any of them, and is turning into a disruptive house guest in ways both humorous—yelling as the roosters for holding the remote control hostage—and serious—keeping a secret stash of alcohol around the brownstone, despite Joan’s insistence he not threaten Sherlock’s sobriety.
Lestrade spends the episode solving a case of his own, one that the audience is welcome into. After an unknown assailant on his meandering path to the gutter mugs Lestrade, Joan orders a set of case files for muggings in the area, which Sherlock opened after they arrived and before Joan received them. Lestrade contacts the other victims, learns information regarding a bicycle at both scenes, and then traces the bicycle back to its owner—there he discovers his wallet, along with several others, and successfully confronts—read: knocks out—the mugger. He also, however, finds a rooster feather, the same kind that he’s been finding around the brownstone.
This collection of evidence leads Lestrade to one conclusion: Sherlock had solved the case for him, served it on a silver platter by playing the roles of the other victims on the phone, and then led Lestrade to the conclusion to boost his confidence. As it happens, it worked, as Lestrade successfully identifying Sherlock’s plan was the confidence boost he needed in order for him to take one of the job offers on the table and get out of their hair. The episode ends with Joan—who Sherlock had previously chided for not allowing Lestrade to hit rock bottom and rebuild himself—confronting Sherlock about his own scheme, and Sherlock denying any involvement whatsoever.
I repeat all of this because if this were all of the evidence available to the audience, there would be at least some doubt whether Sherlock had actually committed the scheme at hand. I would have for a moment considered Sherlock’s theory that Lestrade had dropped the feather himself, and that Sherlock’s good deed had been allowing Lestrade to believe he had sniffed out Sherlock’s scheme. However, this wasn’t all of the evidence available to the audience. There was also the episode’s “Previously On” segment, which opened by reminding us that Sherlock Holmes likes to do accents on phone calls.
I want to lock whoever made the decision to add that to the “Previously On” in a room with Romulus and Remus and let the feathers fly. It removes any and all ambiguity from the conclusion, and transformed what could have been an actual moment of deduction for the audience into a complete and utter tell. The voices were conspicuous enough as it is that, without the “Previously On” sequence, there would have been enough evidence for audience members to deduce Sherlock’s involvement before the feather turned up at the scene. Audience members could even feel smart when they piece together Sherlock’s affinity for voice acting without having it spoonfed to them. Including the “Previously On” sequence is doing for audiences what Sherlock was doing to Lestrade, but the only lesson it teaches us is that the show doesn’t trust its audience as much as it should.
There are always elements of this in an episode of Elementary—just look at the exposition dump Sherlock offers at the kitchen table late in the episode, recounting every detail of the case so audiences don’t forget the details. But those I’ve come to understand as par for the course, structural components built into the formula (although usually more subtly than that one, which was amongst the show’s most blatant); by comparison, the “Previously On” detail existed outside of those structural demands, added to the text in a way that negatively impacted its dramatic effectiveness.
This may seem like a lot of time to focus on a small detail, but that’s perhaps a fitting way to describe the past two episodes of the series. Lestrade was a compelling presence in the season premiere, and the role remains a great showcase for Sean Pertwee—if nothing else, it’s good we got a chance to revisit the character before Pertwee is busy butlering over in Gotham City. However, Lestrade’s stay was largely content to hint at details without much resolution. Throughout the episode, I kept expecting them to build on Joan’s relationship with Sherlock (in part thinking about Genevieve’s discussion of Joan’s marginalization last week), but we get only two brief conversations in which Lestrade first makes ominous portends of the effects of working with Sherlock before later assuring her she’ll understand him better with time.
I was expecting Lestrade’s appearance to add up to something in particular. Too short to function as a satisfying arc in its own right, I was waiting for his presence to offer a meaningful contribution to either Sherlock or Joan’s characters, but it never came. It’s possible it will come in subsequent episodes, but the problem right now is that they’re poking at different ideas without any sense of where they could be going. Although Mycroft’s agenda remains the season’s largest open-ended questions, and where I expect the season will head towards its finale, Joan and Sherlock aren’t moving in any particular direction. They feel trapped between the beginning and the middle, floating in a liminal space of going through the motions waiting for that next, more meaningful case to arrive.
Watching—and writing about—the show during this period is sort of like Sherlock disarming the explosive devices being sent to him in the mail. Without stakes, every episode is like the devices that feature only ink or water; there’s no sense of consequence or complication, making the disarming procedure feel like just that: a procedure. While the show has always threatened to slip into this mode, in season one there was always at least some uncertainty regarding what was in the metaphorical device, fueled by the insecurity of Sherlock’s sobriety and the nascent nature of Sherlock and Joan’s partnership. In the second season, those dynamics have been less evident, and in the past few episodes have been almost wholly absent. Lestrade added a nice touch of humor and another character to bounce off of, but he added none of the danger or tension necessary to elevate the series beyond its procedural doldrums.
As far as doldrums go, “Ears To You” wasn’t awful, elevated by Carla Buono but ultimately struggling to overcome the fact that neither she nor her ex-husband made a case for caring about their fate one way or another. But I admit I would have enjoyed the episode more if I had felt at least some modicum of ambiguity in the final moments, and if the final reveal had come with the reveal of the feather and not the moment I learned why that scene of Sherlock on the phone had been in the “Previously On” segment. At least there, the writers seemed to be trying to give the audience a reason to connect with the episode, crafting a story that had the potential to be clever and resonant; unfortunately, whoever pieced together the “Previously On” undid some of that work, and helped continue a run of what have been rather mediocre episodes by the series’ standards.
- My thanks to Genevieve for filling in last week—if you didn’t read, go back and hear a great argument for how Joan is being underserved by the show this season. I heartily co-sign.
- I know it’s pointless to apply logic to the procedures within television procedurals, but why in the world wouldn’t they test Sarah’s actual DNA with the ears instead of taking her word that the hairbrush belonged the someone else? She is sitting right there! You can request her DNA! You would have solved the case measurably sooner!
- I also thought Sherlock was a little slow to reach the plastic surgeon solution, but at least we got the “breakthrough banana” out of that delay.
- Fun fact: Every time a show does a ringtone joke, I think about ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, which was the first show I covered for The A.V. Club TV Editor Todd VanDerWerff in our pre-A.V. Club days. If anyone else also thinks about this, stop it. That’s my nonsensical intertextual territory. Step off.
- “That’s me, Watson—joke machine”—I realize Sherlock was being sarcastic here, but given how consistently funny Sherlock is there’s a meta element to this line.
- Clyde Watch: Man, I hope Clyde was on the phone to his agents when he saw those plucking roosters show up on set. They better be headed off to the petting zoo, as there’s no way Clyde should be expected to split his screentime with those horrifying creatures.