It’s been over five months since Elementary aired its second season finale. Pushed back due to CBS’ acquisition of Thursday Night Football, it launches after viewers have had plenty of time to sample new series: this includes timeslot competitor How To Get Away With Murder, the highest-rated new drama of the season in key demographics, and the four new procedurals that CBS debuted and picked up for a full season earlier this week. The situation adds an external pressure to the third season premiere, which must reclaim a place in viewers’ hearts and minds after having been either missing or displaced, depending on how those viewers chose to spend their time.
Even without the delay, however, Elementary was entering its third season facing some major creative questions. The second season was solid overall, but the show clearly struggled with how to continue to evolve Sherlock and Joan’s relationship after having spent the first season building it from the ground up. Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) was their answer, but the choice to turn him into a romantic interest for Joan ended up backfiring—Joan lost agency when positioned as a pawn between two powerful men, while Sherlock’s sibling issues ended up overpowering his partner issues with Joan. Elementary never stopped being a good procedural featuring well-developed characters during this period, but the momentum on that character development stalled, or went in directions that were no longer creating the same dynamic storytelling that the first season brought to the table. The question for the third season, therefore, was how the writers plan to avoid the same fate.
“Enough Nemesis To Go Around” provides a clear answer, although it’s an answer that started with last season’s finale. As I wrote at the time, the slate was wiped clean: every story thread in the second season was wrapped up, and focus shifted to its cumulative effect on Joan and Sherlock’s partnership. She decided to move out of the brownstone to escape from Sherlock’s orbit; he decided to pocket his stolen heroin and agree to work for MI-6. However, it was unclear at the time which path the show would take given that the two characters were diverging. Do we split time between London and New York? Do we start the season in one location before traveling to the other? If the first season finale offered a sense of clarity regarding the series’ central relationship and its likely path forward, the second season offered more directions for the writers—here creator Rob Doherty and executive producer Craig Sweeny—to choose from.
The direction they take is Joan, and it’s proving to be a fantastic decision. “Enough Nemesis To Go Around” opens on Joan, in a restaurant, at the end of what we will learn is a lengthy investigation into cartel leader Elana March (a gregarious Gina Gershon). When we start the conversation they play like old friends, but then we discover they’re old nemeses, with Joan having picked up the case as soon as she took over the cartel six months earlier. Lucy Liu sells the history, positioning Joan as assertive and triumphant as she reveals that they have her accountant, and Gregson moves in for the arrest. Before we can get too comfortable, though, it’s a month later and Joan has moved onto solving new cases out of her new apartment and having reptile-related meet cutes in her hallway. And then before you even finish getting excited that Clyde has made the move to Joan’s new apartment, her witness is murdered in an elevator that never stopped and we’re fastforwarding another two months as Joan and the NYPD struggle to solve the case.
It’s a deftly handled opening on two levels. On the one hand, it gives us enough of a narrative to establish Joan’s connection to this case: Gershon makes a quick impression, we see Joan “at work” enough to understand her success serving as an independent investigator, and the new boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey, currently on Homeland and unfortunately not playing his Smash character in a crossover event) represents that Joan has lived a life during this same period. However, on the other hand, we’re still distanced from what exactly Joan went through in the immediate aftermath of her split from Sherlock. By the time the sequence is over, we’ve gotten a pretty clear read on how the last eight months of Joan’s life have gone while simultaneously creating the sense that we missed something important that has changed her perspective on her job, her life, and—of course—her relationship with the elephant conspicuously not in the room.
It was inevitable that Sherlock would return to the picture, particularly once the episode sped through eight months in ten minutes. It’s plausible that the show will return to what exactly happened with Sherlock and MI:6 in London in a future flashback, but this premiere is significantly better for resisting centering on Sherlock’s perspective the second he returns from London. He first appears as an anonymous tipster, alerting the police to a hired killer who was staying in the hotel when the witness was shot; when Joan tracks him down at the Brownstone based on his chosen alias, he’s literally hiding behind a mask (or an isolation helmet, specifically). He’s waiting at Gregson’s office the next time we see him, and Joan finds him in the elevator at the hotel thereafter. In fact, there are only two scenes in the entire episode that open from Sherlock’s perspective: his discussion with his new protégé Kitty about her run-in with Joan, and then the final sequence where he begins reconstructing his wall of locks. Every other time we see Sherlock, he is visiting or otherwise being run into by another character, rendered a supporting character in their story following his absence.
I have no expectation that this will continue, but it was enormously refreshing, and the way the episode plays out would indicate that the rebalancing is at least semi-permanent. With Sherlock and Kitty—more on her in a moment—coming on as consultants with the NYPD, and Joan insisting that she will continue to work independently on her own cases, the show is angling toward a CSI or NCIS model wherein two separate investigative teams are able to function simultaneously. It makes it easier to develop A-stories and B-stories, increasing the diversity of cases the show is able to explore. Will this result in more stories set in this world that don’t involve murder? Will it give them more flexibility to explore ongoing storylines? Does this mean that Joan’s partner is now Clyde?
These questions speak to the efficiency with which “Enough Nemesis To Go Around” reinvigorates the series and its central dynamics. The situation we find at the end of the episode is nuanced and messy, as none of the emotional dynamics of Sherlock’s return have been solved. In his impassioned plea to Joan to convince her to allow him to return to consulting with Kitty, he shows a startling—if not necessarily surprising—lack of empathy as he explains that Joan was his problem. Whereas he had convinced himself that he needed Joan, he realized in London that all he really needed was someone to butt heads with; he presents it to Joan as a significant breakthrough, but it’s at the expense of their friendship that was at the core of that partnership. Joan wanted a greater sense of independence, but she also valued their relationship; Sherlock believes he has broken himself of his co-dependence, but in doing so he’s also broken their friendship, particularly given that he left a note to announce his departure instead of saying goodbye in person.
In addition to a structural change, then, there’s an emotional reset in the premiere as well. Whereas the character arcs had moved toward Sherlock becoming friends with Bell and Gregson, his departure derailed this path, and Gregson is quick to note that they were never truly friends as far as he’s concerned. The show similarly returns to Sherlock’s issues with human relationships through Kitty, whose presence foregrounds the distinction between a protégé and a partner. Her presence lets the show return to the early dynamics of Joan and Sherlock’s relationship without regressing Joan as a character, while also introducing another female presence whose own pre-Sherlock story is alluded to at episode’s end. Moreover, it allows the show to nonetheless retain the evolved—if complicated—form of Sherlock and Joan’s relationship without sacrificing the parts of Sherlock’s character that make him fun and frustrating in equal measure.
It’s an incredibly encouraging start to the season on every level, really. As a standalone story, we get a “perfect crime” that filters through Joan and Sherlock’s testy reunion,with each contributing key solutions before Joan gets to put her own personal nemesis in jail at episode’s end (without Sherlock by her side). The episode returns Joan and Sherlock to the same city and the same workspace, but leaves lots of time unaccounted for to return to at a later date. And most importantly, unlike last season’s premiere, the “season arc” established isn’t a character that will drop in during sweeps months, but rather a new character dynamic that will play out each week. Although it remains possible that we will be back to Joan and Sherlock as partners before the season is over, the barriers that this premiere puts in place set map out a compelling path for the show and its characters in the weeks ahead.
I went into this premiere wondering if there was going to be enough momentum to keep me engaged writing about the show for a third season; I left anxious to see the next episode, and excited to write more.
- There are some great story reasons to separate Joan and Sherlock more often, but there are also logistical reasons—they shared so many scenes that the actors rarely got a break, so much so that Joan being kidnapped was the only way Liu had time to direct last season. So I’m guessing this is a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B.
- “She’s going to ask me to adopt her, isn’t she?”—I like that Joan still gets to be funny, but I especially appreciate that she’s not only funny when she’s talking back to Sherlock. It’s a meaningful outgrowth of her personality to see how she functions independent of his neuroses.
- I don’t know how purposeful it was, but I admittedly had Joan’s brief case involving empty boxes of tiles in mind as they were puzzling over the elevator murder, such that I had the bathroom tiles stuck in my head before Joan revealed where the magnet had been hidden.
- I haven’t written a lot about Sean Callery’s music, but it was more conspicuous than usual as Joan looked over the security footage—not sure if it was a new cue or a new instrumentation, but it was effective.
- Sherlock’s idea of a housewarming gift: plastic coat hangers with a ribbon attached. There are not many places open at that time of night.
- “Did you forget you handcuffed me to a chair down here?!”—we don’t get to see a lot of Kitty, but this bodes well for her future as a character, if not as an investigator given that Sherlock thinks she should have escaped minutes earlier.
- “I got into a baton fight with someone named Kitty?”—the final scene lays the groundwork for a different kind of mentor/mentee relationship with Joan and Kitty, but Joan’s initial credulity was fun while it lasted.
- Sherlock on why he returned to New York: “Isn’t is obvious? I belong here. As do you.” Clearly this was filmed before 1989 came out, because I’m sure he would have quoted “Welcome to New York” here if it had.
- I’m going to link to this in every episode Raza Jaffrey appears in. I’m not sorry about it.
- Clyde Watch: Clyde appears well fed, but I’m concerned how custody will be determined now that his owners are no longer partners. I hope he has a good shrink.
- Welcome back to our coverage of Elementary! I remain a strong proponent of having a space to engage with “procedurals” on an episodic level, and am thrilled—particularly given the season’s direction—to be able to do it with all of you here. We’re getting a late start, but I’m hopeful we can continue the productive discussions we’ve had in seasons past, and that we’ll collectively protest when Clyde inevitably goes missing for four weeks at a time.