“Is that, like, the detective’s code or something?”

Tonight’s episodes of Elementary were promoted as a “Two-Hour Elementary Event”, suggesting one of the series’ occasional two-parters, in which a single case gets a little breathing room and character beats come to the fore. It’s not either episode’s fault that it was marketed as something it wasn’t, but I actually laughed when I realized that the cases in “All In” and “Art Imitates Art” were utterly disparate, and the only glue holding these episodes together was that Joan had a personal relationship show up for more than one week. (By that rubric, season four so far has been a “Nine-Hour Elementary Event” featuring Sherlock’s father.)

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That said, it’s just as well for “All In” that there’s no other connection between this episodes, because it gets to be the fun younger sister it wants to be. There’s an energy to this episode that feels like it’s been missing for most of the season, and it’s striking how it manifests in small ways. The camera panning down once Sherlock settles onto the trampoline is a small visual touch from director Aaron Lipstadt, but it makes Joan’s (and our) presence in the scene a palpable point of view; it’s a touch of fond disdain from the camera. And the stagey we’ve-been-bugged beat—including Joan and Sherlock working wordlessly in tandem to tip Lin Wen off about NSA bugs, and Lin’s bewildered playing along—had a gleeful sense of personality.

Of course, as with most of Elementary‘s cases, the central mystery here is not as secretive as it likes to pretend it is. From Joan and Lin Wen’s first bout of bickering, it’s fairly clear Joan and Lin have a connection. Episode writer Kelly Wheeler smartly makes it obvious Lin’s baiting has a sense of purpose that puts Joan on the back foot even as it telegraphs the situation to us. (That sly “You don’t like me very much, do you?” was a dead giveaway for anyone who’s seen sisters; that’s a Little Sister standard.) So this mystery definitely doesn’t exist to keep us guessing. It largely exists to give us a Joan who’s irritated both by her instinctive bristling against Lin, and too emotionally involved to guess Lin’s lie for the first two acts. Lucy Liu does great work here, selling Joan’s bafflement over her own knee-jerk responses, and Samantha Quan picks at Joan’s sore spots with remarkable charm given that, knowing what we know, that overlap between alibi and prodding often feels cruel.

That overlap could not have chosen a less successful fulcrum than Mycroft Holmes, whose shoehorned romance with Watson is still the series’ single biggest head-scratcher. Lin spends the first half of this caper trying to claim increasingly intimate knowledge of Mycroft; at first it’s to cover her ass, but later she dwells on it just to watch Joan squirm. It’s cruel beyond the obvious attempt to make her sister think she was two-timed: Somehow, even in the middle of an episode that centers her with her own family, Joan can’t escape Sherlock’s shadow.

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The family ties get even stranger when Joan calls in an off-camera favor with Morland, to which Sherlock reacts with wholly appropriate horror. As far as we know, she’s planted a mole in Morland’s office! Why on earth is she calling in favors and indebting herself to the most favor-leveraging man in Elementary canon? (Joan rolls her eyes a lot as Sherlock sticks his nose in her business, but it really stings whenever Sherlock’s scolding is so obviously right. Sure, he’s emotionally compromised in his own way—and takes pains to remind Joan that Mycroft is awful, a defense mechanism he’ll probably never be able to shake—but this feels like an awfully big beat to happen as an offscreen afterthought.)

Honestly, it’s one of many points I was looking forward to revisiting later back when I thought this was a genuine two-parter. It’s rare that an Elementary case feels like it warrants two hours, but this card-game caper, especially the two broader-than-life new-money men at the card table, and the fact that such an elaborate ruse is a smokescreen for international intrigue, has the flavor of classic Holmes. And it’s always great to see a case that test Joan and Sherlock’s limits. Watching the armed robbery morph into something with stakes too high for them to handle was more satisfying. We don’t get a lot of cases that test the limits of their abilities—the CBS formula isn’t a fan of unfinished business—but the best cases these two tackle usually stretch either the limits of their morals, or the limits of their power, and as soon as Agent McNally showed up, it was clear that this case was going to resolve in ways that Sherlock and Joan would have no say in. The setup before his interference was suitably labyrinthine, but there’s always more opportunities for character beats if Sherlock and Joan get cut off at the knees a little.

In fact, the crux of the case doesn’t even end up being the distinctly soap-opera reveal of Joan and Lin’s relationship. The real suspense of the last act is Sherlock’s mounting irritation at being taken out of the loop on a case until he’s forced to read penmanship to get closure; his controlled anger as he threatens the NSA van is notable. And Joan’s anger at McNally’s interference, while it feels like immediately dangerous, is a timely reminder that she’s beginning to chafe under the restrictions of law enforcement. The fact that the case hinges on a double agent is icing on the cake, since—if the show is still planning to do anything with this—Joan herself is currently running her own spy in Morland’s business, and has, in some ways, already become a double agent herself. During the NSA blackout, she and Sherlock sit in the dark and bicker, and at the heart, it’s an argument about about acceptable ways to get what you need. If “All In”’s double agent is a suggestion of another to come, then it’s some great sleight of hand.

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Stray observations

  • This episode was rich in one-liners, delivered perfectly by Miller, Liu, and company. (Hats off to Miller in particular, for the sheer number of lines delivered while on a trampoline.)
  • “This is not a shelter for wayward and wounded realtors.”
  • The most sisterly interaction of the entire episode, as Samantha Quan is positively alight with derision at Joan’s life choices: “I used to be a surgeon.” “And now you do this?”
  • Biggest laugh of the week: “People call me Jimmer.” “If you say so.”
  • Line delivery of the week: Joan’s withering “And you don’t suspect him because…”
  • Extremely close runner-up: Marcus taking the charcoal-and-coconut clue to its obvious conclusion: “The killer must have come straight from a luau.”
  • Costume note: Joan’s jewel-toned stripe blouse with the self-fabric tie—a ‘70s schoolteacher special you will never be able to convince me could come back around to cutting-edge, because look at it—has jumped whatever shark guards the necktie waters.
  • Back when I dreamed this would be a true two-partner, the through-line of the National Council of Sommeliers was shaping up to be my favorite background case in a long time. If you set a pot of cat pee on the stove in the first act, surely it must appear at a wine auction in the third.
  • Nice continuity note I wish they had revisited, especially given that the episode was strongly themed around authority issues: “You didn’t tell the Captain about an armed robbery for 24 hours? Maybe give him that long to forgive you.”

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