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Elementary goes gentle into its good night

Illustration for article titled Elementary goes gentle into its good night
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“Well, I guess you’ll have to fix me up also. I’m not staying in this gol-darned country all on my lonesome.”

- Arthur Conan Doyle, “His Last Bow”

This is the second time Elementary has ended.

The first finale – planned before their seventh-season pickup – pinned our detective duo into a corner where only Sherlock falling on his sword could get them out. Still, all was well again, by the end, over at 221-B. It was perfectly satisfying – enough that a viewer never had to wait to feel they’d gotten a wrap on Joan and Sherlock.


It’s to the show’s credit that the seventh season tried to give you something to worry about, introducing a new villain and forcing Joan and Sherlock into some tough decisions, knowing that this time it had to wrap everything for sure. It did what it could in a truncated season, and sure enough, this goodbye goes for every possible loose end, and manages to succeed (sometimes despite itself).

The kitchen-sink feeling of this grave-smashing finale isn’t out of step with the rest of the season, which split up Joan and Sherlock regularly and threw in several subplots to nowhere, leaving us disconnected from our key pair (and Gregson and Bell) at key moments. Joan and Sherlock’s partnership was solid enough – whatever tension heralded the start of the season vanished when they needed to close ranks – but there was the usual rush, particularly as we hurtled toward the end. (“Reichenbach Falls” skipped Joan coming back to the empty brownstone, which feels like an even bigger missed opportunity given that “Their Last Bow” opens three years after the night on the bridge.)

Still, there was promise in this season. The show has often tiptoed into considerations about artificial intelligence, the immorality of wealth, and the surveillance state. It just as often tiptoes back out again. But though the finale plays fast and loose (a handy three-year time jump past the Reichenbach trial, Joan’s adopted son and new celebrity, red-herring Moriarty, Sherlock’s death fraud, Joan’s cancer), the episode makes time for Agent McNally to show up bluescreen and all and make Sherlock a familiar offer. Power abhors a vacuum; Reichenbach wasn’t untouchable, and his methods weren’t unique. Of course, because this is the series finale, Sherlock isn’t made to actually choose – he gets an extremely handy do-over on all counts – but he also casually names the NSA as a criminal enterprise when he’s thinking over the job offer with Joan.

It’s too bad the episode felt it had to coat that last-second mystery in a Moriarty shell; those twists didn’t do much but keep the wardrobe and locations departments busy. If the season was going to invoke Moriarty, it had plenty of time to do so before the finale, when she could have been a fascinating wild card; if the season was going to save her for last, it had a better way to do it. Sherlock admits to Joan that of late he’d gotten more interested in Moriarty and he knows for a fact she’s alive; a question from Joan about whether Sherlock was ever tempted would have done the trick. They always do the trick. Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller being prickly but honest with each other is always more gripping than any case has been. The two of them in the kitchen for 40 minutes would have been mystery enough.

The post-Reichenbach reunion is always tricky. When it’s a surprise to Watson that Sherlock’s alive, the moment of Watson realizing Sherlock has lied always requires a genuinely fond Sherlock for Watson not to look like a fool. But one of the earliest things that set Elementary apart is that this is a Sherlock who can apologize and mean it; he stands by his choices, but he understands how Joan would worry, and eventually give him up as lost. That same depth of understanding makes the later reveal more powerful than a last-second cancer diagnosis has any right to be, flipping the script on the times Sherlock tried to push Joan away in the name of sparing her. “I didn’t want you to feel like you had to stay” is a fairly direct callback to Sherlock in “Details”: “I wanted you to see that I was well again so you could move on.”


Moriarty, minus the poker-debt trappings, would have fit perfectly here. Underneath the thought-crime exercises, Reichenbach asked how inevitable people are – whether every mistake will define you, and whether people are doomed to do what you fear they will. Sherlock and Joan (and Alfredo and Shinwell and Kitty and...you get the idea) have regularly tried to disprove the former; they have regularly and painfully been stymied by the latter. Their struggles this season with Reichenbach’s methods suggested that this is the wound Joan and Sherlock really carrying. The plot often rushed by the moments that would tell us how deep the cut went; Sherlock seemed to grieve being wrong about a(nother) murderer more than he did his father’s death, but his father exploded before we could gauge. But the idea that someone’s decisions have all already been made is far-reaching, here.

The concept of inevitability is pleasant enough when it’s Marcus’ promotion, or Gregson’s retirement as the most Gregson JV golf coach in the world. In a Holmes adaptation where Sherlock’s sobriety is such a touchstone, and where Moriarty has been paralleled more than once with Sherlock’s other addictions, inevitability is a terror. The finale’s most heartbreaking moment might be Sherlock telling Gregson that he relapsed while he was away, an admission he delivers both as a disqualification to be Joan’s partner any more, and as if he’d never expected any better of himself. (The second most heartbreaking moment is that if he ever comes clean to Joan about the relapse, we don’t see it; if he keeps this from her, that feels more like the Reichenbach deception than anything else has.)


But we’ll never know, since the finale doesn’t linger on that; it doesn’t have time to linger on much of anything, thanks to the last-minute time jump for a funeral fake-out (sure) and Joan and Sherlock’s return to their old stomping grounds to ask Captain Marcus Bell for a case or two.

It’s cozy, which is perfectly fine; no one went into Elementary hoping for a gritty revenge story after one of its leads perished horribly. It’s also last-minute-cancer cozy and it’s legal-death-sorted-out-offscreen cozy and it’s Marcus-and-Gregson-mostly-got-over-it-during-the-time-jump cozy, which is slightly less fine, because there’s only so much you can sweep under the rug at a time, and that rug was already holding plenty. This show’s greatest burden was the impossibly high quality of its first season, which had a level of thoughtfulness and care it’s never been able to consistently match since then.


But any flicker of what made the first season so good is still welcome. Sherlock Holmes, from the literary canon onward, is easy to read as an unfathomable force of nature. Miller’s Sherlock is extremely fathomable – in his arrogance and his fears, his flexible code of ethics and his devotion to those he loves. Watson is easy to read as an awestruck sidekick whose value to Sherlock is half in the ego stroking. Liu’s Watson hasn’t made out quite as well here – she’s had almost as many leading expository questions as her canon counterpart, and she’s still unfathomable whenever the show doesn’t give her the space to react. But her resolve is a match for her reserve, and when she gets a glimpse of personality, she goes for it wholesale.

And the two of them together are so good that the rest often fades away. Their partnership, when it gets the attention it deserves, is one of the most nuanced Holmes and Watson dynamics of any adaptation, and it’s been Elementary’s saving grace. The pilot introduced Watson as a sober companion to a viciously disinterested Sherlock, who fed her a line about love at first sight just to throw her off before he tried to fire her. It was friction, for a while. Then it was a slow understanding, then apprenticeship, and eventually two people whose lives were bound by more than the work they did. The seasons since have deepened their relationship beyond easy definition, even, at times, to themselves; they knew only that they wanted to keep it. The finale brought them into each other ‘s orbit for good, and that’s all they wanted. In the end, it may be most of what we wanted, too; as long as they’re together, what does it matter?

“By the way, Doctor, I shall want your co-operation.”

“I shall be delighted.”

- “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Stray observations

  • When I caught up with a few of this season’s episodes on demand, they were sponsored by Facebook Groups, via ads about the joys of keeping track of people’s every move.
  • In a short season with a key serial villain, we got a standalone that had everyone spinning their wheels; years ago I wished for Cassie to come back, not realizing a finger on my monkey’s paw had unfurled.
  • I assume, given The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the other finger unfurled when Joan’s stepfather was writing her into his sexy detective novels without her permission and I argued she should have been more angry about such a breach of privacy. (The question of what she wrote about Sherlock that he wouldn’t want made public is going to haunt me.)
  • Among the loose ends; I’m sorry Morland only got one episode to throw his weight around, but and at least he got to show; RIP Joan’s invisible family.
  • In a version of this show that had lived up to the promise of its best moments, Reichenbach would have been a foil not just for Sherlock, but for the Joan who was willing to race a cop to the bottom in terms of extrajudicial justice for those who have it coming. She was rare but she was great, and I spent several serviceable episodes thinking about the tension if the Joan of “Down Where The Dark Delight” had stuck around, and Reichenbach had tried to divide and conquer.
  • As far as it goes, I am glad the show remembered that Joan wanted to be a mom and followed through with it. That does not go very far, and I will forever be disappointed that Joan’s sudden desire to be a mom seemed like the show’s attempt to give her something to want rather than any actual basis in character. (Let’s not forget that Moriarty and Kitty’s storylines also both ended in motherhood. Did we need a 100% rate of return on this?)
  • I hope Joan heads out and demolishes that tombstone every time she needs Sherlock to pick up a quart of milk on the way home for the next 20 years.
  • I recognize the bees were shoehorned in just to parallel the note-perfect first-season finale; I appreciate them anyway. (He named a bee after her. We’ll never forget.)
  • Thanks from Myles and me to everyone who’s stayed until the bittersweet end and read the recaps. When this show was good, it was really good.