“Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum, is the maxim of the law…” - William Blackstone, Commentaries On The Laws of England
Researching the title of this episode was both an illuminating glimpse at the development of property rights and a disconcerting memory blank, since my browser was very confident I had already looked into the Commentaries On The Laws Of England long before I remembered any such thing. (It’s fitting enough. This episode has its own memory blanks.)
The Latin phrase after which the episode is named is often truncated in legal description; it appears as Blackstone wrote it down, safely missing the slightly-heretical leanings of et ad inferos. Technically that clause still exists, since the right of the owner to the land beneath them, as far down as it goes, is clearly still granted by this legal concept; it’s implied but somehow rarely stated in official literature. Heaven has to be carefully delineated; hell takes care of itself.
Elementary has always been relatively careful about inhabiting New York. Sure, it has the usual TV corner-cutting of magical subway rides and instant parking spaces, but it makes sure its wide vistas are grounded in the geography of the skyline, and borough locations that give the show a sense of a sprawling city that’s alive and lived-in. In this show’s landscape, an episode about the vagaries of New York air rights feels perfectly at home. (Literally no one in this episode is suprised someone would kill for the right to build taller.)
The investigation, which is suitably obsessed with issues of ownership and benefit, is satisfying in a nicely dissatisfying way. Busquet (whom Malcolm Gets imbues with the cadence of a David Lynch character dropped onto the set without warning) was an obvious culprit; less obvious is the way Joan and Sherlock have to make their peace with the relatively amoral William Hull, the real estate mogul who makes his return to the show just in time to offer them a hollow victory—he’s happy to help lock up his murderous architect, so long as he still gets to build the man’s eyesore of a high-rise and lock down his own legacy.
There’s something almost comforting in these moments, when the show offers them; so many of the white male corporate faces of evil are guilty of everything leveled at them that it’s always interesting to watch Sherlock and Joan’s best intentions buckle a little in the face of forces they can’t fight. (Hell takes care of itself.) The building is a one-percenter’s banquet of callous gentrification, and in the end, despite his help with the investigation, Hull considers three dead people a small price to pay to be rid of a problem and move ahead with building. The episode even spares us the final showdown with Buquet, letting us sit with that unstated defeat for a moment. Justice for the dead, in the narrow scope; in the wider scope, the city this show loves so much has already lost something it will never get back.
Which brings us to Joan, and the reason that this episode didn’t quite sing; while it was interesting in the abstract, it felt like Sherlock and Joan were at a disconnect, and Joan in particular felt like she was missing from her own case. In some ways, this episode shows us Joan having grown into her role as a full-fledged partner in the business; she even expresses everyday frustration, and somehow it’s almost startling to see her to complain about something that’s commonplace rather than a particularly tough part of the learning curve. She’s earned her stripes; it’s the griping of a veteran cop. But it still feels like, even in moments that should hit close to home, that those memory lapses crop up. You might know, like a link you visited once a long time ago, that Joan’s mother had been dealing with symptoms of possible dementia the last time we saw her. If Joan thinks of this when facing someone whose child altered her medications, we get no sign of it. (Not that Joan shooting Sherlock the “Don’t you start” about the dog jokes isn’t sublime—of course it is, Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller have this down to a science—but it’s always strange when setups like this crop up and and then vanish; little gaps in the communal memory of the show.)
The ambiguity that haunts the case also seems to be following Joan home. Gregson and Joan get a whole subplot to themselves, including a welcome moment of show-not-tell in their developing friendship. Aidan Quinn’s quiet doubt on the verge of doing the right thing is beautifully played—one of those occasional glimpses of the soft heart underneath his surliness that lend him enough depth to sustain him for another quarter-season. And as Joan watches Gregson approach his girlfriend with renewed determination to be there for her, she gets a moment’s breathing room that feels like it has the potential to resonate later in the season.
It’s almost startling to watch her get to fill the frame so much, a lingering close-up with all its interest on what she’s thinking. Is she just hoping that Gregson finds his way? Is she worried about her mother? Is she realizing how she’s been casually setting herself apart from anyone but Sherlock, and her own offer of friendship has unsettled her? (It’s much easier to trace Sherlock’s emotional arcs in the long term, because they’re such an explicit concern of the show; Joan’s moments can unfortunately tend to feel they’re happening in a vacuum—even here, Gregson’s emotions are the center of the subplot, with Joan acting as her own middleman until the last act.)
But there’s an air of separation in this last shot of Joan all that I find very interesting; a lingering emphasis like this suggests a significant beat for Joan psychologically. Whatever she’s thinking, I want it to matter for her, up to heaven and—why not?—down to hell.
- Another fist-shakingly good episode title! (I subbed in last season for “T-Bone And The Iceman,” I am always happy to crack open an episode title that rewards a little poking.)
- I find it charming that Joan is willing to cover for Gregson, but only with the most obvious possible excuse. You’re not paying her enough for specifics, Gregson.
- Sherlock was on a roll this episode in terms of the minutiae that make him an exceptional detective. Offhandedly explaining the chemistry behind old people smell or waxing poetic about localized fauna within the city limits (“The Manhattant…I am not making that up”) are nice, sidelong reminders why Sherlock is still considered a cut above this TV universe’s Major Crimes detectives.
- Even better: Sherlock’s grim, utterly genuine glee at getting to palpate the crushee, which reminds us that even when he’s at his best, he can be a little off-putting.
- Speaking of which, Sherlock was looking a little twitchy during his scenes with Gregson. Awareness of personal issues making him awkward, or a sign that he’s becoming more distracted?
- Line better than it has any right to be of the week goes to Gregson: “I don’t say this very often, but your lawyer should tell you to talk less.”
- “Did straight lines hurt you as a child?”
- Joan costume note: I was looking through some of her costume history this weekend, and find some of her evolving style to be a very interesting character progression, and some of it (particularly the strict-ification of her style in the third season once Kitty showed up) to be in lieu of character progression. The coat she wears in this episode is perhaps the most Victorian thing we’ve seen her in; an interesting juxtaposition in an episode where she’s meant to be so open with Gregson. Is it all in service of her standing in that empty white penthouse? Is it all in service of that last shot of her, watching two people trying to come to terms with an illness while thinking of someone else? (Either one is a perfectly good reason, but one carries much more weight than the other.)