“Give to a gracious message a host of tongues, But let ill tidings tell themselves when they be felt.”
There’s no mistaking the theme of this episode; Sherlock and Joan go over it three times. Sometimes things are awful, and there’s no point pretending they aren’t. Face up, ‘fess up, and prepare for what’s next.
After a week like the States has had, the twisty case in “Ill Tidings” reads as slight in some respects. As an adaptation of “The Speckled Band,” it’s (pardon the pun) toothless, absent any Elementary touch to the racial or gender tensions that underscored the original. Instead, it’s business as usual, starting in a ridiculously fancy restaurant and irising out into an art heist at the stock exchange. Nobody’s even particularly interested in the internet security council subplot, because there are too many poisonous snakes. Against real-world upheavals this week, it runs the risk of feeling quaint.
But there are a few threads in this episode that seem to be pulling on important things. This is an episode that is concerned with what the truth is and how Sherlock will face it, alongside a subliminal streak of hopelessness and fear; if this was any other week it might not resonate, but this isn’t any other week.
Usually, Marcus asking a leading question is just exposition. But in “Ill Tidings,” he asks a suspect, “What conclusions are we supposed to draw from that?” and the suspect stares at him, aghast, and replies, “That these people were dear friends of mine? That it’s taking me some time to process this nightmare?” And damned if it doesn’t bring you up short to think about the callousness of a killer who would casually mow down six people entrusted with public safety as collateral damage in an art heist. It’s myopic and greedy and destructive, and it suggests repercussions far beyond the fade to black. And it doesn’t seem coincidental that the character who most closely parallels our killer is Sherlock himself, whose own carelessness keeps coming back to haunt him.
Sherlock and Marcus argue early about the specifics of truth. Sherlock made factual observations in a report but Marcus overlooked that Sherlock never explicitly confirmed that the witness had actually seen the suspect. Sherlock’s convinced that the obvious translates into the true, and surely the guy would have; Marcus has to point out that if you leave something open to interpretation, even well-meaning people can misinterpret—and since Marcus may have perjured himself, it’s no small thing. It’s resolved quickly and painlessly (too quickly and painlessly, honestly), and is mostly an in so Marcus can impress Chantal, the ADA of his dreams. But it’s not the last time this episode Sherlock gets reminded that just because something is true doesn’t make it the truth. And that this happens with Marcus—the member of this team he’s let down more than any other—is telling. Marcus is a scrupulous police officer in a way Sherlock never has to think about. Only an episode ago Sherlock was mobilizing the troops in another country to arrest a man on evidence Sherlock planted; of course he sees nothing wrong in skipping the witness’s specifics in favor of his own conclusions. For him that’s barely a conscious choice: naturally his observations carry more weight than someone else’s testimony. But Marcus put faith in him and it almost went poorly. Again.
The other person who does that this episode: Fiona, whose attempts to sustain a relationship with Sherlock are going about as well as you’d imagine for someone who’s appeared as rarely as Fiona has. He can hardly make eye contact with her during their video chat, not because he’s checking his own emotions, but because he seems embarrassed not to have any. But he also seems caught in the inertia of a relationship, agreeing to meet in Jersey at a geographic halfway point because that’s just what People in a Relationship Do. (To her credit, Fiona, whose views on cheesesteak are True and Right, seems to have the mood of the room from the beginning.) Here, too, Sherlock gets a sharp reminder of the outside world; his ruminations on Irene get shot down neatly by Joan, who’s happy to rapid-fire remind him of a few truths he’s glossed over. “What you had with Moriarty is never going to happen again. It shouldn’t. You’re either in love with Fiona or you’re not.”
The truth that Sherlock has to face, though, isn’t that Fiona isn’t Irene. It’s that Fiona isn’t Sherlock’s relationship at all, in the way anyone in this episode defines a relationship. Joan is. (“People in relationships, they talk about their jobs, how things are going, the ups and downs,” says Marcus; he’s interrupted as Sherlock’s phone rings, and it’s Joan with an update on their case.)
After “To Catch A Predator Predator,” in which Sherlock and Joan felt slightly out of step (Sherlock interrogating her on her tears), the partnership is front and center here. Sherlock and Joan dissect his current romance with the offhandedness of people whose inner sphere is already impervious to outside interference; together, they fill the frame. Sherlock breaking up with Fiona won’t affect him much, because he already has someone who shares his ups and downs. (Even his trademark Waking Joan is notably tender this time, in the way Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock occasionally was with his Watsons: a deep fondness ready to tip into codependence any moment.)
As part of the wider season, this moment is a reminder that they’ve worked together so long that it’s possible they take one another for granted, and that the season may be building to some larger friction. As a part of this episode, in which bad things have to be faced, it’s a small kindness between two people who need each other. This week, I’ll take it.
- Thanks so much to Myles for stepping in on the last episode and revisiting his old haunts! I’m so sorry that Clyde chose this week to show up.
- Line delivery of the week: Gregson’s pokey-finger during “From the eyes” is exactly how one should describe any eye-related incident.
- Runner-up: Lucy Liu reminds us how well she can sell exposition: “I just thought that with the secret keycards and the snake venom and the foreign affairs, we’d be dealing with spies or assassins, not, you know…tech support.”
- Jonny Lee Miller delivering a dramatic reading of forum posts was delightful.
- “The same way anyone convinces anyone of anything these days—by ranting about it online.” Too soon, Elementary.
- While no one ever expected any harm to come to Joan from that snake, I feel like it was touched on very lightly, especially for an adaptation of “The Speckled Band.” How did she get out of there without being bitten? How long did it take Sherlock to look that up? How did his fear for her manifest after the fact? How did he get that damn snake home without her noticing?
- There has been a noticeable amount of adultery in the background of this season. Curious to see if this will go somewhere or if this is just the lupus of Elementary.
- I’d love to know more about Jericho the art forger, especially given the blatant Moriarty callbacks this episode. (Imagine how cagey Sherlock is about art forgers after Irene.)
- This episode had quite a bit of Sherlock doing Sherlock-level detecting—occasionally ill-advised (sure, eat poison, it’s fine), often on the periphery of the main action, and even some delayed-reaction reveals that relied on Miller selling Sherlock’s nervous observational energy so that a rewatch would pay off. It all worked. If you pair it with his “To Catch A Predator Predator” decision to involve another country’s law enforcement in his case just to make sure a woman who had murdered a man got the revenge she was looking for, we’re getting a sharpening picture of Sherlock as happily edging toward chaotic good. Combined with the many hints we’re getting about Joan’s restlessness (particularly as regards Shinwell), I’ll be interested to see if this is heading where it could be heading.