“But you asked me for my help.”

“And now I know better.”

At a distance, “Bang Bang Shoot Chute” is an episode about realizing the people around you don’t trust you—probably because you can’t see things as they are. Bennett’s chute was sabotaged by his wife…because he was cheating on her. A “Taliban warlord” is brought in…and turns out to be a refugee. Joan loses Shinwell’s trust…because she was checking up on him via everyone else. And Sherlock…well, wouldn’t you know, he gets away with it.

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Come any closer, though, and the problems pile up. One killer is an emotionally-fragile pregnant lady who let her husband jump to his death rather than admit she’d tampered with his chute in a fit of anger. The other killer is a Muslim man groomed by the Taliban who’s trying to take care of a couple of honor killings for the sake of the family. Another is how that man is here at all—his family came into the country illegally. Sure, they’re planning to ask for asylum because of the post-NATO landscape back home, but we spend ten minutes on the illegal-immigration angle and ten seconds on the complex sociopolitcal forces that might create refugees. Plus, they brought a religious-extremist murderer with them, which is…just great.

Usually, if the cases on this show aren’t sterling, their biggest sin is just being too busy—a signal-to-noise ratio that doesn’t make the most of the characters or the story potential. This episode, which wades into such sensitive and exhausted material about illegal immigration and Muslims and falls back on the easiest stereotypes about it (the illegal immigrants are criminals, the extremist is a Muslim), means the very content grates as much as the execution.

This is even more annoying because it’s a glaring instance of the show falling down on its potential. Elementary has a lead character who has often confronted complicated human costs, including undocumented immigration, and who’s keenly familiar with the ways a few powerful bullies can shift the world; its other lead character is generally a stickler, with a moral compass that can occasionally swing wide. Among network procedurals, it might be the best placed to tackle the complexities of the Durranis. Yet the four-person line of inquiry to get to the dead guy’s private plane gets as much air time and complexity than the story this episode’s purporting to tell.

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Thankfully, the other story this episode is telling is more compelling. Joan’s relationship with Shinwell has been a turning point for her. If nothing else, he’s making some long-overdue cracks in her facade. Through a combination of narrative circumstances and showrunning decisions, we haven’t seen her tackle particular personal hardships since the first season. She began as a well-to-do sober companion who’s morphed almost seamlessly into a respected private detective; her family operates mostly offscreen, and when they appear they tend to serve the story rather than be the story (see Lin’s telling-not-showing expository cameo); Joan’s dating life is almost invisible except the guy who got poisoned…and even that had remarkably few aftershocks.

Seeing her trying to handle something and fail so badly is uncomfortable—particularly because the show is positioning Sherlock as being wiser and right while Joan barrels along making a series of mistakes—but I’ve been asking for shades in her character, and here they are. Joan has screwed up, and Shinwell finally calls her on it. (Nelsan Ellis, who’s been doing great things with Shinwell, brings so much heartbreak to “You can’t help me” that we know exactly why it looks like the floor opened up under Joan.)

By now, even Sherlock’s caught up in it. He’s been hovering around Joan’s relationship with Shinwell out of a mix of concern and jealousy; his response to her promise that “I’m not Shinwell’s sponsor” is particularly telling. And his scene with Shinwell is an episode highlight, between two men who make a daily practice of keeping people from hurting them. (It is, however, frustrating that we don’t even know if Joan found out about this end-run, much less how she feels about it. Let’s hope they keep up the hot streak and have Joan and Sherlock hash this out, too.)

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Still, the episode’s best scene is its last one, as Lucy Liu and Ellis give us one of Joan’s most interesting moments in a long time. Joan, seasoned sober companion, is simply not aware that she could fail him. It’s a deep miscalculation that we’ve seen happening by degrees: as she blithely suggests Shinwell let people help him, as she gives him platitudes about his job interviews, as she casually mentions all the family connections that helped make his fresh start possible. Her stopping by to scold him about seeing Tall Boy is quite understandably the last straw, regardless of whatever subplot is simmering in the background for him.

But the foundation of Joan’s platitudes is the certainty that he’s a good man, and here, she’s both confident and right. We know Shinwell’s anger is half-performative; he’s desperate to keep her out of danger, which is a nice way to undercut his threats for our sake, but it also doesn’t diminish the power of Joan’s faith in him. Shinwell halfheartedly threatening her and flipping a table doesn’t faze her; she meets his gaze without flinching, clearly more worried about him than about herself. It’s when she realizes how much she’s hurt him that she goes—and this time, there’s not a platitude in sight. In an episode so interested in how fragile trust can be, this feels like a moment Joan will carry with her. Good.

Stray observations

  • At the beginning of this episode, I made a note: “Not sure how I feel about Lin deciding a guy just ‘looked like’ a gang member. Clunky exposition and racial profiling!” I was so much younger then.
  • I will give the A-plot credit for this much: It’s likely worth examining the story beat that someone who attempted to go along with an authoritarian regime ended up falling under its heel anyway.
  • The ongoing, mostly-silent character arc of the way Joan and Sherlock handle food is very interesting. By nature, their domestic setup requires a lot of time in the kitchen, and it’s become something of a tell; they tend to be handling separate tasks when talking about something personal, and consuming the same thing when they’re working on a case. This episode: Joan brings them both tea.
  • Given how this show treats recovery, Sherlock’s mention of an “addiction spiral” of adrenaline stunts is probably not an accident. (His mention that he’s a sponsor is definitely not an accident, but it also seems like that sort of thing would come up more regularly instead of just when Sherlock needs to be right about something.)
  • I appreciated the just-the-facts cadet poise from Flor De Liz Perez, who handles the highest exposition-per-minute rate of this entire episode.
  • Line delivery of the week: Tall Boy (Ruffin Prentiss)‘s gently withering, “I’m sure he’ll be straight with you, seeing as you’re his friend and all.”
  • A Jonny Lee Miller moment I loved: Sherlock propped like an anxious child on the chess bench. Just enough concentration to win, not enough concentration to remember how grown-ups sit.
  • I have to say, if you go to all the trouble of buying and customizing a plane for concierge coyote service out of your private hangar, it seems like that ol’ entrepreneurial spirit would spur you to scope out nearby cameras before you start bringing people across the border.
  • “Say goodnight to your lady.” In this town, sir, they call that foreshadowing.

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