Following on last week’s episode, “Just A Regular Irregular” features a legible moment of contrivance to keep Elementary from having to fully embrace the idea of Sherlock and Joan’s partnership having come to a conclusion. When Harlan Emple (Rich Sommer)—who we met last season as Sherlock’s shirtless mathematician—is brought into the NYPD after stumbling across a dead body in the midst of a math game, he requests to see Sherlock and Joan; while Gregson forces Sherlock to come along given their lack of information at the crime scene, Sherlock then forces Joan to join them by noting that she too had worked with Harlan previously. The show may not be fully committed to keeping Sherlock and Joan apart, but they are committed to the separation enough that they’ll go through the motions of creating a justification for why they end up sharing the case.

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As with last week’s episode, however, the resulting story works to overcome my initial frustration that the show won’t fully embrace the possibilities that come from Sherlock and Joan working as separate investigators. The episode remains committed to a central A-story that brings all of the show’s characters into its orbit, but we get a glimpse of one of Joan’s other cases as a way to explore Kitty’s recovery and Sherlock and Joan’s sense of responsibility over her. It’s a more substantial B-story than the show has done on other occasions, and it’s paired with an A-story that features nods to Sherlock and Joan’s changing relationship both in how it’s structured and in the themes that come through exploring what happens when one of Sherlock’s irregulars becomes too regular.

What are Sherlock and Joan to one another? It’s a question that has always sort of been at the heart of the show, what with Joan transitioning from sober companion to protégé to partner during their time together, but their separation brought it back to the surface. Sherlock can replace Joan as a partner or protégé, and they are colleagues in the sense that they are both consultants for the NYPD, but is she not also his friend? Does Sherlock Holmes even have friends, technically speaking? “Just A Regular Irregular” pushes these questions to the forefront by having Sherlock and Joan’s work together intersect with their respective personal investments in Kitty’s recovery. It’s Kitty that brings Joan to the Brownstone, and it’s Kitty who brings Sherlock to Joan’s apartment for the first time in the light of day, and it’s Kitty who forces them to figure out what role they will continue to play in one another’s personal lives.

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The scene where Joan and Sherlock meet in her apartment to discuss the details of Kitty’s attack—she was raped and held captive, which sounds quite similar to the crime in Happy Valley—goes where one might expect it to: Sherlock, thinking logically, notes that he’s glad Joan is in Kitty’s life, as a child needs both its father and its mother. What works about the scene is how quickly Joan rejects this metaphor—it’s a reductive characterization, one that Joan should reject given that her concerns are driven less by maternal instinct and more from her professional experience. At the same time, however, they are nonetheless each crucial to her recovery: Sherlock as the logical force who can offer training, and Joan as the counseling force that can guide her through the emotional dimensions of transitioning beyond the attack in question.

Kitty lays this out a bit too cleanly when Joan approaches her about attending a support group, but the idea that Sherlock would need Joan’s help in order to serve as a true mentor fits the characters involved. Kitty thinks the meeting will be useless, but she sees the value in what Sherlock is offering, and understands that there are dimensions to recovery that Sherlock sees as important but cannot offer himself. The storyline lacks surprise of any kind, but Ophelia Lovibond has a nice rapport with both Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, and the themes of recovery fit nicely with the show’s origin story. As much as the series needed to get past Joan as a sober companion, Sherlock’s addiction will never entirely go away, and bringing in a character who activates similar themes provides a strong groundwork for present and future development.

Meanwhile, with Kitty functioning as the B-story, the A-story focuses on a serial killer who is out to get mathematicians. It’s a weak mystery in the sense that the result is both predictable and impossible to predict simultaneously: Jacob Pitts is identifiable as the killer the moment he’s a recognizable actor introduced late in the story (I admittedly had him pegged in the guest star credits, but I’m being a jerk when I do that), while there was no way we could have intuited the motive given that Sherlock discovers it off-screen. It’s a last-minute solution that never entirely feels earned, and the way the mystery unfolds follows a pattern where other victims are discovered and the case “resets” multiple times to fill out the entire hour.

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What works, though, is that the episode is not interested in the “whodunit” so much as it wants to explore Sherlock’s evolving relationship with his Irregulars. Sherlock left New York City for eight months, but he never told Harlan; in fact, as Kitty inadvertently reveals, he even needed a mathematician during his time in London and called on someone from Berkeley instead. Although the episode tries to fake us out by making it seem as though the killer is about to interrupt Sherlock and Harlan’s conversation at the latter’s apartment, the “resolution” to the case itself is insignificant. Instead, the episode focuses on Sherlock and Harlan working through the fact that their relationship had gotten to the point where Harlan believed they were friends and Sherlock had bailed on their relationship accordingly.

Sommer gets to do some real guest star work this time around, and he gives Harlan a sense of fannish enthusiasm: the Mo Shellshocker anagram is an obvious sign of this, but so is just how hurt he is when he discovers that Sherlock would ever call someone else. The problem is that whereas some might see his “fandom” as flattering, even if they would rather politely decline party invitations, Sherlock does not do friendship; he doesn’t even really do acquaintances, if we’re being honest. Rather, he has his Irregulars, intellectuals who can move in and out of his life when their particular skills are productive and conducive to his own process.

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Sherlock eventually comes around on Harlan professionally: he sees the way his own crusader spirit inspired his anonymous website challenging bad math, and he ultimately refers to him as “a tremendous asset.” But if Harlan had never stumbled on that dead body, Sherlock never would have called him again, since he would never force himself to work through the personal dynamics that emerge as Harlan reenters his life. “Just A Regular Irregular” does well to push this question into his relationship with Joan: he doesn’t necessarily have to keep seeing Joan on a personal basis, but he goes to her about Kitty, and he meets Andrew, and he gets into a complicated interpersonal dynamic by choice. There’s growth there that will continue to play out as Sherlock and Joan work out a new dynamic, and something that this episode was well designed to address throughout it’s A- and B-stories.

Stray observations:

  • It was hard not to read the appearance of former NFL quarterback and current CBS Sports color commentator Phil Simms as a blatant play for the viewers who might have seen ads for the show during the eight-week football interlude, but I thought it was a fun little bit nonetheless, and neither more nor less intrusive than How I Met Your Mother’s Jim Nantz appearances.
  • I appreciated that Joan and Sherlock worked out the case over webcam given that she no longer lives at the Brownstone; I did not appreciate that they used an image of Joan on the laptop that was way too high quality, one of my television pet peeves. No webcam would ever look that good, although I guess at least it wasn’t Surface product placement.
  • “Watson seems adequately sexed” is the big laugh line in Sherlock’s time in Joan’s apartment, but I preferred his use of “Your home is utterly pleasant” as an insult.
  • In Sherlock’s defense, the fact that Harlan ever asked his advice on social matters suggests he was a bad judge of character, and not true friend material.
  • “Why would you?”—Harlan, reacting to the fact that Sherlock identified homemade dog treats after tasting something he found in a dead man’s a pocket that he first believed was potentially feces. [Edit: It was apparently cheese, which makes only marginally more sense, scarily.] It’s a fair question, but again, it’s like he barely even knows Sherlock.
  • “It’s not unlike voiding one’s bowels”—I’m sure that one’s going in the sexual assault group therapy brochure, Sherlock.
  • Clyde Watch: We spend a significant amount of time in wide shots of Joan’s apartment in this episode, so I had of course presumed that this would result in Clyde, but despite Sherlock looking directly in his enclosure Clyde does not make an appearance as far as I can tell. If this is the first time Sherlock has been over, why didn’t he spend all his time hanging out with Clyde? And if this happened off-camera, who allowed such a thing to remain off-camera? Regardless: Clyde Watch rages on.

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