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Elementary: "Poison Pen"

Illustration for article titled Elementary: "Poison Pen"
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Abigail Spencer (Laura Benanti) is confronted with a damning set of facts when she is brought in for questioning following the death of her employer. She was charged with murdering her father two decades earlier, she had been hiding her identity from the family she worked for as a nanny, and her employer’s death was through nitroglycerine poisoning (which had also been her father’s cause of death). Despite being acquitted during that trial, Abigail nonetheless presents as a prime suspect in Titus Delancey’s death, and Bell and Gregson ask her if she doesn’t find the connections to be a bit coincidental. “No,” she responds quickly, “I find it extremely coincidental, but I didn’t do it.”

Coincidence is a procedural’s best friend and worst enemy simultaneously. The easiest way to solve a problem is to find a way to use a coincidence to bring pieces of information or characters together, and to begin solving the puzzle and giving audiences a satisfying sense of closure; the easiest way to create more problems, meanwhile, is if these coincidences immediately register as coincidences. In truth, Abigail Spencer’s role in this murder was far from coincidental: Both Titus’ wife and son had learned of her identity, and independently planned to murder Titus using nitroglycerine and pin the crime on Abigail. However, Abigail’s role in the episode is highly coincidental, emerging as a lost pen pal who in Sherlock’s childhood gave him his first glimpse into the psyche of a murderer.

The idea of Abigail as a character is inherently compelling. It paints a vivid picture of a young Sherlock Holmes falling in love with the girl in the tabloids, and bonding with her through letters where each used the other as an escape from the torment of their daily lives. Despite being exonerated, Abigail nonetheless was forced to live with both the aftermath of being accused of killing her father and having actually killed him (a fact Sherlock deduced but kept to himself, believing she wasn’t capable of killing again). Sherlock, meanwhile, was struggling at boarding school with a range of bullies who punished him for his intelligence. The two found in each other a sense of purpose: Abigail realized that someone could still see who she was beyond the trial that came to define her life, and Sherlock discovered his true passion for detective work as he treated her both as an object of desire and an object of investigative inquiry.

Watching that story unfold throughout “Poison Pen” revealed a strong piece of acting from Jonny Lee Miller and Benanti, who manage to tell a lot of history with their performances that successfully counterbalances the degree of exposition the show required to establish the relationship. These are two characters that have a history without really having a history, and they are confronting a situation—meeting face-to-face—neither of them ever imagined taking place. The dynamic is distinctive, made all the more interesting when Abigail chooses to turn herself in to protect Graham—who killed his sexually abusive father—while arguing she is punishing herself both for allowing the abuse to happen under her nose and to serve the time she didn’t serve as a teenager. It’s an acknowledgment that guilt is an emotion as much as it’s a fact, and she redefines her guilt to justify saving Graham from the trauma and stigma she went through. It’s a resonant story, revealing some interesting details from Sherlock’s past and continuing a streak that has offered strong, character-based storylines in Elementary’s second season.

However, it’s also one enormous coincidence. I would never hold any procedural accountable for the roundabout way it gets from Point A to Point H, and so it’s not so much an issue of breaking down the various events—Sherlock meets dominatrix, that dominatrix is called by the employee who wants to frame Titus as an S&M fiend, Abigail happens to work for Titus—that transition us from Titus’ murder to Sherlock’s back-story and pointing out the probability of such a sequence of events taking place. This being said, “Poison Pen” leans too heavily on structural parallels between Sherlock’s past with Abigail and the circumstances surrounding Titus’ death, trying too hard to build patterns of abuse into every story and not doing enough to sell me on the resonance of Graham’s fate independent of Abigail’s past. At a point, the actual murder lays itself bare as an outlet through which to tell the story of Abigail and Sherlock’s relationship, a fact that doesn’t rob the episode of its meaning but reveals the level to which such a structure heavily relies on coincidences.

The episode lacks a traditional B-story, choosing instead to treat this journey into Sherlock’s past as the secondary story. By the end of the episode, though, it felt far more about Abigail and Sherlock than it did about Graham, which became awkward as the stakes in Titus’ death raised exponentially with charges of abuse but my interest remained mainly with the interpersonal dynamic. Although I understand why the actor playing Graham—Samuel H. Levine—gave a fairly subtle performance in the episode, at times, it bordered on emotionless and robbed the character of any weight in an episode where he needed to have weight. Instead, the final scene where Sherlock offers to serve as an unlicensed therapist for the teenager is almost entirely about Sherlock reflecting on his past; if I had been more invested in Graham, I may have been pondering his potential return in order to shed more light on Sherlock’s offer, but the episode didn’t so much offer a memorable procedural story as it spun one out of cloth to feed us Sherlock’s origin story as a detective.


This does not make “Poison Pen” a bad episode by any means, and it shows the series’ ability to mine Sherlock’s past successfully as evidenced in strong performances and characterization. What it does mean, however, is that “Poison Pen” doesn’t add up to a compelling conclusion so much as it contrives itself into a meaningful takeaway, one that only allows certain parts of the episode to resonate.

Stray observations:

  • “Hello, mistress”—the idea that Sherlock would be friends with a dominatrix fits the character nicely, but I particularly liked the context-free answering of the phone in this manner. That and the “bullwhip as thank you gift.”
  • Returning to the random sequence of events that results in Titus’ body being placed into a latex suit and prompts Mistress Felicia’s entrée into narrative: Given that his wife was arrested for illegally purchasing drugs, and that he was apparently—according to the record—killed for blackmailing his nanny for sexual favors, do we think the company will be forced to pay the family the $125 million? This is a legitimate legal question I would like us to discuss.
  • I would be curious to know if there were any deliberations regarding showing flashbacks to Sherlock as a 15-year-old sending letters to Abigail—the show resisted such flashbacks, which I respect, but it did result in a lot of exposition.
  • Nice to see Joan get to solve a spatial mystery all on her own, discovering the hiding place of the iPad using her knowledge of air vents—her capabilities are making it easier for the show to have Sherlock distracted from the main case while nonetheless being able to move the narrative along.
  • Let us pour one out for Go On, both to celebrate Laura Benanti’s bad luck with NBC—which she so delightfully toasted at this year’s Tony Awards—and because there might be nitroglycerine in the glass.