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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elementary: “Risk Management”

Illustration for article titled Elementary: “Risk Management”
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Crime procedurals operate from the outside in. At the beginning of an episode, we are introduced to a group of people we have likely no familiarity with, and presented a mystery we’re able to analyze from a position of relative objectivity. The goal for shows like Elementary is to get us to care about something we might not inherently care about, using our familiarity with the characters of Sherlock, Watson, Gregson, and Bell in order to bring us inside this case and give its resolution meaning and resonance.

It’s also how the character of Sherlock Holmes solves crimes, or at least how he usually solves crimes. As he points out to Joan as he’s about to walk into an address provided to him by Moriarty, he can’t see this case from the outside. “Risk Management” is about ensuring that Sherlock cannot distance himself from Moriarty, the case of Wallace Rourke’s death a carefully orchestrated way for Sherlock’s nemesis to twist the knife of Irene Adler’s death as part of some elaborate game. By the end of the episode, you believe Sherlock when he says he’s too deep in this mystery in order to see it clearly, which is why his walking into that house and finding an alive and well Irene Adler painting in her studio has Sherlock more vulnerable than we’ve seen him to date.

What makes that sequence work so well is the way I felt as though I was finally inside a situation that to this point has remained fairly abstract. Although Elementary been fairly slow to turn toward a more serialized storytelling pattern, backing away following the events of “M.” earlier this year, it’s time that has allowed the show’s audience to better understand Sherlock as a character. “Risk Management” isn’t subtle about drawing parallels between Leah Sutter and Irene Adler, but those parallels don’t feel as though they’re for my benefit as a viewer for two reasons. The first is that the narrative justifies them, framing them as purposeful mind games from Moriarty who serves as the figurative puppet master of the episode (thus freeing the writers from any notion that they contrived the thematic parallel to make a point—it’s all Moriarty’s fault). However, the second is that the parallel is taken to heart by Sherlock, internalized in ways that speak to his relationship with his past, his relationship with Watson, and in the process my relationship to his character; in short, and acknowledging how it sounds, by the end of “Risk Management” I felt I was inside Sherlock.

The walk through 56 Poplar Street is a sensory one, both for Sherlock and Watson and for the audience. Sean Callery’s music for the show has been distinctive without necessarily calling attention to itself, but here it’s a big part of an almost entirely wordless sequence. It’s a suspense soundtrack when they first approach the house, not necessarily far removed from something Callery would write for 24 or Homeland, but it’s punctuated by the sound design: the chains on the gate as it opens, the sound of the key turning, the creaks of the door or their footsteps, etc. Those sounds are shared experiences for both the characters and the audience, their experience simply being punctuated by the musical cues that heighten that sensory experience for those watching at home. However, as Watson starts to go up the stairs, Sherlock stops her, and the music changes, shifting to an orchestral piece (which someone on Twitter helpfully identified as the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

What fascinated me about the overture was that I couldn’t tell if it was diegetic. Did Sherlock stop Watson because he heard this music coming from somewhere in the house? And yet we never see a source for the music, which leads one to believe that it isn’t so much something Sherlock heard but rather a way for the series to represent his moment of discovery. As he opens the doors to what we discover to be Irene’s studio, the line between our sensory experience and Sherlock’s begins to blur. The camera moves shift from third-person shots of Sherlock and Watson searching the house to point-of-view shots as Sherlock’s eyes pan across the paintings. The music is less about setting the tone for the audience and more about trying to give us some sense of how Sherlock is processing something deeply internal, something at his core. In what is a pivotal moment for the character and for Elementary, it feels like the first time I am decidedly “inside” Sherlock’s relationship with Irene, and it makes for a strong transition cliffhanger into next week’s finale.

That being said, it’s also a hallucination, right? Although it’s possible that Irene Adler is still alive, the closeness we feel with Sherlock in the scene keeps us from seeing things from the outside as we might normally. Irene doesn’t move when Watson speaks to Sherlock to see if he’s okay, but instead only turns when Sherlock says her name. Watson also didn’t seem to sense whatever brought Sherlock out to that studio: Instead, she was simply responding to Sherlock, not given the same access to Sherlock’s emotional overflow—his glances between paintings, the swelling music—but still able to hear his labored breathing and see his shaking hands. For the audience, however, it’s all a great piece of misdirection, putting us so far inside Sherlock’s pain that we briefly—if only temporarily—lose sight of evidence to suggest that he is further away from peace than he realizes (and is in fact in for a world of pain when he realizes that Moriarty has led him into an illusion).


It is a wonderfully artful sequence, one that “Risk Management” earns by not rushing into Moriarty’s spider web too quickly. As noted last week, I have reservations about Moriarty remaining this shadowy figure that we’re always one step away from meeting, as it risks presenting a series of false climaxes that will never end. However, what “Risk Management” does well is that it doesn’t use Moriarty himself as a climax, choosing instead to use Moriarty’s manipulative qualities to delve further into Sherlock’s character. Unable to turn away from the case given that it’s his one link to Moriarty, Sherlock dives into something that we later learn was designed to trigger his sense of loss following Irene’s death, the very event that led to his addiction. However, by keeping Moriarty at arm’s length, Sherlock’s agency is increased: Yes, this may have all been a manipulation on the part of Moriarty, but it’s Sherlock who can’t help but keep investigating once Brent Sutter has confessed to the murder, and it’s Sherlock who can’t stop himself from digging into Wallace Rourke’s alibi, and it’s Sherlock who chooses to visit the address Moriarty sends him instead of just ignoring it and moving on with his life (which Moriarty suggested would have ended his interest in Holmes forever).

It makes me wish that Moriarty could remain a mystery forever—something we discussed in last week’s comments—even if that’s unlikely to transpire. However, even if we’re due to meet Moriarty in next week’s finale or at some undetermined points during a sweeps month in future seasons, his absence here allows us to gain a greater intimacy with Sherlock in an episode that points out the danger of such a move. Gregson’s fear for Watson is genuine while also—as Joan badassedly points out—a little bit sexist, a concern that becoming too close to Sherlock means being caught up in his moments of self-destruction. Like any televisual antihero, there’s this weird push and pull happening with Sherlock, the sense that we want to get to know more about him while acknowledging he can kind of be a dick sometimes. However, by this point in the season, Gregson’s concern seems unfounded, Sherlock’s promise to Joan—that Moriarty will never hurt her—both genuine and reflective of their relationship to this point. That’s because we’re inside this relationship in a way that Gregson isn’t, inside this partnership in a way that only our televisual intimacy allows. Just as Watson wants to be with him at 56 Poplar Street, so do we, even if it means being caught up in an experience that transcends our earthly plane and reflects a deep, dark past we’ll never truly have access to as Sherlock does.


By inviting us into this mythology gradually over the course of the season and gradually over the course of “Risk Management” specifically, Elementary has turned Moriarty not into an event but rather a gateway. Irene Adler may actually just be a dead woman Sherlock once loved, her appearance her an apparition and little more, but she had a real and tangible impact on my relationship with Sherlock as a character and with Elementary as a whole within this episode, without even speaking a word. It’s an impressive feat in an episode that, while perhaps not the final climax of the season, pays off 21 episodes worth of development in a slow-burning season highlight.

Stray observations:

  • There comes a point in a show like Elementary where that “A” grade just sort of sits there, waiting for that episode that just completely elevates itself over other nonetheless great episodes. I don’t know if this was it, but writing about the episode—and rewatching the ending—has made me appreciate it even more. I’m just going to break the seal and be done with it.
  • That is indeed Natalie Dormer—also known as Game of Thrones’ Margaery Tyrell—as Irene Adler, a casting development that did sort of take some of the surprise out of the episode’s conclusion what with her “Special Guest Star” credit and all. That the sequence was still a knockout is further evidence of its artfulness.
  • Although Mrs. Sutter’s involvement in Rourke’s death was somewhat predictable given that I recognized the actress (although without knowing where from), I appreciated the way her logic fit into Joan’s relationship with Sherlock. She was tired of seeing her husband suffer and found a way to end that suffering; would Joan make a decision like that for Sherlock, potentially compromising herself to protect him? It’s an interesting question for me, especially given her past as a sober companion and the role that plays in their relationship.
  • There’s a lot of great misdirection here. When Joan says she’s going back to the brownstone, you think she’s about to be abducted; that she ends up at Poplar Street instead nicely reaffirms her agency and her willingness to be engaged with this case. There’s also, of course, the red paint on Irene’s foot which briefly made me think he was about to stumble on her corpse, although that could just be residual trauma from last week’s Game Of Thrones.
  • “Can’t you just answer a question like a normal human being?”—as much as the episode built to its emotional conclusion, I liked that the threat of Moriarty didn’t throw a pall on the entire episode and the comedy could remain a part of this arc for at least one more hour. See also: Sherlock’s “And the Sex!” in his description of Irene.
  • “And a penis”—Amen, Joan Watson. Amen.