“You seem angrier than I expected. May I ask why?”

:doorbell buzzes:

The rule of thumb about recapping is to judge the show against the Platonic ideal of itself. It reduces unfair comparisons (and, let’s be honest, keeps you from spending two hours debating relative quality in the era of Peak TV). But it means the show is always in competition with its best self, and when you have a first season as layered and satisfying as Elementary‘s, you operate under a long shadow. Elementary is rarely bad; it has duds (what 24-episode season doesn’t?), but you hardly ever find an episode without something entertaining. However, its high points seem, sometimes, to be equally elusive. It leaves me somewhat in the lurch when grading episodes like this, which have so much to recommend them until something comes to a screeching halt.

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The good news is that Elementary has picked the perfect moment to attempt a little meta. Sherlock’s self-satisfied Christmas fever dream arrived loaded with in-jokes, fanbait, and superhero imagery. (By comparison, even Joan pointing out that Grover Ogden is a porn-name pseudonym seems relatively subtle.) The…other news is that this show is getting so entrenched in its habits that for the things still lacking, there might not be a way out.

In its best moments, the meta in “Miss Taken” is mature. It’s an episode about unreliable narrators—the earnest Davenports, Cassie, Sherlock, Joan’s stepfather—but gives everyone enough reasons to cling to their stories that it never feels as soapy as ‘impostors and grieving parents’ could. Even Gregson’s dismissal of evidence is a reminder that storytelling’s a rough habit to shake: “I find it compelling as hell, but I also think I’m the only parent in the room.” (That this comes back bittersweetly in Gregson’s favor—Cassie’s hint that her new mother won’t stop trying to convince them both she’s really Mina, and the gobsmacked look on Kathryn Erbe’s face when she lays eyes on her real daughter—is one of the grace notes this show can do so well.)

Underhill knew Cassie was an unreliable narrator, and it was the death of him. Cassie was more than happy to tell any lie that would keep her out of trouble (and no wonder, given her escalation from con artist to the perpetrator of the goriest murder this show’s had in a while). Though it wasn’t dwelt on, Mina’s parents get some small beats that shows how the strain of a story they know isn’t quite right affects them both. And the full darkness of Cassie’s revelations don’t even come to bear until the final twist—that she knew exactly where Mina was, and was happy to let her stay there so she could take the money and run. More than the murder, this strikes everyone, and positions her as the kind of memorably human villain that this show could use more of.

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There’s even some very promising electricity in the final standoff, where Sherlock shows none of his usual disgust for criminals who prey emotionally on their victims. Instead, he raptly watches her issue her challenge; she’s crossed the line from con artist to monster, and Sherlock’s listening. (We know he’s in a fragile place, and this wouldn’t be the first time he’s found himself playing a dangerous game because something in him can’t help it.) Honestly, if we see Cassie again, and Sherlock finds himself up against someone who takes pleasure in the game without requiring the sort of airtight sweeps week mega-capers that Moriarty warrants at this point, then “Miss Taken” has several elements that make it a contender for greatness.

And yet.

Joan’s subplot in this episode is obviously a direct line to the unreliable-narrator meta. It gives Sherlock a chance to mention, without fanfare, that he’s inspired several works about his marvelous methods. And…that’s the beginning and end of his personal meta. The stillness of it helps to counter the oddness of only hearing about this now; his character has gotten so much depth that it makes sense “The Deductionist” (and Joan’s abandoned casebook) would have bothered him in a way that pulpy detective novels simply don’t. And this all occurs in an episode that’s otherwise focused on Sherlock’s human side, both in his personal interest in Cassie’s skill as a liar and criminal, and the genuine sympathy he has for the Davenports. It’s about as subtle a nod to adaptation as this episode could have.

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Then we hit the Joan half of this, which is accidentally nailed perfectly in two beats: the moment Sherlock casually reveals that of course he knew about the book all along and just opted not to tell Joan, and the moment that opens this recap, in which Joan’s anger is cut short by the plot.

Even her anger in the moment of confronting her stepfather isn’t really hers. She claims it’s Sherlock’s: “He is the most private person that I know. He would freak if he found out!” In a show that’s treated her better, maybe we’d get hints she’s deflecting her own sense of violation that her stepfather wrote a novel about “a beautiful Chinese-American woman” who sleeps with her partner and left her to find out from her boss more than a year after the fact. Lucy Liu definitely plays it that way as much as possible, though given Sherlock’s non-reaction and the oncoming plot, there’s no real place for this anger to go. And in an episode about the power of stories we tell ourselves to harm us as well as help us, the quick-and-cutesy wrap lands like a lead brick.

Given how things fell out through the first and second act, I actually thought, for a breathless moment, that Cassie’s lie about Mr. Davenport being inappropriately close to Mina was going to dovetail into how spectacularly creepy Joan’s stepfather is throughout the episode. Her beauty is a notable characteristic of her fictional incarnation as written; her stepfather includes both Kung Fu fights (wow) and a sex scene for her stand-in; when caught, he blames her for keeping her distance and wheedling that he only did it because he wanted “to be close to you again”? I mean, this show is a procedural; if Joan weren’t a main character, these would be Murderer Red Flags.

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Now, for the record, I wouldn’t have been thrilled at the idea that Joan’s background is being informed by that kind of abuse. One of the best things this show has managed so far is to avoid gendering much of anything that happens to Joan, and it’s an effort I appreciate. (When they do gender it, it’s a disaster, but I, like the show, would like to forget The Mycroft Debacle forever.) However, we’re reaching a dynamic in which Joan’s emotions are, if they emerge at all, in service to an episodic plot, or to Sherlock’s emotions. As much as I was worried that’s where this was going, it would at least be a reveal that suggests she has healing of her own to do; it would have cast a new light on her insistence that Kitty seek support; it would have given her anger—already legitimate—a weight that might have been worth as much examination of her feelings about her family as Sherlock has gotten about his.

Instead, we got the worst of both worlds. Not only does Joan find instant closure watching Mrs. Davenport embrace her rediscovered daughter, she returns to her stepfather and apologizes for being angry that he used her. She hands him back his edited manuscript for the sequel (which, given than he’s informed her “sex sells,” might well contain another romantic encounter for his daughter’s stand-in), and offers to go through it so they can spend time together.

Honestly, I’m at a loss. I feel like so much of Joan’s character now keeps circling what we know of her just enough to pass for characterization, but the Joan who felt like real person and a revelatory twist on the canon hasn’t existed to the same depth since that first season. She’s become a vehicle for the show whose rapport with Sherlock is enough to keep her afloat in the story: This was an episode about storytelling, and therefore, this.

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I was willing to accept, if a little grudgingly, a one-episode feint into Joan’s quietly fracturing family that we’d probably never see again. If she got angry at her vaguely-estranged stepfather and that was the last we heard, fine. Not great for Joan, whose family comes and goes (Sherlock mentioned a made-up doctor’s appointment for Joan’s mother, who we haven’t heard a word about since her illness), but fine. That’s the rhythm this show has become comfortable with, and while I will continue to note missed opportunities until the small tweaks to make her a real character again start being made by whomever has their hand on the Joan Watson Dampener, it’s a serviceable story. Her resentment of her stepfather after his affair is a nicely human beat for a character who often seems preternaturally calm. And that, in turn, opens her up to an appearance by her mother and/or re-establish her hostility toward Holmes Sr.’s intentions given the reminder that family can screw you over! It is, like so much else about Joan, so promising, and so close to being good!

But the show is so eager to close things clean that it makes Joan Watson forgive someone she trusted who took monumental advantage of her and then manipulated her into accepting blame. That’s been Sherlock’s arc for an entire season so far, with the clear framing that Sherlock’s father is, at best, a selfish and ruthless man whose intentions to help his son will not always actually help his son—and with more than a dozen episodes left to explore the ramifications. What will Joan get?

This is an episode that makes the meta of Holmes adaptations a footnote in an episode about unreliable narrators, and a mystery that gives us characters that manage to be at the very least human, and at the most so memorable as to be prime material for more appearances. Jonny Lee Miller delivers an excellently understated performance; Aidan Quinn gets some lovely small moments; Lucy Liu’s short fuse for Joan about the men in her life and the stories they don’t tell her is palpable. But “Miss Taken” has a double meaning—Mina’s kidnapping and Joan’s unauthorized story—and somehow decides to end the parallels there. Joan’s stepfather actively harmed her (and Sherlock knew about it and opted not to tell her), and Joan doesn’t even get to be upset before the doorbell rings. That’s not a character; that’s a plot device. I look forward to the day this show remembers the difference.

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Stray observations

  • This week’s procedural element was actually the highlight, with character-based twists, human moments, and some great acting from Jonny Lee Miller; Joan’s subplot was like a vaguely dissatisfying pastry that somebody set on fire right in front of you. The A- and C- of it combine to a B, I guess, though this show consistently confounds any attempt to grade it.
  • I really like that Mr. Underhill’s wife knows exactly what the score is as soon as the personal questions start, and had her alibi and suggestions for corroboration all lined up.
  • Nice callback to “Ears To You” in this episode.
  • Line I can’t believe anyone said of the week: “No thanks, I had poop for lunch.”
  • Grover Ogden is also a terrible porn name, just for the record.
  • Offscreen shenanigans: Sherlock went with Joan to Aunt Vivian’s funeral. That’s either very nice personal support or he sowed havoc everywhere he went. (Honestly, also a perfect example of the kind of episode this show could deploy in which nobody is murdered and everybody just gets to be a character for forty minutes.)
  • Credit to writer Tamara Jaron and director Guy Ferland for smartly keeping the focus of Sherlock and Cassie’s first conversation in the room with them, with the Davenports’ meltdown happening in silence in the background. Sherlock’s grimly hilarious inability to even pretend to believe her, combined with the ticking clock of the Davenports’ silent agitation, was a great call.
  • Sherlock’s boyish but unsmug satisfaction at showing off his solves to Watson was charming.
  • Joan’s first outfit to go visit her stepfather is the most severe she’s looked since she faced off with Holmes Sr., which is almost certainly not an accident. Her decidedly schoolgirlish take on the same blouse-and-skirt ensemble when her stepfather comes by to make amends is probably also not an accident, to the point that by the time he’s saying he wrote the book to feel close to her, I found an otherwise unremarkable outfit uncomfortable to look at.
  • “Look no further than Chapter 32, where we make love under a footbridge in Central Park.” Leaving aside what I’ve already addressed, this is probably the most casually-gentlemanly mention of this scene Sherlock could have come up with. Not as casually-gentlemanly as informing her about this to begin with, but what can you do.
  • And the best subtextual meta of this entire episode: Joan’s moment of utter shock when Gregson said that Ogden “seems to know a lot about you.” (How could he? Who possibly could?)

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