Last season, Elementary ended with a big moment: Sherlock used. It’s no cliffhanger; relapse was always an option, given how carefully this show has navigated Sherlock’s recovery and how often it’s dealt with addiction, desperation, and fallibility. And after a season of hints and opportunities, “A Controlled Descent” was a downward spiral. Sherlock more than anyone knew he was weakening, and after he kicked a guy’s face in, the drugs seemed as inevitable to him as to us. A tenor of resignation hung over the last scene of the season: Sherlock staring out at the vast city, Joan looking at Sherlock and already knowing the worst.

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It reminds us how good Elementary can be—Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller making the most of spare dialogue, that cinematic camera work, the hopeless music (Keaton Henson—”Beekeeper,” naturally). It suggested something that would linger. That’s great; this show’s best when it invests in peeling back layers. And despite that understated ending, it’s a shift in the status quo so huge it leaves a cliffhanger’s worth of uncertainty: He’s in trouble, and it will change everyone.

One of Elementary’s ongoing grace notes is the world that feels lived-in; just count the familiar faces in this episode: Athena and Minerva reenacting the crime scene, Agent McNally, the squirrel.) But one of Elementary‘s ongoing flaws is what it sidelines in the name of expediency. Think of Joan in that finale, pointing out “It’s been three days” as if she’s checking a chore wheel and not struggling with an event that’s just shaken their lives. What have those days of silence been like for Sherlock; what is this doing to her?

Since its truly great first season, the show has struggled to balance Sherlock and Joan. (This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about it, and until she has the complexity and level of narrative focus she had in the first season, it won’t be the last.) The third season improved markedly on the second—playing off their tension after time apart really worked. But she can get lost in the shuffle, amid Sherlock or guest stars or procedural plots. (“It isn’t my world, it’s our world,” he promised her when she came back to the brownstone, but her concerns about being an orbiting body were well-founded.) It’s all the more frustrating because of how good this show can be about them, using their slow-burn trust to give small moments big impact: as sparing as they are about touch, a hug is worth a thousand words. However, Elementary can also forget the relationship between Sherlock and Joan can’t just be narrated by Sherlock—it has to actually contain Joan. A former sober companion faces her partner in the aftermath of using, and while the show is smart to avoid a square-one repilot, somehow it doesn’t get breathing room, either. And though we come into this season expecting plenty about Sherlock dealing with this, we have no such certainty about her.

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It’s a good sign, then, that the duo spend “The Past Is Parent” trying so hard to protect one another. Joan squares off against the puppets of Holmes Sr., calling bullshit on his vanishing act to make sure at least one of Sherlock’s issues can be confronted and dealt with. (Short version: Talk shit, get hit. It’s super effective!) And the worst repercussion Sherlock faces isn’t medical, legal, or even his father—it’s that his breakdown might have screwed things up for Joan. The NYPD cuts them loose, and the NSA laughs off his offer. Even the big cold case he insists they investigate only gets Joan on the radar in Jersey (hilariously unthinkable). And Sherlock accidentally sabotaging Joan cuts two ways—when he confesses, her disappointed lack of surprise seems to physically strike him. It’s lovely work; a lived-in reaction from two emotionally-stunted people making permanent room for one another, coming to terms with the sacrifices that will mean. (There’s a reason Joan immediately jumps to sarcasm about “Operation Bestow Glory,” and when she explains their partnership trumps all, his face literally doesn’t know what to do about it.) For Sherlock, it’s his pride and competence kink hitting bottom; for Joan, another career teetering precariously, and having faith in someone they both know let her down.

The episode also inherits that habit of of racing past important things to get nowhere in particular. (The case is mildly interesting but far from a series best.) We can tell this recovery will be different—that kitchen scene lacks the tension of any other time they’ve so much as discussed using, much less the aftermath of a relapse. But some of that economy seems less like confidence than a sheer lack of room, and this is a significant moment to bypass. Are they on a newly even keel amid true calm? Are they skating the surface of a blowup? Have they set this aside until Holmes Sr. is dealt with? What was the conversation that got them from three days of silence (if it was silence) back to their usual snark? We’ll never know; Joan tells Gregson it happened “last night,” on that rooftop that’s already in the past, and then it’s gone. Given the actors at the show’s disposal and the rich possibilities of that moment, skipping it seems like a waste.

Some of this is just the inevitability of network serialization. There has to be a case—the show likely can’t spend an hour on agonizing domestic beats of recovery. The case will be related to our duo—and sure enough, Alicia and Maribel wanted revenge for good reason, but it backfired. The world’s greatest and second-greatest detective are only as perceptive as the plot allows—Joan won’t think a restaurant owner is suspicious until the third act unless they need her to notice sooner. It’s fine; nature of the beast. And some of these shortcuts work: Joan coolly stepping out from behind the only potted plant ever to effectively conceal someone is perfectly played.

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With that same acceptance of the procedural contract, we figure Sherlock was probably not going to spend time behind bars. Still, how swiftly that resolves, huh? How quickly we fast-forward through these consequences this time around! (The superlative “Tremors” centered around Sherlock being forced to face the music; is that really the only time we’ll see it?) How very badly the show wants us to take on faith this quick return to the status quo! Gregson, in a meta moment, removes Sherlock’s agency from his equation entirely: “You’re acting like you did something. Something was done to you.” Even Sherlock seems surprised to be let off the hook so easily.

Luckily, the show’s strong center amid procedural hurry has always been the Miller/Liu double act, and they get some nice work here. Gregson might skim past Sherlock’s guilt, but Miller doesn’t; Sherlock spends significant portions of this episode mugging as if he’s so disconnected he’s struggling to remember how normal people hold their faces when asking for a favor. And Liu shines in the prison waiting room, a scene that encapsulates everything great about this show when it’s firing on all cylinders: incisive character work, slow-burn continuity, understated acting (they can barely make eye contact, except when Watson surprises him by reading his mind). As always, when they’re engaged with one another, the show comes to life.

By the end of this episode, a lot has wrapped, and other things have just begun: Joan doesn’t say anything to Sherlock (worth noting—it’s a secret that could really pay off), but Holmes Sr. makes his first portentous visit to the rooftop, promising enough trouble that they’ll long for the days he just never showed. Even better, “The Past is Parent” offers great hints about Joan and Sherlock renegotiating their partnership in a way we haven’t seen yet; this time around, they have to face it as friends. There are missed opportunities—farewell, crucial conversation we never saw!—but Miller and Liu make a picnic out of anything. And given how much of this show is about the delicate, painful, and profound process of recovery, I suspect we’re in for some great stuff. “A week ago you’d have said I’d never relapse,” Sherlock says early on, trying out a little self-loathing with his guilt trip. And when Joan looks up and says, “No, I wouldn’t,” it’s forgiveness in three words. What a lovely moment. Here’s to many more.

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Stray observations:

  • Something about the single paper bag of groceries Gregson brought over made me laugh. He wanted to stop by with groceries!…but not too many.
  • “This is not fun.” How far into this crime-scene recreation did they get before she decided that?
  • “[Alfredo] doesn’t seem to hold the Oscar incident against me, which I think is quite sporting.” Very.
  • I know it’s in service of a plot/pacing continuum, but Sherlock threatening the cartel guy in prison is still jarring; in a case about women being victimized by predatory men, his move is to threaten somebody’s wife?
  • “And then we’re going to talk about all the women that you don’t have to write to.”
  • As you might have guessed, I’m the recapper for this season of Elementary! Myles did amazing work covering this series. (In his honor, I’m retiring the Clyde Watch, as I can’t possibly do it justice.) I’m honored to be stepping in, and excited about this season.

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