“So now you see the two parts to my malaise: Drudgery, and sympathy.”

Let’s be honest; nobody’s really here for the cases. Occasionally there’s a solid set of twists, but unless the crime involves a regular character or one hell of a guest turn, it’s hard to keep cases distinct as we get closer to the 100-episode mark. (The last standalone case I loved on its own merits was in “Miss Taken,” an episode that ends up being something of a photo negative of this one in terms of work/life balance.)

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Every so often, a case requires enough specialized knowledge that bringing Sherlock and Joan into events makes sense; last episode’s off-books antiquities action, maybe. This was one of those that largely rest on the police not seeing things so that Joan and Sherlock can see them instead, with forty minutes of high-speed stuff for them to see: nudists, kidnapping, murder, red herring husbands, editing software, sketchy business partners, fake footage, real mob, fake kidnapping, real betrayal, rolling out like clockwork. The series has settled into a B-grade procedural par for the course—the drudgery, Sherlock might say. Though in a TV world where guilty people keep paper invitations in their bag for weeks so they have it handy when the police ask and the world’s greatest detective doesn’t think that’s weird, a B-grade par will mostly do.

The case itself is technically about a murder; really, it’s about the disastrous consequences of someone being unaware his main work and life partnerships are deteriorating. (That’s noteworthy subtext to stick near the top of a season that opened with Sherlock interrogating Joan about whether she’s still happy detecting.) And though the nudist-colony hook and the fake kidnapping were largely forgettable—with the exception of Sherlock’s disdain for Mrs. Stone’s “racist tale of woe”—that subtext is no mistake, since it’s also what’s happening at Paige’s doctor’s office. Her doctor is innocent; his staff are hatching plans unbeknownst. Is it interesting how hard they’re hitting the reminder that people can be pursuing their own ends with you none the wiser? It is. Is her case largely a setup to make Sherlock process feelings? Of course.

And that’s what we are here for: Sherlock and Joan—the sympathy. This episode’s success is in knowing how well we know these characters, and in recognizing our appetite for seeing them together. “Render, And Then Seize Her” obligingly gives Sherlock and Joan some lived-in moments of the sort that sell their partnership. And if some feel like they come from an alternate-universe version of the show where we saw a lot of the bridging character work between Then and Now—we’ll get there.

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Sherlock is first forced to slog through his hip-deep molasses pit of emotional intimacy when he realizes Paige is broke,but has no intention of asking Gregson to pitch in for medical bills – nor any intention of marrying him, though Gregson’s offered. Sherlock, for reasons he never explicitly articulates, wants better for them both.

Paige is an interesting fulcrum for all this; it’s not Gregson who brings this to Sherlock’s door, and that feels deliberate. It’s more interesting to watch him in the face of strangers he feels pressure to be pleasant to: Sherlock may be getting some practice in on the ol’ Wyatt Felden, but that rictus smile he tries out on Paige is telling. It’s a striking callback to the first season, when he was pulled out of work by Joan; by now, Sherlock knows enough to attempt social niceties even when interrupted, though the instinct kicks in three seconds too late to get his face in order.

It’s also refreshing to watch Sherlock with someone who doesn’t really like him. We saw that slow burn with Joan in the first season, and we’ve seen some bitter antagonism in Sherlock’s family, but though the show made Sherlock learn that being smart isn’t enough to excuse antisocial behavior, everyone in his current inner circle more or less forgives his crueler moments by now. Paige, who’s presented as a fairly good person, has nothing invested in him, and so we get to watch him try to calibrate in the face of her indifference. That just makes it stranger that in the final moments, he indicates either that he thinks their brief conversation about insurance expenses counts as softening her up, or he spoke to her offscreen. If the former, hilarious; if the latter, the episode did us a fairly big disservice by not showing us. No one needed five minutes interviewing clothed nudists about murder more than we needed Sherlock talking with someone who might have actually called him out on sticking his nose in. Which would have been nice, honestly, given that Sherlock is, in fact, sticking his nose in something that could not be any less his business, for reasons neither his partner nor his boss can parse, and Sherlock himself doesn’t bother to explain.

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Here’s where it feels like there’s missing footage from the show that exists in some universe other than this one. Is this show as written over the past five seasons at a point where “You said it was what you wanted” is enough emotional justification for such a sudden and significant interference? (We’re obviously not meant to believe Sherlock’s main concern is her insurance—did she impress him so much in their brief meetings? Has Gregson been visibly happier and Sherlock’s picked up on it? Was there, in this other universe, a holiday party at Gregson’s house that Sherlock and Joan attended where Sherlock looked around at his pictureless walls and decided this man needed the marriage state as soon as a suitable candidate could be found? We’d all watch an episode that had ten minutes of just that; someone doesn’t need to die in thirty-five minutes of complicated circumstances every week for us to enjoy ourselves, I promise.) Don’t get me wrong, Jonny Lee Miller and Aidan Quinn absolutely sell all their moments here, and the camera pulling back on Gregson’s no-preamble proposal smartly avoids looking like Sherlock’s POV, and instead like it’s giving them a little privacy. But the empty spaces make you wonder what a little more buildup would have done to make this moment as meaningful as it could have been.

Perhaps it’s best, then, that the Sherlock and Joan stuff is more lighthearted. Joan quietly takes the helm of the investigation, and though nothing in particular happens between them, they’re definitely a team here in a way they aren’t always. Miller and Lucy Liu have developed a joint body language that works particularly well when, say, he’s absentmindedly handing her a ball for a game of indoor cricket we’ve never seen but instantly believe. We also get a beat of Joan’s morbid childhood fascination with mobsters, and Sherlock’s morbid fascination with her morbid fascination; it’s a ridiculous twist in the case, but it’s always great when the show calls back to Joan’s life, and we can only bemoan that we didn’t get to see Gregson’s face as she laid out the details in his office with grim glee. (I’m a really soft touch for character beats that give her an edge; the mob trivia has always been a hint she had an early interest in systems of order; just look at her staring down a mafia heir like she’d just collected a particularly unsavory baseball card.)

She’s even comfortable enough with Sherlock’s musical habits to complain about his violin-serenade selection. That’s interesting, given the violin’s very heavy introduction in the show, and its scarcity since, and it’s framed as both familiar and distancing. The wake-up, in contrast to their chummy shoulder-to-shoulder breaking and entering at the editing suite or the longstanding cricket game, pits them at the farthest possible edges of the frame, with the case files symbolically fencing them off from one another.

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After the nadir at the end of the third season and the unevenly-portrayed road to recovery last season, “Render, And Then Seize Her” gives us a Sherlock who’s in a remarkably healthy place. The only person registering complaints? A long-suffering Joan. And the only complaint he makes all episode? To Joan; she apparently used to be a patient person, an assessment that earns him a significant look while he’s doing something else. In an episode about people making plans they don’t tell you about, and in which Sherlock points out that men in “the state of sexless antagonism with a life partner” live longer than men who go it alone, those are probably worth sticking a pin in, too.

Stray observations

  • Seeing this episode title, I wondered if the plot could live up to the reach of this pun. It did not (in fairness, probably nothing could), but dammit, it worked for it.
  • “Please tell me there is not a body in that bag.” “Deduction is your stock in trade, Watson, have some pride.” I’m impressed the writers knew almost word for word what I said out loud in my living room when she asked that about a sack full of square packages; no one’s happier than I am that she followed it up a few minutes later with some van identification to break the chain of exposition setups.
  • Given the epigraph and how it moves through the episode, it’s interesting Sherlock alerts authorities to the office receptionists defrauding insurance companies. Even dismissing the “scam the insurance company” angle of his matchmaking out of hand, it’s clearly a dynamic he’s perfectly comfortable suggesting to a law enforcement officer; this front-office double-billing feels like the kind of thing that, in another episode, would be an interlude plot point he’d deem a victimless crime. (Is that why this particular exec-assistant ringleader was wearing a diamond tennis bracelet instead of, say, getting braces—to make her harder to pity?)
  • Line delivery of the week: “Where’d you get those? They hot?”
  • Runner-up: Jon Michael Hill’s inflection on, “Maybe we’ll get around to talking to All Office Workers Everywhere, but we’re starting with you.”
  • Second runner-up: “…It’s for a case, right?”
  • Third runner-up: Paige’s response to Gregson about ‘lighting up a room’ being a compliment cookie, not a fortune. “Of course, I’m going to think about this much differently if you get lit on fire someday, so be careful.”

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