It’s too early to make many guesses about trajectory—the curse of the 24-episode season is how much time you have to fill, and how certain subplots will eventually be subsumed into some other narrative momentum. Still, “All My Exes Live In Essex” has a ton of potential, beginning with a cold open that was more significant than the usual charm of Joan and Sherlock going through their paces: Joan was handcuffed in front of Sherlock, and her body language made it clear she was perfectly at ease.
Obviously this is something we’ve come to expect between the two of them. This is training (Sherlock’s doing it, too), and the show has repeatedly assured us Sherlock poses no real threat to Joan. Since the days of surprise attacks and “could have been a knife”s, her biggest physical danger from him is either sleep deprivation from constantly being interrupted mid-nap, or being taken hostage for Holmes-related reasons everyone swiftly forgets. But it’s still notable, because of Abby Campbell.
Elementary makes a concerted effort to have crimes more complex than the usual. That doesn’t always fly, but it’s certainly a deliberate choice in procedural aspects. And despite personal ties that propel the cases, we get lot of murders committed through a sort of impersonal intensity; something out of the ordinary is driving these killers to their convoluted crimes. But we live in a world in which a given woman is more likely to be murdered by partner violence than any other cause, and there’s always a chill in that familiar beat when someone points out a dead woman must have known her killer: She opened the door, she didn’t put up a fight, she was taken by surprise during something routine. It’s a fear much closer and much deeper than the fear of being murdered by someone who wants some scientific grant money to free up.
And this week’s murder plot had some tricky footing in the middle of its murder; introducing polyamory as one of the big reveals (Abby Campbell was married to Nate Campbell and Branford Fisher) is a bold move for a show that has to spend two minutes having Sherlock and Joan hash out what a poly marriage is, for the folks at home. It’s certainly the episode’s biggest red herring, as Bell and Gregson bring in the five people from Abby’s previous marriage to suss out what ex-wife Denise might have had against her. The good news is, the polyamory is largely well-handled; it certainly isn’t the murder motive. And though Gregson gets in a Dad Joke (the pricelessly Quinn-y “Like five married people could ever agree on anything”) and grumps about how many cars he had to send for the exes, once in the interrogation room they’re treated like any other family unit. (Hilariously so; that family looks like the cover of Unobtrusive White People Monthly, presumably to reassure us that the show isn’t exploiting people’s relationships for shock value. Poly people: they’re just like you, only they need more room for sensible cardigans!)
Unfortunately, by the end of the episode we’re in an awkward position, since it was Nate Campbell all along. That polyamorous marriage, then, was a sympathy ploy to keep us from suspecting Nate; given that we don’t see Branford again after all that, it’s clear he was only there a plot point rather than a character whose reaction to a loss and betrayal like this was of any interest.
And I would have loved to see that, because though this goes largely unremarked, Nate is a distinctly awful villain. Even before he was a murderer, he was deliberately making people think they had terminal illnesses so he could make money from their terror. Once he decided to strangle his wife, he roasted the flesh off her bones and spent an evening in the basement carefully reconstructing her skeleton for display. That’s some criminal-mastermind shit, and somehow, so much is going on that it doesn’t quite register. (It might have hit harder if we had seen Branford’s reaction, but alas.) On a show that’s under such pressure to keep things episodic, I know we’re not going to get a lot of villains whose monstrousness is really dwelt on; with some notable exceptions, the show, like Sherlock himself, tends to treat its murders like academic exercises. But there’s an air of busy work about some of these cases that could benefit from letting a villain be around long enough to develop a memorable personality. The stakes don’t have to be directly related to Sherlock or Joan to be high.
On the other hand, the subplot that made this episode so busy is hard to fault; it calls back to prior continuity, which this show thrives on, and it gives Joan some inner life, which is always welcome. And while the early episodes this season have done a great job positioning Joan as Sherlock’s protector; “All My Exes Live In Essex” goes a step further, and reminds Joan that in doing so, she’s put herself in a very gray area—one she is clearly still uncomfortable with. Or rather, she’s uncomfortable with how comfortable she’s been with it, which is more interesting still.
Much has been made of the fact that Sherlock and Joan’s consultant status gives them a certain leeway; they accomplish things in the shadows that police procedures wouldn’t support. And usually, that goes fairly well for them—which makes it as perversely satisfying as it is annoying that Cortes is pushing back. Specifically, pushing back against Joan: asking Joan’s friends about her, gathering a dossier, avoiding questions when Joan tries (naturally) to confront the situation head-on. (When no accord can be reached, Joan literally punches the problem until she settles the beef about whether she’s tough enough to be part of police business.)
For a show that so often casts murderous white-collar businesspeople and suggests that corruption is a disease with no solution, Elementary very rarely posits that its police need much outside oversight. Gregson is a curmudgeon on the right side of history; Bell is a considerate cop with a bright future ahead of him. When Joan investigated Ann Vesey last year, it was a little arc of individuality and a favor for a friend, with everyone involved fairly sure she wasn’t at all involved in the unpleasantness; part of the reason it’s so interesting to see it now is how low-stakes it felt at the time. Plus, back then, Joan was part of the precinct’s golden children, and safe as houses.
But that’s not true any more, and Joan is clearly bristling at the position she’s in. She knows there’s nothing she can do against suspicion, and she knows exactly why she has to be worried about outside investigation. (Sherlock doesn’t—he’s not privy to the exact machinations Dad went through to make sure the assault charges would be dropped—but Joan knows damn well what she’s silently condoning by coming back.) She’s annoyed with Cortes, and reasonably so, but the emotional underpinning of it all suggests how tense she is about her current circumstances; it suggests she regrets having taken Morland’s deal under the offered terms.
Of course, she never says as much; “All My Exes Live In Essex” leans hard on Liu’s still-waters-run-deep performance to deliver this character work amid a few brisk dialogues. But it works. Whether or not Cortes is satisfied with having lost this brawl, the mere existence of this subplot suggests that no matter how well she and Sherlock perform in the line of duty, it could all be negated by the exposure of the shell game that got them back in the doors; Morland’s a threat to them even though he never appears. And she still doesn’t mention word one of it to Sherlock.
The season is so young that assigning larger arcs or pointing to promising outings feels like an exercise in futility; last season had two fairly distinct arcs and worked very well within them, and though family ties are clearly in play, it feels as though the showrunners are trying to avoid too much repetition in another Holmes coming to town and entangling Sherlock in problems. But it’s worth noting that in becoming Sherlock’s protector, Joan has also begun to pull away from him and keep secrets—an interesting mirror of their earliest days that seems like it can’t be accidental. Morland’s cost for his big favor might, entirely unintentionally, turn out to be too great, after all—and right now, she’s the only one who knows.
If the season is beginning to lay down hints that this is what they’ll eventually have to face, it definitely helps negate the way the season premiere seemed to rush past Sherlock’s consequences; if this quiet accord is soon to be shaken by the secrets Joan is keeping, that’s got potential to be tremendously satisfying. That domestic bliss at the table might end up paralleled with another, much darker fight yet to come; this episode reminds us it’s never too late for something to come back and haunt you.
- Proud of Joan for picking those cuffs mere moments after Sherlock managed it; even prouder that her new passcode is apparently uncrackable.
- After last weekend, in which the narcissism of white dudes led them to seek out their own doppelgangers online, it’s nice to have an episode that’s a little more diverse.
- Though I understand that the show might not have been up to intensive boxing choreography on a filming schedule like this, and though it serves no narrative purpose to show the blow-by-blow (it’s not a Crucial Scene; that’s Nate’s apology to Branford), it would have been amazing to watch Watson knock out the competition.
- Line delivery funnier than it had any right to be: “There’s also a song that appeals to me as a detective. It’s a mystery about dogs and who might have let them out.” Sherlock can barely contain himself when Watson gives him the Look he was waiting for.
- Best guest star line: “I gotta think knowing how to work a deli slicer and deboning a person are two very different things.”
- The handcuff scene and poultice scene that bookend this episode are low-key but utterly charming. (Joan punches through all her problems, and Sherlock’s the proudest work-husband in town.)
- Though I think the investigation has more long-term potential for the season, it’s important to mention that this case offered a way for Joan’s medical expertise to seamlessly come to bear on their case. (Episode writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe also tackled some of Joan’s psychology in “One Watson, One Holmes.”) There are always clunky moments for the viewers at home: “More human organs,” Liu must solemnly intone, as if we were expecting the second freezer to be full of Stouffer’s mac and cheese. But it was honestly kind of delightful to see Watson quietly putting pieces together, investigating without explaining, and getting to unspool the big reveal in front of the bad guy and the audience at the same time. Sherlock still got the lion’s share of the moral high dudgeon, but overall it was a solid, understated arc for Joan.
- Maybe a little too understated, given that being called “hospital family” got a complete non-response. Does Joan have thoughts about this? Enquiring minds want to know!